Note: Building on Matt Heerema’s post on the importance of usability for good websites, I’m posting this document, which was originally created to outline the usability strategy my team and I developed at Desiring God. My aim was essentially to give a clinic on the most important aspects of usability and information architecture in about 8 pages. I believe I wrote this in 2009.
Though it applies these principles specifically to DG, the broader principles that are applicable to any website should remain clear. Hopefully seeing their specific application to the DG website will help reinforce and illustrate them.
It would be great if every ministry began to make usability and good information architecture a top priority — and therefore learned the principles to effectively implement these priorities. It would make an absolutely huge difference.
For more on usability and how I see it as not only central to website effectiveness, but also grounded in the Christian command to love our neighbor, see my messages from the Biola Digital Ministry Conference How the Gospel Should Shape Your Web Strategy and Practical Usability.
History of the Site Development
At the very start, we identified that usability would be our governing principle in the site redesign. The goal of the site redesign was: “To redesign the Desiring God website in accord with sound principles of usability and design.”
So we researched in detail what made for good usability. This involved not only studying the best books on the subject, but also user testing on our current site to determine what worked and what didn’t, and user testing on some other sites.
It also involved detailed analysis of the best sites out there (almost all of which were secular). We analyzed in detail how sites like Amazon and others organized their content and created an optimal user experience.
Last of all, we researched the principles of sound classification and categorization. This is because the site not only required that we create a good macro organizational structure, but also required the effective grouping of 2,000 plus resources into several different types of categories, including resource type, topic, and more. We wanted to know the principles of how to effectively categorize things so that we weren’t just making decisions on the basis of what we thought would be right. We wanted to know what we were doing.
To synthesize all of this information, we created several documents: “Usability & Design Principles for Desiring God,” “Usability, Our Basic Philosophy of Web Design,” “DesiringGod.org Classification Principles,” “DesiringGod.org Category Schemes,” and “The Vision for Our Website.”
The Importance of Usability
As mentioned above, usability is the central principle of our site design and presentation. This means that:
- We prioritize it above looks.
- We prioritize it above cool functionality.
We want a good graphic look for the site, but when we have to make a call between what looks better and what is more usable, usability wins. Likewise, we don’t have a problem with cool functionality, but if it creates an interesting experience at the cost of making the site harder to use, we are not interested.
Tie to Mission
The centrality of usability to the site flows from our mission. Our mission is to spread. But a hard to use site creates friction, which thus reduces spreading. An easy-to-use site reduces friction, thus serving the cause of spreading.
Good Usability Makes Everything Seem Better
Good usability makes everything about a site more effective. “Making pages self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: It just makes everything seem better. Using a site that doesn’t make us think about unimportant things feels effortless, whereas puzzling over things that don’t matter to us tends to sap our energy and enthusiasm—and time” (Krug, 19).
The importance of usability will be discussed in more detail below, when we discuss the need to be content-centered behind being user-centered.