With marketing efforts increasingly focusing on customer experience and technology solutions, website usability sometimes doesn’t get as much attention as it should. In response to disappointing conversion data, search engine marketers might adjust their keywords, designers change the color of their CTA buttons, and copywriters agonize over their messaging -- but none of these might be the culprit. In my experience as a certified user experience analyst, website visitors often fail to convert because of:
- Unclear site structure
- Confusing navigation
- Clunky content
In this post, I’ll explain how and why each of these factors is a problem and provide a few basic ideas for fixing them.
Unclear Site Structure
The challenge: Site structure and labeling that doesn’t make sense.
If your website doesn’t support visitors quickly and easily find what they want, you have a UX problem. Your site’s visitors are there to meet a need, buy a product, evaluate a service offering. They aren’t there to explore. Although you do want to have content that encourages discovery, education, or even entertainment, you don’t want your site structure to present a “Where’s Waldo” experience.
I see three main challenges here:
Site structure. How the sections of your website relate to one another -- and how pages within those sections relate -- has to be crystal clear to your visitors if you want them to find what they’re looking for and, ultimately, convert. The truth is, visitors will have mental models for what goes where, and deviating too much from those models creates confusion, not interest.
Page and component labeling. Creativity is great -- except when it gets in the way of understanding. While you want your site to stand out from the crowd, you don’t want to make it so “unique” that visitors can’t figure out how to move around on it.
Confusing page hierarchy. Even at the page level, structure is important to supporting user experience. If you make too hard to follow the flow of your pages, with competing visuals or a broken heading hierarchy, it creates what’s called “cognitive load,” which is what occurs when you make a reader’s short-term memory work too hard trying to understand your web page -- and results in abandoned pages.
The fix: Invest in card sorting and labeling exercises, page wireframes, and design prototypes.
The most effective UX research and exercises involve target end users, but you can still capture a lot of useful information from people at your company, as long as they aren’t members of the design team. (The point there is to, as much as possible, avoid potential biases.)
Card sorting and labeling exercises document the mental models governing how people categorize, organize, and talk about information, which helps your designers and developers make choices about how that information is structured not only behind the scenes (for the internal customers who will need to maintain it), but also in the site navigation (for the external customers who need to consume it). The best-case scenario is working with end users because they don’t share the vocabulary and mental models your company’s employees have developed over time. For instance, a site visitor in search of a doctor that specializes in diabetes might not know that the technical term is an endocrinologist, which is the name a hospital calls it.
Page wireframes map out how each element on a page will not only relate to the rest of the page elements but also define their functions. Wireframing provides a blueprint for developers and a guide for designers. Ideally, your user experience resource will collaborate with both designers and developers to optimize their wireframes, which makes prototyping go much more quickly.
Design prototypes visualize the basic page layout and some of its interactivity, which facilitates communication with company leadership and stakeholders. If your team produces high-fidelity, interactive prototypes, they also act as testing materials for talk-aloud protocols and other usability tests.
The challenge: Navigation that doesn’t allow visitors to move easily around your site.
Your website’s primary navigation needs to be simple, clear, and concise. Once you have a stable navigational structure -- based on how you’ve structured the site itself -- you can add links, touts, and CTAs to help your visitor find what he or she needs, but also to highlight new products or services, deals and incentives, and educational or entertaining content. Unfortunately, what I often see is:
Navigation with no priority. Menu navigation not only needs to follow the site structure, but it also should prioritize what users have come to the site to find. As proud as your CEO might be of your new lecture series on striped bandicoots, if that’s not what your visitors are looking for, it shouldn’t be first in your site navigation hierarchy.
Buried navigation. If your only link to your products or services is a button on a rotating homepage banner, site visitors probably won’t find it. While it’s helpful to have multiple paths to popular pages, products, or services, you shouldn’t make visitors work too hard to find what they need.
Vague link descriptions. Visitors like to know exactly what they’ll see when they click a link. For instance, “click here” tells them nothing -- and it hurts your SEO because Google doesn’t know where you’re taking your visitors, either.
The fix: Take time to create a navigational blueprint and linking strategy.
Navigational blueprints build on your card sorting and labeling exercises, allowing you to see how they play out in a menu structure. Navigational blueprints also feed your design prototype, especially if you’re doing high-fidelity, interactive prototypes for testing.
A linking strategy will answer the question of how else visitors might find popular products or services -- or the ones you want to promote. Linking strategies also leverage your marketing messaging for how you’ll word your links and help determine when links are embedded in text and when they become buttons as part of an ad or on-page tout.
The challenge: Content that’s too dense, complex, or difficult to read.
While your brand messaging might be spot-on, if your copy is too dense, complex, or in language that’s difficult to read, it creates what psychologists call “cognitive load.” Cognitive load indicates how much work users have to do to read, absorb, and act on the information you present. If reading and absorbing is too much of a burden, they won’t act on it -- meaning they won’t convert. Here are a few of the mistakes I see websites making with their content:
Dense copy. Walls of text -- long paragraphs, with little white space or no imagery to help break up the words -- intimidate (or bore) your readers. Similarly, contact or sign-up forms that either ask for too much information, involve unnecessary steps, or require too much reading burden your users, causing them to abandon the interaction -- which means you lose a sale or subscriber.
Complex content. If your website content dives too deep, few people will read it. Although there are places where depth works to your advantage, generally speaking, it’s not on your website.
Readability. Big, fancy vocabulary slows the reader down and makes it difficult to absorb your message. Using all caps makes text difficult to scan, and while subtle contrast can make designs look beautiful, if people have to squint to read your copy, they won’t stick with it.
The fix: Simplify it. Break it up. Boost your contrast.
First, use simple language on your website. Many usability experts agree that a 6th to 8th grade reading level is about right for most audiences.
Second, keep most of your copy pretty high-level. Give visitors what they need to know to make a purchase, but not so much that they’re confused. Different types of buyers might need different types and levels of information. For instance, a commercial contractor will likely need deeper levels of specifications as they relate to building codes than the average homeowner will. Make sure you link to that deeper information, but don’t put it on every page for every product.
“Chunk” your text into short paragraphs for easy scanning, with a little white space between paragraphs. Use headings to provide hierarchy for your content and allow site visitors to quickly and easily scan for information. Use all caps sparingly, if at all, and make sure you have adequate contrast between page and type colors to make your content easier to read.
Add graphics, where appropriate -- but not to the point of cluttering the page with “decoration.” Make sure your graphics illustrate or help explain your topic. Use familiar icons or language for common actions so your visitors don’t have to guess at what you want them to do.
User Experience goes much deeper than these three areas, but if you avoid these common mistakes, you’ll boost your chances for converting visitors and creating an experience your customers will trust and engage with, again and again.
Director of Interactive Services