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Why Does Marketing Hate Usability?

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I hate to admit this because it feels selfish and I don’t want to appear like a usability activist. But. It secretly bothers me when I see conferences or seminars on website marketing that don’t offer a session on user centered design. I always wonder why this is. Is usability that scary?

Time and time again I will witness or be part of a conversation where a site owner will ask, “What is wrong with my website? It’s not selling/working/ranking/etc.” You can insert the word, but it always means a failure to perform. Since the target market is nearly always human, it seems strange that advice starts and stops at the source code or methodology for improving optimization. Sometimes marketing techniques are discussed in the conversation. Other times, content manipulation and placement of text are mentioned. These are all important to know how to properly implement.

What I want to know is how to make a site work for people so it will do what they want it to do. The user centered design process rides on the back of every search engine marketer out there who is responsible for getting the site to the people it is targeted to, without freaking out search engines. If a site is penalized, or ranked low in SERPS, it is not reaching its visitors. If the site has usability and accessibility problems, it is not reaching its visitors either.

Even if a site does rank well, has a beautiful description in SERPS (search results pages), has a helpful list of additional site links to key areas of the site listed below the main domain and otherwise effectively lures someone in for the click, a lot can happen to completely ruin all that hard work that it took to get the site there.

The landing page could totally suck.

This is why more and more SEO/M’s include usability audits, some extensive and some basic, in with their marketing services. They know a bad site when they see it. While some will take your money and not care what happens to your luck after they optimize your site and prepare it for search, there are many more who want their clients to be successful so that they will return for maintenance, or to try more things to keep the momentum going. Usually site audits inspire new plans to do exactly that.

Achey Breaky Site

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It’s not how a site looks that makes or breaks its chances for success. It’s how it enables someone to complete a task. This trumps the “What resolution do I use?” debate. Who cares what the “correct” one is? If you want visitors to be able to do price comparisons with other sites, then it’s vital to understand user behavior and how they do this. Many will have five windows open on the screen, squished down to 300 pixels and crashing into each other. If the prices are placed on the right side of the page, and fall off when the window is downsized, the price comparison task becomes frustrating. The site with prices on the left wins, fluid or fixed.

If you target techies who live on their Blackberries, your pages have to render on handheld devices and make sense when they do. People use handhelds to search. Being married to a man with a handheld device in his hands 22 hours a day has educated me on this user behavior better than any case study. He “google maps” everything. He looks up store phone numbers from his phone. He reads his email, plays games, shops for new gadgets, and if I ask him to check out a website I think is cool, he is far more likely to look at it with his new fangled phone/blackberry device and use it by somehow using its teeny tiny keyboard. If a site explodes on his handheld, even if he finds it easily in Google, he’s outta there.

I learned awhile back to get past the site’s appearance and look for validation, understandability, credibility and communication of intent and value. Those are usability heuristics you may not normally associate with user centered design. Cluttered pages, spinning things, lack of contrast, font issues, navigation and architectural nightmares are also part of usability, but they are a side show. Many people will tolerate the unpainted house with broken windows and roofing falling off as long as they know that what’s inside is what they want, is easy to get to and won’t break while they’re trying to get to it.

One uncommon way I test sites is when I have the chance to get their target market analysis or requirements documentation beforehand. This is where they might list all the great and wonderful features and benefits and reasons why they do “it” better than anyone else. It’s also where they might list their goals and priorities, and list the ways they expect to generate revenue and traffic. I can see how excited and proud they are.

Then, I go to their website.

Where in the heck did they put the value proposition? Where is the part about that thing they do that nobody else does? Where are the “Add to cart” buttons and how can you forget them? What do the terms mean that they talk about and why aren’t they linked to a page that explains it better? Did they want people to call to order and if so, where in heavens name is the toll free phone number? You’ve been in business how long? Where are you located and why did you hide the contact page?

I can go and on and on. We all forget stuff. I know I do. This is why audits and sessions on usability are so important. Before rolling out to the public and before user testing, it helps to get others, who didn’t build the site, to take your website out for a test drive. Ask them questions. Assign them tasks. Show them the list of things the site is supposed to do and check to see that it all made the final design. Incredibly, in site and application design, many functions are missed.

Is it worthwhile to invest in website optimization and marketing, only to draw visitors into a website that performs poorly due to user experience, usability and accessibility issues?

Your SEO or advertising agency or marketing company may not be checking for this stuff, nor are they responsible for doing so. By the time a site gets to the marketing stage, it’s assumed it works properly.

Some websites don’t, however.

And, that’s why it surprises me when marketing conferences avoid the topic of usability.

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