A big mistake many people make is to confuse usability with accessibility. Not only are the two very different, but the tendency seems to be that one is deemed less important than the other. Although they must both be taken seriously, it's true that many of the ideals surrounding accessibility still apply to usability and vice versa.
Optimising a site's usability will help to make it more accessible, or at least provide a better frame to build upon. If your wider audience finds the site hard to use, it'll almost certainly be problematic for those with disabilities or learning difficulties. By the same token, the degree of consideration that goes into addressing accessibility is just as valid when it comes to usability.
Putting The User First
If you strip all the fancy stuff away from Web design, pages are ultimately being built for people to use. Forget showcasing every Flash gimmick you can muster from your repertoire or bombarding people's browsers with bandwidth busting images, and you're left with providing the best content delivery service you can offer. Before you even start formulating ideas or beginning to think about firing up Dreamweaver, you should have it clear in your mind that usability is about putting the needs of the user first. Remember that designing anything from shoes to sites is judged on how the final product performs.
This will then help you conduct one of the most important stages in most design processes and especially software engineering: requirements elicitation. Most professional new media agencies will already be familiar with this procedure, and will use it to establish a stable understanding of what it is the user expects to see, with project success dependent upon meeting it. Whether you are being commissioned to create a site for a specific client or hope to launch something that will more directly attract traffic, it will be an essential exercise to acknowledge what the end user's expectations are.
The key point to remember about understanding user requirements is that you're unlikely to get them spot on first time. This means that a consistent stream of communication throughout the design process is paramount to getting as close to their expectations as possible. Talking to the users, recording what they say and trying to pin down exactly what they mean is the only sure-fire way to meet their needs.
It's also important to bear in mind that the people you're designing for are not necessarily privy to the kind of 'developer speak' you might be comfortable using. This is where the production of graphical diagrams or descriptive case studies can be effectively used to portray how you see the project going. Navigational flowcharts, example site maps and perhaps data flow diagrams for eCommerce solutions are all good ways of presenting complex info without bewildering others with technical jargon.
Similarly, there's no reason why a shared direction for the way visual elements are going can't be achieved with page mock ups. Flat digital drawings of possible template designs can be put forward and scrutinized, before a period of prototyping more sophisticated page elements, interfaces and navigational structures gets under way.
if you're not overly keen on conducting widespread usability studies yourself, or perhaps realise that it isn't viable, you can always rely on the services of others.
Professional consultancies or specialist agencies are common, and offer a range of complete solutions that span all the major processes. Usually they will also give your site a preliminary evaluation to ascertain whether it really requires the full usability treatment, and how best to pursue everything. It then really comes down to identifying what needs and goals are motivating the Web site, or establishing what it's expected to achieve. This can lead to a detailed analysis of what the target demographic will be, so a cross section of the audience group can be studied.
A sample of 'typical users' will usually be asked to attend testing sessions that will observe participants as they experience the site. This can range from simply asking them to navigate through the content freely for a certain length of time, to setting them certain tasks and scenarios.
While encouraged to 'think aloud' at all times, their feedback is monitored and recorded either by sophisticated tracking software or by video. Designers are encouraged to sit in on the sessions and hear how users perceive the site, and perhaps whatever improvements they might suggest. At the finish, all participants are asked to submit their overall impressions of the site during thorough interview sessions. All the findings are then compiled into detailed reports that will form the foundation of any future design revisions and new projects that arise from the findings.
Conducting User Surveys
When rounding together a sample of your users isn't a realistic option, there are other ways of getting feedback. Many sites will include email addresses or contact forms so visitors can submit their thoughts, but this does not ensure that you'll receive the kind of valuable response you want. It can be more useful to provide electronic questionnaires that will gauge user opinion more effectively.
Using a specialist program will allow you to publish sophisticated interactive surveys quickly and easily. The benefit here is that the results can be logged to a server before a more detailed statistical analysis can be processed and interpreted when administering any practical improvements. There are some off the shelf software solutions that will perform remote evaluations of user actions as they happen in real time. This kind of approach must be made clearly known to visitors before they participate, as tracking their behaviors covertly would compromise areas of the data protection act, and certainly result in mistrust if it were discovered.
However, some interesting data pertaining to areas of the site or the actual interface would be revealed from the way different people approach the content. Just by tracking link paths or cursor activity, you would be able to ascertain how navigation was perceived, and perhaps how effective the visual signposts such as menus, buttons, and anchors are at directing the actions of your audience.
This provides one of the truest pictures of user perception, because the subject is likely to behave as they naturally would when casually surfing the web. When under more strict 'lab' conditions they may feel pressured by the environment or the presence of an examiner, or feel conscious of the time they are taking to perform. It would also have an adverse effect if they expected to use hardware, peripherals, operating systems or browsing software that they may not be acquainted with.
By making judgments on how typical visitors interact the site in their own homes of workplaces, it will help to differentiate how the novice or experienced user fares without any disruptions.