Is usability going to be the next big thing to hit the web?
As much as I'd love it to be, so my own involvement in it would help pay for, say, a trip to some exotic island, I think what's happening is that in general, people who build web sites are paying better attention to the whole process.
There are still beginners and small biz startups learning the ropes, and it's often enough to shove the site out the door and then go back and make it better.
Then there's the web design companies or web designers and developers who picked up related skills, such as SEO and now, user centered design. They also dabble in FLASH and CSS, and worry about web standards. These folks are expected to meet some serious goals from the start, because they're being paid to deliver a product that meets certain demands. (And they have to prove ROI.)
Lack of traffic and lack of sales helped drive what we often call usability, but it's really persuasive design or user experience design, which is learning to plug in design elements that help a visitor complete a task. It includes making a good impression so people bookmark the site, link to it, or recommend it to someone. It's not a new idea, but it's all the rage because of the demand to meet customer expectations and be competitive.
How can small businesses with limited budgets manage to get the design, optimization and usability testing that they need to put up a great site that will convert well?
Put a feedback form on the web site. Add a field for comments. Ask no more than 3 questions. One of my favorites is "Did you find what you were looking for?" Retail stores do this in the checkout line. A statement before this form inviting feedback is a sign that someone is driving the web site and wants to steer it well.
Avoid asking for a name or email. Some people just hate to identify themselves when offering suggestions and complaints. (This also invites nasty messages, which I've rec'd from people who have nothing better to do than throw pie in your face. But, even within an ugly comment, there can be a gem of advice that may be useful.)
User testing is as simple as asking someone to do something on your web site and watching them try to do it. Remain quiet. Don't offer them any clues. Take notes. They may not be your target market, but if they get lost, chances are good other people are just as confused.
There ARE web site reviews that are affordable (under $100) for small businesses. And, there are SEO companies that offer web site usability reviews along with their services, which you may be paying for already.
There are also some cheap publications that offer a lot of clues and advice. I happen to know of some myself.
Because I'm a strong advocate for small biz, and couldn't have made it myself without free help and advice, I have a small section of usability resources on my UsabilityEffect.com site that include everything from case studies to how to make better forms. It was my hope to point people to the information that can help them and many people are really good at doing things themselves, if they know how or where to start.
For years it was fun to build a web site and say "Look what I did!" But today, it's more accurate to be saying "Look what I built for you!" You've not only made it a user centered site, but its easy to find when people search for your topic.
This is what's hot today.
PS - Bill, thanks for the compliment on the article. It's an honor when SearchEngineGuide includes them on their site.