Since your website is typically your most important marketing communications asset, it pays to focus on delivering the best possible user experience. User experience (UX) design has become a core discipline in web development, along with information architecture. And rightly so, because despite our best efforts to predict how people will use our sites, it is very hard to do. That's because the moment we know what a button should do, we can no longer view it from the perspective of someone who has no preconceived notion.
So what? Well, if you're selling products on your website, you may be interested in the story of the "$300 million button," which demonstrates that studying user behavior can uncover the need for small changes on your site that can have enormous consequences. Let me cite an experience in the real world that dramatizes this point.
This photo shows a button on the exit door of an ATM enclosure that I use frequently. A while back the bank installed a security system on the door requiring you to swipe your ATM card to enter. Once inside, the door locks behind you and to exit you must push the little green button next to the door handle. Simple enough, thought the door designer (read: art director, web designer or information architect).
Except that it wasn't that simple. To exit the enclosure, virtually all the ATM users who where trapped inside pressed and released the green button, and then pushed the door only to find they couldn't get out! There is a small but important nuance between what the button says ("Push to exit") and what it should have said ("Press button and hold while pushing door open"). If you visit the ATM enclosure today you will see not one, but three crappy-looking signs taped all around the green button that say "To exit the ATM press and HOLD the button while pushing the door open." I wonder how many panicked cell phone calls the bank received from people trapped in the ATM enclosure before some clever bank employee did her best to fix the door designer's error by taping up those signs.
I propose that the "Don't Make Me Think" idea of web design is more important than ever with the growing use of smart phones and the iPad for web surfing. Why? Well, not only does it need to be very clear to a user what a button will do, but it needs to be more clear than ever what IS or is NOT a button (or link).
Why? Because on an iPad or smart phone you do not have the benefit of the cursor arrow changing to a hand when you roll over a link – the only way to tell if something is a link is either (a) the designer made it very obvious like the button on the left, or (b) you click on it and see if anything happens. Please – don't make me think!
If you haven't conducted formal usability testing on your website recently, it's probably time.