Usability 2.0 – Making Web Applications more Usable

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This is the first of our posts and activities for World Usability Day – get involved yourself by contributing articles to

This article is written by Obaid Ahmed, an avid G&W participant, founder of Deensoft and creator of Workspace and Wixd, two of the first startups we covered at Green & White. Recently, Deensoft has also been creating a javascript-based UI framework called ProtoFlow and ProtoChart.

"Usability rules the Web. Simply stated, if the customer can’t find a project, then he or she will not buy it. The Web is the ultimate customer-empowering environment. He or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything. It is so easy to go elsewhere; all the competitors in the world are but a mouse click away." – Jakob Neilsen

Over the past few years, Rich Internet Applications (RIA) have really taken the web by storm. We all are using at least one web application which can be classified as RIA. While this transition has created some really neat and nifty applications — it has also broken the traditional web application model that users were familiar with.

If you are a Yahoo Mail or Hotmail user, you might have noticed a big change in your mailbox recently. The new and improved User Interface tries to provide an easy to use and "outlook" like interface.  While all these new techniques under RIA are a good step forward, it also creates a big problem. Creating clean and effective user interfaces just got harder. 

Today being the World Usability Day, I thought it would be worth going through some usability issues and techniques that web developers should be aware of.

User-Centered Design (UCD):

Your application design should revolve around your user. No surprise here. UCD is a standard approach for RIA’s since most of the content in these applications is generated by users, it has to be revolving around the user himself.


Making sure that your content is readable and understandable. This means that your headings for various different sections on your site, navigation, controls should be understandable. Readability is not legibility. So making your text pretty does not mean its readable.

Physical Consistency:

Your website should appear the same consistently. If you keep changing the layout from page-to-page, the user has to relearn and you loose them.

Graceful Degradation:

While Javascript and Flash are awesome tools to use, be prepared to provide an alternate option to your users who either don’t have flash or have disabled javascript. If your application cannot work without underlying technologies then be prepared to provide a clear and clean message indicating why they are not able to use the feature.


Also known as Zeigarnik-Effect was found by Bluma W. Zeigarnik in 1927. The effect establishes an emotional connection with readers and is extremely effective in terms of marketing. The effect creates a suspense in users mind about certain event. You might be using it when you are reading an article and at the end it says: "Subscribe to our feed for the next part". This creates an emotional suspense in users mind which makes them remember your site more prominently.

Shneiderman’s "Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design":

You can improve usability of an application by following these 8 golden rules. (Source)

  1. Strive for consistency
  2. Enable frequent users to use shortcuts
  3. Offer informative feedback
  4. Design dialog to yield closure
  5. Offer simple error handling
  6. Permit easy reversal of actions
  7. Support internal locus of control
  8. Reduce short-term memory load

3 Click Rule:

One of the most important rules to remember while creating a user interface. If the user does not find the information they are looking for in 3 clicks than they will stop using your application. The number of clicks in this rule isn’t that important; what is really important is that visitors should always know where they are, where they were and where are they going next.

Banner Blindness:

As a web user we are bombarded by different ads all the time. We learn to ignore them. Our brain learns the basic characteristics of an advertisements and makes it really easy for us to ignore parts of a webpage that look like an advertisement. When I first visited — I closed the site down in less than 2 seconds because I thought I had reached a "parked domain" with ads on it. The content must not confuse the user by looking like an advertisement.

Why should we care about these rules?

As more and more web applications emerge in Pakistan, it is important that we put on our usability hat to create better systems. Over the past 1 year or so I have seen many create web applications that seem to totally ignore usability. Lets make an effort to think about how you can improve the usability of your application so that user spends the maximum time on your application and generates the maximum revenue.


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