by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 699-1, Fall 2001, supervised by Dr. Rebecca Knuth

Table of Contents



For this section of the course, I read the following three books and one website.

Nielsen, Jakob. Designing web usability. Indianapolis, IN.: New Riders, 2000.

This book is the definitive book on web usability. It consists mainly of design heuristics and guidelines based on its author's years of experience with both the Web and pre-Web hypertext systems. Its major chapters cover page design, content, and site design. Later in the book, intranets, accessibility, international use, and future predictions are discussed. As the subtitle suggests, Nielsen stresses simplicity, clarity, and consistency in design.

Spool, Jared M. et al. Web Site Usability : A Designer's Guide San Francisco : Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 1999.

Spool's book is particularly interesting because his findings are very empirical. After conducting 50 tests on 9 web sites, he reveals some of the trends discovered during those tests. One point is that web surfing is not the same as information retrieval. On the Web, user satisfaction is much less correlated with user success, as it is with traditional software. People may still enjoy a website very much, even though they have a difficult time completing set information-seeking tasks on that site. Other interesting findings, which contradict common usability notions, is that white space can have a negative impact on usability and that people do in fact scroll down.

Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. Information architecture for the World Wide Web . Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 1998.

This book is the definitive book on Web Information Architecture. It focuses primarily on how to structure information and then convey that structure to users. It covers organization structures and schemes, types of navigation, labeling systems, and search systems, all in some detail. It is very structured book, easy to read, and very helpful.

"Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0." <> Last updated: 5 May 1999.

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (, these guidelines are to help designers determine how accessible their web sites are. There is much overlap with usability guidelines here, since what is easier for those with disabilities to use is often easier for everyone to use. Web sites can be graded on the extent they comply with WAI, ranging from "A" for sufficient compliance up to "Triple-A" for meeting all requirements.


Usability is an important aspect of web design. However, even among the experts, there is some conflict on what is usable and what isn't. Also, usability generally relies on the specific web site, the specific task, and the specific user. I think the best test of usability will always be actual tests of the site with real users. However, since this is costly and time-consuming, usability heuristics will always play an very important secondary role.

Below is a list of things to check when evaluating a website's usability. Though the criteria list does use a rating scale, the scores are neither objective nor equally weighted. They should not be summed for a total score. Be aware that some aspects actually conflict with each other. For example, standard link colors and underlining may actually hinder readability. Keep in mind that usability is only one aspect of web design. As Spool discovered, aesthetics and user enjoyment play very important roles as well. However, the more information-oriented your site, the more important usability will be. Most importantly, usability involves context, compromises, and conscious decisions. This list is a synthesis of the above readings and serves as a working checklist of usability issues, but it should not replace experience or common sense.

Usability Criteria

For each of the following criteria, a website should be ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best or highest score. A few example responses are given for each scale in order to provide basic guidance. When evaluating webpages of particularly horrible or even health-endangering usability, 0s are an option. Theoretically, 6s might also be possible, though very unlikely.


Site Identity

Is there a site identity such that a user will notice when they leave the site? Also, is there a global navigation system that conveys a "You Are Here" message?

5 Site has a very consistent, noticeable theme.
3 Parts of the site are rather consistent.
1 Are these pages really all the same site?

Frame Use

How does the site use frames? Normally frames detract from usability, though in very rare cases they may be aides.

5 Pages do not use frames or use frames to actually improve usability.
4 Pages use frames well--does not detract from usability.
3 The frames are okay.
1 This page is a nightmare.

Layout & Page Design

Screen Real Estate

How much space is used for content? Most of destination page space should be dedicated to content. How much space is given to navigation, site graphics, or advertising? Is there anything that takes up more space than its usefulness warrants? Also, if a page is more than one screen in length, is it obvious that the content extends below "the fold"?

5 80% or more of the screen real estate is dedicated to content.
4 70%
3 60%
2 40%
1 20%
0 There is no content here. It's just a page of banner ads!


Is the page easily scanable for information pertinent to the user? Is navigation intelligently placed? Are headlines clear? Is there too much or too little white space?

5 My eye was drawn to exactly what I was looking for.
3 I eventually found what I was looking for within the page.
1 I got a migraine from looking at this page.


Is the page easily read? It should include:

5 I practically had only to sit in front of the screen to absorb the information.
4 Pages are easy to read.
3 There was no struggling or eyestrain involved with reading these pages.
1 I had to cut and paste the text into a text editor to find out what it said.


Standard Colors and Underlining

Are links standard colors? If not, are they at least consistent, with both visited and non-visited colors? Has the underlining been left intact?

5 standard colors (unvisited = blue, visited = purple, active = red)
4 close to standard colors
3 non-standard yet consistent colors
2 inconsistent coloring
1 I couldn't tell what was a link, where I'd been, or where I could go
0 there were no links! This isn't a part of the WWW at all.
Note: Subtract a point if link underlining has been disabled.

Link Descriptiveness

Are the links related to the content, descriptive and predictable, including title attributes if necessary? Are there warnings if a link is a download or a format other than HTML? Are links predominantly text and not graphics?

5 I knew exactly what I was getting into with nearly every click
1 Every link was labeled only as "Click here" and the task bar was disabled with some sort of
JavaScript so I couldn't even see the destination URL.
0 The links actually lied to me! I don't know how I got to this porn site!

Link Placement

Are links, especially navigation links, easily found and not embedded in text blocks?

5 Links are easy to immediately locate.
3 Links are not all in text blocks, but are still hard to differentiate from other text.
2 Links are buried in text.
1 Links are buried in text when they need not be; most are hard to find because they are not colored or underlined appropriately.

New Windows

Do links open new windows? If so, do they at least warn the user before hand? Are there any pop-up windows? Are any other browser navigational aids disabled or overridden: back button, status bar, bookmarks, history, etc.

5 Links opened no new windows.
3 Links opened new windows, but I knew they were coming.
2 The site used frames and I could rarely predict which frame the new page would appear in.
1 All links opened new windows.
0 This page somehow involves an endlessly recursive call of pop-up window opening. Trying to close them all was like trying to decapitate a Hydra.

Site Structure

Discernible Structure

Is it possible to determine how this site is structured? Likely options include: hierarchy, linear, web/hyperlinks, or database/tabular. Do the URLs mirror the structure? Is the main page helpful and orienting? Does it give a good impression of what the site contains and how to find it?

5 The main page summed up the whole site, entertained me, and gave me warm fuzzies besides.
4 After a couple clicks, I figured out how things were organized.
3 This site is mixture of different structures, making it hard to form a decent conceptual model.
1 I have no idea, even after extensive exploring.

Alternate Schemes

Does the use exact (alphabetical, chronological, etc.) or ambiguous (topical, task-oriented, etc.) organization schemes depending on the content? Is there a way to switch between schemes?

5 Schemes are wisely selected and there are alternative ways of browsing depending on the nature of the search.
1 Schemes are very poorly chosen, such as in organizing FAQs alphabetically rather than topically.


Consistent Navigation

Is the navigation consistent? Is it in an easy-to-find location?

5 I always knew where to look for navigation.
3 After a bit of looking, I could usually find where I could go from here.
1 I could not navigate this site.

Navigation Hierarchy

Is there an identifiable clustering or hierarchy in the navigation? Does the navigation mirror and convey the site structure? Is there a site map?

5 Navigation was very logical and clearly organized.
3 Navigation consisted of links within the context of related text.
2 Navigation was just a bunch of links in one area of the page with no rhyme or reason to them.
1 Navigation was just a bunch of links scattered all over the page with no context.

Navigation Simplicity

Is the navigation simple? Are branches at any level restricted to 7 plus-or-minus 2? Are destination pages fewer than 5 clicks from the main page? Is navigation clear text, or does it require user action to be discovered, as with a pull-down menu?

5 Navigation was, for the size of the site, quite narrow and shallow.
3 Navigation is in a pull-down menu.
1 The navigation was either much too broad or much too deep or both.

Search Option

Is there a site search option? Is it possible to restrict the search to a certain area of the site? Can a user customize how the results are displayed? Does the system provide help in constructing better searches? Are the available options--search capabilities, ranking algorithms, etc--clearly visible?

5 The search is helpful, clear, and works beautifully
3 Yes, there is a basic search feature.
1 No, there is no search function.


Are the labels--links, titles, headings, etc.--clear? Are they specific and related to the content? Are they user-focused, and not too esoteric or domain-specific? Are they international in nature, meaning they are unlikely to confuse or give offense other cultures? If icons are used, do they also contain text? Are labels consistent across the site, using "standard" labels such as "shopping cart", "home," or "main" whenever possible?

5 Labels are consistent, specific, content-related, and suitable to the primary user groups.
1 Labels are inconsistent, vague, offensive, and confusing.

Use of Graphics and Multimedia

Small graphics

Are graphics small and repeated wherever possible?

5 Yes. There are hardly any graphics except for essential, repeated icons.
1 No. There is an excessive number of bloated graphics, many larger than my screen.
0 They're using full-screen bitmaps (.bmp)!

Limited Graphics

Are graphics used where color and text would have sufficed? This is most common on navigation bars.

5 No extraneous graphics; page is all text.
1 Every thing on the page is an image!

Multimedia Controls

Is multimedia (video, animation, sound) forced on the user or are there accessible controls? Are there any distracting animations that cannot be turned off? Are there alternatives for technologies that are more recent than 1 to 2 years?

5 All multimedia was well labeled and I could choose to view only what I was ready and capable (bandwidth, screen resolution, etc.) to see.
1 A loud annoying MIDI file started playing when I entered the site and I couldn't turn it off!

Cross Platform


Does the page use valid, standard HTML?

5 The page validates with no errors.
3 The page has some errors.
3 The page is completely browser-dependent.
1 The page is does not even display properly in its chosen browser.

Screen Resolution

Will pages display at different screen resolutions and screen sizes?

5 Pages look good at any resolution.
3 I could still read the pages at 640x480 by scrolling sideways.
1 Pages break and becomes unreadable if I change the resolution.

Color Depth

How does the site look at different color depth settings?

5 Uses only the 216 browser-safe colors, so looks the same at any color setting.
1 Very problematic at 256 colors.


Are the pages printable?

5 Prints very nicely.
2 Half of the text was chopped off on one side of the paper.
1 I couldn't read the print out at all (this can happen if the text is white).

Backwards Compatible

Does site degrade gracefully in old or non-standard browsers, such as those with no style sheet or scripting support?

5 Looks great in Netscape 2.0 and Lynx.
4 Works fine in Netscape 3.0 and equivalent.
1 I can't see this in anything except the latest browser with at least three different plug-ins.
0 I can't see this page no matter what I do.


Quality Information or Entertainment

Is there something worthwhile here? Why would users come here in the first place?

5 Wonderful, enlightening content.
3 I spent some time on the site and I don't feel any stupider.
1 This guy has a text description of his booger collection and pictures of his dog named Fish.
0 The content emotionally scarred me and I would have to undergo hypnosis to even recall the full experience.

Spelling and Grammer

Are there any spelling or grammatical errors?

5 Didn't find a one.
4 Found or two mistakes.
3 I had to reread a couple sentences or puzzle over a few words.
1 I couldn't tell what the author was trying to say.
0 This site is apparently written in the author's private language.

Author Identification

Can you tell who the author or publisher of the site is?

5 I could tell who wrote this and find credentials for the author.
1 I have no idea where this content came from.

Non-Usability Issues


Does the site look good?

5 This site is a work of art!
3 Pretty standard-looking site.
1 This site made me gag.


Does it feel polished and professional? Does it seem likely that a well established organization created this site?

5 This site is very polished and it seems that the authoring organization is established and upstanding.
1 I think a monkey wrote this site.

User Satisfaction

Do you like the site?

5 I love this site with an unquenchable passion. I would write odes to this site if only I could tear myself away from it long enough to find a pencil.
4 I like it.
3 Yeah, it's alright. I guess.
2 This site sucks.
1 I loathe this site. I am prepared to take up arms against the creator of such a hideous monstrosity. Die, site, die!

Overall Usability Impression

What is your general impression of this site's usability? (You may also want to consider an average of all previous scores; however, after working through this list, you general impressions are probably more reliable.)

5 Very usable.
3 I can use it when I have to.
1 Not usable at all.
0 A danger to humanity.


With these issues in mind, let's move on to other aspects of web interfaces!