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Top 5 Ways to Improve Your Blog’s Usability

Skellie is a regular writer for ProBlogger. Check out her new blog Anywired if you’re interested in earning an income online.

Usability.

Yaaawn, right?

Think of it like this: the art of making it as easy as possible for your blog’s visitors to do exactly what you want them to do.

That simple, super-effective tip on putting your feed icon high up in your sidebar is usability at work. So is putting social media buttons at the bottom of your posts. So is putting popular posts in your sidebar. In fact, some of the coolest, simplest things you can do to get more subscribers, links and loyal readers come from usability.

Setting aside an hour or two to re-arrange your layout with usability in mind will pay long-term dividends for your blog’s growth. Here are my top 5 tips to help you get started.

#1 — Be predictable

When we want to know what a site is about, the first thing we look for is an ‘About’ page.

When we want to contact the owner of a site, the first thing we look for is a ‘Contact’ page.

When we want to leave a comment, we usually look to the bottom of a post.

When we want to subscribe to a blog, we look for the subscribe button at the top of its sidebar.

These things are so common that they’ve become standards — things we expect. When we can’t find the standard, we look for the next most similar thing.

By adhering to these predictable standards you’re actually making it as easy as possible for your blog’s visitors to do exactly what you want them to do. Sometimes being predictable is not a bad thing!

#2 — Be obvious

Look down at your keyboard and you’ll probably be able to spot at least one key that you’ve never noticed before, either because you have no need for it or you don’t know what it does. It could be the most useful key ever, but our hesitation when confronted with the unknown has probably stopped you ever pressing it before. What if it deletes everything you just wrote?

We don’t like not knowing what the result of our actions will be, and so it goes with your blog. Non-obvious links and buttons will very rarely be clicked. In my experiments with private advertising, there can be as much as an 800% difference in click-through rates between ambiguous banners and ones which make it obvious where the reader will be taken when they click on it. Scour your blog and ask this question of every element: would a new visitor know what this does, or where it leads?


Photo by Davichi

#3 — Subtract the unimportant

By hiding important elements (your most popular posts, your feed icon, your comment button) amongst a dozen other unimportant things (widgets and recent comments) you’re making it harder for readers to do what is truly important to you.

#4 — Limit options

A category list with 10 categories is a lot more usable than a list with 50 categories. Too many options creates overload which leads to deferral: a visitor will not engage with that element at all. Your list of 5 most popular posts will get clicked more than your list of 20, and so on. Simplified options make it easier for the visitor to decide where they want to place their attention. Too much choice will actually hurt your blog’s usability.

#5 — Do the little things

A usable blog, aside from the above, is also made-up of many little touches that make your visitor’s browsing experience easier.

  1. Does your header image link back to your main page?
  2. Does your blog have an about page?
  3. Does your blog have a contact page?
  4. Do your headlines match with your content?
  5. Is it clear where your links will lead?
  6. Do you use frequent paragraphs in your posts?
  7. Do you have comment links at the bottom of your post?
  8. Do you use sub-headings?
  9. Are your posts less than 2/3 screen length wide?
  10. Are you making your best posts easily accessible?
  11. Are your links easy to pick out?

Points to review

  • Predictability is a good thing for usability.
  • Be creative with your posts, but obvious in your layout elements.
  • Subtract obstacles to your most wanted actions.
  • Simplify options to make your elements easier to use.
  • Pay attention to little touches that your visitors will find useful.

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Comments

  1. Chetan says:

    Perfect post there Skellie :)

    Subtract the unimportant and little things are just awesome reads!
    And yeah, i see many hell blogs having loads of categories. I feel a limited number of about 15 would be great.

  2. Cenk says:

    Thanks for the great article! It will be definitely helpful in looking at my blog with a fresh set of eyes. I have to say, I felt a bit proud to see I’ve already incorporated most of these suggestions.

  3. Sarfaraz says:

    One more to predictable standards is search on top right. I always look at top right whenever I want to search a site.

  4. David Shaw says:

    Great Post!

    I have been trying to optimise my site for usability, and have done well, still have a few points that I have not done yet, such as ‘About’ and ‘Contact’ pages. But they will be on soon.

    Trying to work with usability and SEO is not always easy.

    I was tempted to write a post like this a few weeks back, but never got round to it. You have got it all covered, so there is no need now!

  5. esvl says:

    Point 1 is cool. Many blogs ignore this, some i dont even have.

  6. fynyx says:

    Thank you for this post, Skellie.

    I’m relieved to be doing many of the things you’ve pointed out.

    It’s great for me to come back another time, to check against them once more.

  7. Subtract the unimportant

    Busy pages make me move on. I’m sure others feel the same. Simple is better. Make sure the important stuff is obvious. Good post.

  8. Dan Cole says:

    Getting rid of the unimportant things can be a challenge, because some unimportant things appear to be important or you think they should be important.

  9. One thing I would add is to make sure things work! I discovered a problem on my own blog recently (which I haven’t managed to fix yet!) where my category links all point to an archive page.

    I also see other blogs and sites around with broken links on the about pages and so on.

  10. pratt says:

    In my opinion the best way to improve your blog’s usability is to do user testing. Find people who would be interested in what you talk about on your blog and ask them to spend 20 minutes navigating through it. Get them to think out loud and stress what they find frustrating or what they hate.

    I usually thank them with a gift card or maybe you can even just give them a link!

    The best source for usability is your users.

  11. Great post – my category list is becoming way too long – time for some simplification.

  12. Don’t have too many categories

    Most people don’t give a hoot about Technorati Tags, and all they do is waste space

    Offering feeds for categories can be handy if you run a blog that is fairly multi-topic and someone hates one topic but likes another.

    Add Related Posts

    Social Media links (controversial, but I do think they work… stick to 5 though, don’t go overboard and post 700 links)

    Avoid placing flashy ads on your pages… all they do is distract the user.

    And so on.

  13. kev says:

    Great advice. An alternative title to this could have been, “Your Blog: Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

    Many of us try to get too creative with our blogs. We try to reinvent the wheel and/or try to cram in way too much useless information. I know I’m especially bad about this.

  14. TzuVelli says:

    Hey Skellie,

    Great post. But, could you elaborate on

    “Are your posts less than 2/3 screen length wide?”

    I don’t quite understand what you mean here.

    Beau

  15. Troy says:

    Also, it is a good idea to put little links explaining what things on your blog do, IE (What is RSS?) under the RSS banner. That way, you might be able to capture the audience that isn’t already familiar with the difference between a blog and a static site.

  16. Henk Jan says:

    Hi
    Great post. So I gave it a Sphinn.
    For me the most important items are: Be predictable and be obvious

  17. Tom Beaton says:

    Predictability and adhering to unwritten standards are important. I am a big fan of these things so that we can navigate fast and effortlessly.

  18. GM Tristan says:

    Other bloggers get too carried away with being too trigger-happy with plugins and widgets for their blog and their sidebars.

    This is true especially if they’re new. But once you separate the trash from the “essentials” then you’ll mature as a blogger.

    GM T

  19. Timothy Andrew says:

    “Does your header link back to your main page?”

    Oh, so true.

  20. I am always looking for new ways to make it painfully easy for my readers to navigate my site, notice things worth reading, and so forth.

    I find that the predictability is more important that we tend to realize.

    I DO always look for an easy click to an About page or click headers to bring me to the front. I’m one of those fickle readers that leave if it’s all too hard to do unless it was an impossibly valuable read about. . I don’t know .. med school or something.

    *bravo* Skellie :) Another 2 points for you!

  21. Skellie, you did it again. This could be one of the most important posts I have read in a long, long time only because it is so simple. These actions like letting the reader know where your comment button is sounds so mundane, but if you want comments isn’t it important to show it? So thank you again for refreshing my brain.

  22. I rarely read Problogger posts, although I’m a subscriber. I scan the titles and then decide whether to read or not. Funnily enough, I ALWAYS tend to click your posts, Skellie – your titles are irresistable!

    I’m about to embark on a new design for GoodlifeZen. I’m going to nail this post to the wall and follow it like gospel!

  23. Widgets…please, just because it can be done doesn’t mean it has to be added to your site. Lean and mean is far better. We’re visiting for the posts. With the exception of a very few bloggers out there (yes, we all celebrity watch a bit, so Darren, keep showing videos of your home office) – who cares what you are twittering, or what photos you have of your cat on flickr etc. It’s true – build your blog by building relationships – like any good business. But when I meet someone on a sales call I don’t pull out my family picture album or recount stories of making coffeee that mornign or being stuck in traffic etc.

    Build professional relationships and cement it with great content. Thanks to everyone out there that is already doing that for us!

  24. Number 3 is spot on, once I started doing that my page views skyrocketed.

  25. careerbright says:

    Great tips! Thanks again Skellie…
    but what to do if the blog is on blogger? I do nto havea contact page .. what to do then? Please suggest..
    thanks!

  26. Yeah great post Skellie. Im just in the middle of redesigning my Marketing blog, and there are a few things in your post which i haven’t thought about, so its certainly going to help in my design process.

    Thank you :) :)

  27. maheshexp says:

    Skellie, the ‘Do little things’ and Points to review are quick and very helpful. I guess I need to revisit my new blog and have to make some improvements that could be more attractive.

    Limit options is one of the thing that I should tweak around.In my previous blog ( maheshexp.wordpress.com ) I had more categories and sub categories that finally made me one day , very confusing to post a blog item in a certain category. Now it’s all new blog and hence gonna make things fresh and clean.

    But I still have a doubt on, how much screen size does the post should occupy?

  28. Good post, Skellie. Regarding point #3: if recent comments are displayed prominently on a blog (and they are on mine), it probably isn’t by accident. We want people to see them, because it rewards those commentators and hopefully drives still more interaction.

    Jeremy, you’re right–Technorati hasn’t sent me a single visitor in months. What am I paying them for, anyway?

  29. Andrew Boyd says:

    Hi Skellie,

    one of the things I have seen in more than ten years of professional usability work is that “it all depends” – i.e. it is hard to make generalisations/suggest best practices that work for everybody.

    You’ve done a good job :)

    If anyone is interested in learning more, they could do worse than read Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think” – it is the best simplest advice I’ve seen.

    Cheers, Andrew

  30. cuzzy says:

    Good list, I was happy that I have a lot of those but I am off to clean up the other ones.

    Simple but helpful.

  31. Stanley says:

    Very good advice,.. I am going to look at my blog criticaly and implement your ideas

  32. fynyx says:

    Short replies here to earlier commenters.
    Just doing my bit to help / saying thank you:

    1) for TzuVelli (March 8th, 2008 2:10 am)

    I think what Skellie means that a good web page has wide margins on the sides (like THIS page), where nothing is printed or shown.
    This adds up to 1/3 the width of the page.
    It helps focus the web surfer on the content you want to present.

    2) for careerbright (March 8th, 2008 11:31 am)

    1. Hi! I use Blogger, and the contact details are tucked away in the compulsory Profile widget, if you want to provide them within.

    This Profile thingy by default usually appears on the top right (or left), when you first choose their pre-constructed templates and layouts.

    Whenever you update your Profile, you can choose to add as many or few details as you see fit.

    2. I find putting a photo to the Profile, draws attention to this widget on the main page,

    I’ve added at least my email address inside the Profile, for contact purposes.

    3. Effectiveness? I’m no expert, so I don’t know.
    I would have preferred more obvious options on Blogger for providing communication details, but I do my best with what I get.

    3) to Andrew Boyd (March 8th, 2008 2:00 pm)

    Thank you for the reference to Steve Krug and his ‘Don’t make me think’ work.

    I found a sample chapter (#2) of his book on display, at his website Advanced common sense:

    http://www.sensible.com/chapter.html

  33. hey Skellie
    Fine post! I like your forth point about limiting options. I’ve been to some pages with tons of categories and it hurts my head! I thought maybe it was best to offer tons of categories, but as I read this post and recalled my experience, less is more, clear and reader friendly!

  34. Great advice Skellie! While many of these are quite common sense, sometimes we miss them out completely. We just need someone to put things into perspective for us!

    At times however, the ability to customize these elements may be limited by the abilities of the blog service. Some blog services only allow limited customizations, and thus does not provide the flexibility needed for the areas you have mentioned. However, I also think that if this happens, it may be time to consider hosting a blog on your own.

    Cheers!
    Samantha
    http://www.what-sells-online.com

  35. I think that you are very good.
    I praise it.
    And I support you.

  36. TzuVelli says:

    @fynyx

    Thanks for the explanation. I hadn’t thought about the margins as a design element. At least not quite like that.

    Beau

  37. InfoDoorway says:

    Excellent list and thank you for sharing. The part about cutting down your category list, or top post list is so true. Less is better, and this reinforces what my thoughts were.

  38. Joe says:

    Thanks for the list – always something to learn on the way …

    Nice greetings from stormy Europe :)

  39. Trish says:

    This was a great article – I have implemented several of your suggestions already and am very pleased with the improved look of my site. Thank you!

  40. What are the basic tips for writing a contacts page? I mean, what should this page have?

  41. Mizal says:

    Great tips. But how about internal links in our blog?? I’ve found many bloggers put ads(clicksor). That’s annoying. I think Problogger.net is a perfect example for this.

  42. suresh says:

    Nice post.

    Having depth in the subject of blog and authority will also improve quality visitors.

    Thank you.

  43. I read somewhere that people who read articles online tend to read them in an F pattern. First, they scan down and then they proceed to read horizontally. And they don’t even read the whole post so the shorter the article the better. Personally, it’s the little things in a blog or web site that affects me. If there is a broken link, I get annoyed. If the header connects back to home, I feel a lot better.

  44. MJ Ray says:

    @TzuVelli: “Are your posts less than 2/3 screen length wide?”

    I think Skellie is suggesting that lines shouldn’t be too long. Probably that’s because the received wisdom from newspaper/magazine layout testing is that readers start to struggle after about 32ems wide and really don’t cope with more than 64ems wide unless you increase line spacing. (Readers lose track of which line they’re on, as their eyes move back from the end of one line to the start of the next.)

    Personally, I’d say it’s more important to use liquid layout with a max-width on your post body text than to keep to some arbitrary fixed width. Most of my browser windows are half-width so I can put two side-by-side easily (what’s the point of a windowed user interface if you don’t use it) but that means I override problogger’s new sucky-fixed-width stylesheet. I’ll do that because it’s problogger and it’s good, but most of the time, I’ll just mutter “dumbo web designer” and click the Back button instead. Skellie’s anywired.com is better, but still seems to be completely solid/non-liquid at first glance.

  45. Web Design says:

    Really good ideas for those individuals who are just starting out with blogging and for those veterans that have forgotten some of the simplest tactics can be the most powerful ones.

  46. Robert Risk says:

    I’m not commenting on this particular post for a specific reason, rather I’ve been tearing through this blog for days now and love it. This is the most education I’ve had in years and has benefited me enormously towards the launch of my blog. Thank you.