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  • Thou shalt have no God before usability
  • Thou shalt not use JavaScript in thy links
  • Thou shalt not open pages in new browser windows
  • Thou shalt not force thy customer to scroll horizontally
  • Thou shalt not disable thy visitor’s back button
  • Thou shalt not take the name of thy HTML Title Tags in vain
  • Thou shalt not present text links that aren’t blue and underlined
  • Thou shalt not make non-standard use of GUI widgets
  • Thou shalt not use colored backgrounds under thy text

Expert usability evaluations can be immensely helpful in revealing a website’s hidden stumbling blocks. The problem is, if not conducted with a healthy dose of common sense – and clear focus on the ultimate goal of increasing conversions – they can result in too many false positives, i.e. things that break usability rules, but really don’t cause any harm. Site owners are then left scrambling, making expensive changes for no good reason.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) estimates that fully half of the “problems” identified in expert usability reviews, actually cause no harm whatsoever. “Fixing” these technical violations of usability principles often makes websites less visually appealing… and in extreme cases, even dull and generic-looking. It’s no wonder that designers and usability experts often clash swords.

In evaluating websites, usability experts typically go over them with a checklist of rules, such as:

  • Text links must be blue and underlined
  • Logo must be at top left, of a certain size, and be followed by a tag line
  • Navigation must be horizontal at the top of the page
  • Search box must be 25+ characters long and at top right
  • Text must be 12-point, sans serif, black on white
  • Graphics should take up no more than 5 – 15% of real estate

All of these rules (and hundreds of others) make sense to a degree. It’s vital that usability analysts know them, respect their importance and understand why they exist. But we should never lose sight of what really matters: attracting more customers, making them want to stay longer, and converting more of them into loyal customers.

A seasoned usability analyst will recognize when rules are being broken, and certainly it should raise a red flag. However, we shouldn’t insist on compliance just for the sake of compliance. As in other disciplines, sometimes the best results are achieved by judiciously breaking the rules.

So don’t keep your designers in a straightjacket. Test sites on real customers. If they’re not confused by, say, a novel navigation system or (heaven forbid) judicious use of flash… great! What matters is that the site achieves its objectives; not how it scores on some academic checklist.

The astute reader will have noticed that this post actually began with nine commandments. Let me therefore close with a tenth:

  • Thou shalt not stifle thy designer’s creativity