Website Usability - 5 principles to create websites users enjoy

    #1 product adoption platform. Quick setup, lasting engagement.
    Start for free >
    See how UserGuiding can help you level up your product experience.
    Talk to an expert >
    #1 product adoption platform. Quick setup, lasting engagement.
    Join 20k+ product people >
    Ready to Boost
    Product Adoption?
    Meet With Our
    Onboarding Experts

    Home / UX / Website Usability - 5 principles to create websites users enjoy

     UX is digital oxygen.

    I said what I said; it keeps us breathing.

    And if you use any digital product or service at all (mind you, you are using one right now) you'd know what I mean. If not for good UX design, we would be suffocating trying to complete a simple task. 

    Me on a website with bad UX design

    It all would be a big puzzle.

    Now, I am no UX designer, but I am a big UX enthusiast, especially of usability. And the master of usability, Steve Krug, once said, "don't make me think."

    I, for one, take this as the number one principle of website usability. If we have to think as we go through a user experience, it's no better than a puzzle - simple or complex.

     But today, we're here to hear what the experts have to say, so let's talk about:

    • What we mean by the usability of a website,
    • Why you need to improve your website usability,
    • Jakob Nielsen's general principles of interaction design, and
    • The 5 principles of usability for today's websites

    Without further ado, let's get to it. Don't worry; I won't make you think (too much).

    What Is Meant by the Usability of a Website?

    what is website usability

    Web usability refers to the ease of use level web visitors and users experience when on a website or digital product. However, the concept goes well beyond merely 'being usable.' A usable website is one that is consistently, easily, habit-formingly, and in the most error-free way usable. First and foremost, effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction, and secondly, memorability, learnability, accessibility, clarity, and more qualities define web usability.

    Of course, by today's standards, what we imagine when web usability is mentioned is visual design, user interfaces, user-friendliness, and maybe Steve Krug.

    And we are not really off to think that, but web usability is really more than that.

    And that brings us to...

    Why you need to improve your website usability

    Usability is an irreplaceable part of user experience design, and essentially, it matters for all the reasons UX matters. 

    But in a broader sense, we would need to look at usability from the developers' and the users' perspectives.

    For a developer, usability is a qualitative and quantitative metric in measuring the success of the product/software/website. It also makes the developers' job easier by creating a guideline for how a user should experience the said product/software/website.

    For a user, usability is half the experience: it's what makes learning, interacting, understanding, and memorizing doable. 

    So for both the creator and the audience of a website, usability is crucial.

    But why improve it when you are already at a reasonable level of usability?

    So what if your users feel a bit of friction when completing a certain task? Or what difference does it make that your developers don't know when a website element needs to be optimized or not?

    Let's also look at it from a broader perspective, from the point of view of the CEO.

    How long does it take for users to leave forever when a product isn't functioning right or simply isn't usable?

    Let me answer all these questions: people don't buy from you, and your current users leave before you even realize it.

    And that, folks, is why you need to constantly improve website usability.

    Now let's talk about some principles.

    Jakob Nielsen's 10 general principles for interaction design

    Before we get to our selection of usability principles, let's talk about one half of the Nielsen Norman Group, Jakob Nielsen who is also an iconic author known best for Designing Web Usability (1999).

    Jakob Nielsen was once named “guru of web page usability” by the New York Times, and I'd take NYT's word on it to take a look at his rules of thumb on web usability today.

    1- Visibility of system status

    Visibility of system status means that users should constantly be informed of where they are and what's going on around them and in the process they are in to give them a sense of control.

    As users, the indication of our battery percentage on our phones or the loading screens informing us with a "loading..." text is a great example of this in our daily digital environment.

    2- Match between system and the real world

    To make users feel familiar with your product or website and to get make them understand simple elements and tasks, those elements and tasks should resemble their real-world counterparts in your system.

    A very contemporary and fun example would be how some dark mode switches feature a sun/moon icon.

    website usability example
    Andrey Bogdanov on Dribbble

    3- User control and freedom

    The principle of user control and freedom is directly related to accidental user actions and the need for an emergency exit from those actions.

    The cancel, exit, undo and redo buttons we come across every day are put where they are because developers and UX designers minded the user control and freedom principle. 

    4- Consistency and standards

    Consistency and standards refer to a principle that has to do with exactly what it reads, consistency and standards. Meaning, if your industry refers to something in a certain way, don't change it and make it harder for the users to understand.

    Nielsen also mentions internal and external consistency. If you have named a button "exit" and if it logs users out when clicked, don't name a different button that takes users to the previous page "exit" too. 

    5- Error prevention

    How does one handle an error?

    By making sure it doesn't happen in the first place. For example, the "are you sure you want to delete this?" kind of message we get on a daily basis is a great example of a usability design deriving from error prevention.

    If a system lets users accidentally delete something, it's an error in the eyes of the users but if it prevents them from such an accident, the usability of the product automatically goes up.

    6- Recognition rather than recall

    And we are back to the "don't make me think" principle.

    If a certain function of your product or website requires users to go back inside their memory load to retrieve a piece of conformation on how to use it, then your users recall things.

    But if it builds on a habit-forming, no-brainer muscle memory, it means they recognize those same functions.

    For example, because Instagram updates keep changing the layout, I have to recall what the latest update brought along. It is slowly but surely becoming a less usable app, but that's a story for another time.

    7- Flexibility and efficiency of use

    According to Nielsen, it is a good usability practice to give the experienced users a chance to customize and personalize a website or product using shortcuts and additional settings while also not making the process harder for the novice users.

    website usability efficiency example

    After all, today's novices are tomorrow's experts. It's all a matter of usability.

    8- Aesthetic and minimalist design

    Minimalism is usability's best friend.

    This is because the fewer items there are on a user interface, the less cognitive load it creates.

    Another cool Steve Krug quote for you: “get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” And it works for UI design too.

    You would know what I mean if you ever visit Zara's website.

    website usability design example

    9- Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

    Some errors just cannot be preventable.

    At times like this, Jakob Nielsen's rules say, let the users see it, understand that there is a problem, and go back to when there wasn't a problem.

    We come across error states quite often, but something Nielsen didn't foresee is taking place right now. We are starting to have fun with it.

    website usability design

    10- Help and documentation

    Nielsen's last rule is for when optimizing usability still might come short in solving user problems.

    At times like this, it is best to have help and support documentation thoroughly written in an easily understandable way, and even better to make the support documentation available to the users the moment they need it.

    Seems to me he was referring to UserGuiding's resource center feature to me, like this one right here 👉

    Wanna put it on a test drive?

    So, that was all from Jakob Nielsen. Impressively, almost all of these usability principles he provided haven't changed in 28 years.

    No wonder he was also named the “king of usability” by Internet Magazine.

    But what if you weren't building a website or product from scratch? What if you needed quick, actionable usability principles to get you going with usability optimization right away?

    What can we take away from Nielsen's usability heuristics and make it work right now?

    5 Key Principles to Follow to Improve Website Usability Right Now

    The perfect website with the best usability takes time and money to build, but we all need a more positive user experience right now.

    There are usability enhancements you can work on without an all-around website redesign.

    Here are some.

    1- Less is more: clarity

    Clarity is one of the core traits of a positive user experience.

    The last thing you would want to hear from a user is that they were too distracted to perform the task they came to your website for.

    For a first time user, some elements can make the UI look something like this:

    website usability practice

    That's why you can get rid of some of the unnecessary elements on your website, especially the main page. Even if you cannot interfere with the responsive design elements, removing distracting images can go a long way in redeeming a bad design.

    2- Better onboarding: learnability

    Your website can be naturally learnable; that's something we want as it is.

    But user onboarding can go a long way in increasing website usability, especially if the onboarding flow is also designed according to basic principles of usability.

    What's more, you wouldn't need to change your website at all since there are no-code third-party tools designed for better user experiences through better user education.

    user onboarding for website usability

    Vieworks' onboarding flow, powered by UserGuiding

    All web products require onboarding. Why not make yours the best in the game with UserGuiding?

    3- First impressions matter: memorability

    While you are busy trying out different usability optimization methods, one thing shouldn't be overlooked.

    Your current users are already familiar with your website/product. You should make your new modifications in such a way that it will make both novice and experienced users happy.

    Let me circle back to the Instagram redesign story we talked about above.

    instagram usability

    The new layout of the app was so different than what users were used to that for a couple of weeks everyone tapped on the "reels" button to post a photo.

    To make sure users recognize and not recall your UI, it's important to refrain from big risks. Unless, of course, you are Instagram.

    4- Keep optimizing: user satisfaction

    Whether you can get your hands on a new website redesign fit for the best usability modifications or keep your attempts at it to a less costly and time-consuming minimum, one thing is for sure: nothing is ever perfect.

    Users change, UX trends change, and usability principles change.

    All we know is that it is best to keep looking for the best for utmost user satisfaction. Knowing that 63% of Google Play Store's top apps are updated every month could give you some willpower.

    5- Best give it a test: user testing

    Finally, the most important usability principle on the list is usability testing.

    Whether it is about page layout or the responsiveness of a small element on the UI, usability testing is essential for any product or website that is planned to see the light of day.

    Be it guerilla testing or A/B testing if you have the funds, some form of user testing with real users would not only help identify usability issues but also help the design process.


    Website usability is hardly a new topic in the design field right now. Because the issue of usability has been in talks for decades now you'd think the initial principles are outdated but here we are.

    Usability might seem easy to implement but it requires deep analysis and lots of usability tests. However, this doesn't mean that quick or small usability optimization projects can still take place before eventually going for a website redesign.

    At the end of the day, what counts is being aware of usability issues and working in any form to optimize them.

    Still, hope you got that budget for redesign 😁

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How can I improve my website usability?

    Improving website usability starts with identifying the usability problems. You might want to start with identification, then come up with a UX roadmap for your website and work on each usability issue during the redesign process. Being mindful of certain usability principles would help along the way.

    What are the agreed usability goals?

    Before anything else, a usable website must be effective, efficient, and satisfactory for the users.

    How do I test my website usability?

    To test a website's usability, the best way is to conduct usability tests with real users in which they will interact with the website to reveal their frustrations and smoothly completed actions.

    Join 1000+ teams
    driving product success at speed

    14-day free trial, no coding needed, 30-day