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Pretty Useless

Harry’s House Analogy for Website Usability

01 October 2020

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Houses have an inherent usability about them – we know how to use doors, taps, toilets and the rest of the house right out the starting blocks. We need to use this lens when approaching website design. By tapping into the digital paradigms that have been set for us, we can be both creative with aesthetic as well as designing for maximum conversion rate.

When you walk into a house, the chances are pretty high that you will have a very good understanding of how that house works. We assume that there will be a toilet that flushes, a kitchen with a sink and running water, the bedrooms most often will be upstairs and there might even be a patch of land out the back which can be accessed via a door at the rear of the house. We will also probably know that we need to rotate or push the door handle downwards to pass through it, the light switches are next to the doors and that there will be a room with comfortable seating in. 

Does this make every house identical? No. Does it make them similar? Still no. The usability of a house has largely been abstracted away from its design. Even the fanciest and most luxurious houses have doors that swing on hinges, toilets that flush, running water from a tap and a soft seating area to watch TV. Sure, they will look very different but the bare bones and core constructs of what makes a house usable is pretty similar across the board.

People can still be incredibly creative with their houses. The furniture, lighting, wall paper, carpets and almost every other component can be customised without losing the integral usability and inherent understanding of how a house actually works. Think how frustrating it is when you go to someone’s house or on holiday and you can’t even figure out how to turn on lights, showers and cookers. Infuriating!

We need to view websites through this lens for them to perform at their highest level. There is now an inherent digital understanding that exists within everyone set by two decades of precedent, and we would be foolish not to tap into that paradigm to give ourselves a strong initial conversion rate and then best chance of each user being able to easily navigate and enjoy our digital hospitality. These paradigms started off with the understanding that blue underlined text was probably a link and that a cross symbol usually closes something.  Moving forward 10 years or so, we started having arrows on images that indicated it was a slider, we had hover effects to show that an element was interactive. Now in 2020, we have swiping one direction meaning yes and another meaning no among many other things. As new technologies come out (both hardware and software) developers are able to do more and more exciting things with the digital user experience. These wide-scale levels of understanding are sadly not set by independent hotels, they are set by the Apples (pinch to zoom) and the Tinders (swiping left/right) of the world. 

Arguably, some large travel companies have a wide enough reach to actually set these trends such as Booking.com and Airbnb and use new design features to craft user behaviour for the rest of us. Interestingly Airbnb have shared many of their design principles in an open source directory which developers can draw from and use at will. They have made a very clever evaluation by making their date pickers and other UI elements available on more sites than their own, people will convert better when they actually get to Airbnb. 

So how does this translate into building our own website? It’s important to recognise that there is a fine balance to strike between being fully brand focussed and fully conversion focussed. Rolex vs Amazon. It is the responsibility of a web agency to navigate through this continuum and advise as to where best to set the marker. Not exclusively, but you typically see luxury hotels falling more on the side of style and budget hotels falling more on the side of functionality. This is primarily down to the brand premium that luxury is hoping to charge but there are lessons that can be learned throughout the luxury scale. 5-star hotels could probably do with a couple more calls to action as opposed to sweeping videos and hostels could also do with updating their photography and digital brand consistency in a lot of cases! 

When you are commissioning a new website, do not solely look at functionality but question a firm’s ability to distil digital paradigms into a detailed UX plan and then explore their ability to be creative within these parameters of understanding. 

Once the website is built, the most successful and highest converting sites will constantly test these assumptions around usability and improve over time. This process forms the basis of a methodology called Growth Driven Design, which can be read more about here. We can track user journeys, monitor micro conversions, ask for user feedback etc. all to align our site with these usability paradigms on an ongoing basis.

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