Over the last year, much of the focus of my study has been on website usability. I never realized how important a factor it was until the principles were put in my face and I realized that usability issues directly affect what websites I use and what I don't use.
So, a few tips for beginners in this thread. How do I make my site usable, one that people will return to again and again?
1) Logical site structurce - this is the philosophy behind the now famous theme pyramid [webmasterworld.com]. It is so much easier to access information with the most important general information topics linked from the home page and more specific information linked from those topic pages. See above thread for Brett's graphical representation.
2) Clear and consistent navigation - This flows out of your site structure. What good is content if your visitors can't find it?
3) Familiar labels - use keywords in your navigation and site structure that people are searching on! Not only is this good SEO, but your visitors will clearly recognize areas of your site they want to access once they get to your site. Avoid corporate speak (unless the site is for a corporate audience), use the language of the searcher. Taylor everything to your audience.
4) Use conventions - Don't reinvent the wheel! (unless you are darn sure it is a superior wheel...). People have been trained to think a certain way on the web. We are used to shopping carts built certain ways, links acting in certain ways, and information put in certain places. If someone decides to build a site that upsets conventions (like removing all the underlines from text links) people will get frustrated with the site and move on.
5) Declare your purpose immediately - if someone comes to your site and can;t figure out what it does for them or how it solves their problem, they will probably not spend a lot of time figuring it out. There are a lot of other sites to try out besides yours and they are just a couple clicks away.
6) Stay focused - Avoid clutter. Sites that incorporate tons of affiliate banners, random topics, and poor use of "white space" confuse the visitor and may even give them a headache. Be sure they probably won't be a return visitor.
7) Fast loading pages - Nothing is more frustrating than having to wait for a page to load. The web has made us all impatient. Give it to em quick or they will go somewhere else.
8) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you - I find that I am one of my best test users. I analyze what I like and don't like about the websites I visit and avoid those problems in my sites. It would probably be useful, once you have your site up and running, to have different people try it out and give you honest feedback on how easy it was to use and find information.
If you want books on the topic I felt were extremely helpful, feel free to sticky mail me.