This is the first post in a 3 part series discussing Web Usability and the impact It has on user experience. Usability ultimately works in two ways – it can positively affect your viewer’s user experience or it can negatively impact the perception of your company.

At times, when a web development firm mentions web usability it is often followed up with discussions of focus groups, surveys and eye tracking software. Those strategies have great value. But what I’m going to talk about is more elementary than that and applicable to every website on the Internet. The point I am about to make is often overlooked because in essence, it’s simple routine maintenance and hey, let’s face it, not as fun as eye tracking software!

To set the stage, lets move from the web and think about usability in terms of a different experience. Consider for a moment how we know when someone has made a large mistake, and if someone’s mistake is an indicator of their lack of knowledge, understanding or skill.

Here is a quick story and reminisce of my days in Calculus III, an undergraduate class from my years at Butler University. Yes I took Calculus in college…not just one, not two but three semesters worth of calculus!

It is common in calculus class to use hypothetical situations to demonstrate various calculations. For three years, I was inundated with one constant hypothetical: the ant walking on the wire.

The most common hypothetical situations always had an ant walking along an imaginary “wire”. My professor asked students to consider the exact speed and time an ant would have to walk on the wire in order to meet his ant friend who was walking at X inches per second from the opposite end of another imaginary wire. The complex calculations made it possible for students to understand every detail and possible unexpected turn in the ants’ journey from one side to the other.

The exams in my Calc III class were exactly like you would imagine, given that we spent a good portion of our time thinking about ants on a “wire”.

You enter the room for an exam that is scheduled to take 3 hours. You are handed a sliver of paper with 1 question on it, 6 blank pieces of paper, a calculator and 2 pencils. For three hours you churn your mind and imagine that ant, that darn ant who is still walking along the imaginary wire. At the end of your 3 hour limit, you hope for the best and turn in your papers.

Post exam, you enter the class room to find your professor writing the answer on the board. You cringe because he writes in large clear numbers: 753. You start to worry… you just remember spending 3 hours calculating and coming up with an answer in the billions and the numbers 7, 5, 3 were no where on your paper. You wait, expecting nothing more than a big fat ‘F’ or “see me after class” scribbled in red ink across your paper. But when your paper comes back, you realize that even though your calculations were off by a mere billion, you ended up with an A on the exam. Why? Because the professor traced your answer back to a point where you made a simple multiplication error. It was a 5th grade math mistake and if it weren’t for that error you would have had 753 as the answer.

What does the ant, the wire, the exam, and the professor teach us: often we are so worried about getting to the other side that a small error can be easily missed, and while it may be the correct calculations, if we don’t have someone that takes the time to dig deeper into our process our efforts will result in failure.

So what’s the point of thinking about the ant and the wire a decade later? And how does this relate to usability?

Simple, understanding the process of creating a webpage and understanding usability is important. But understanding how one simple mistake can negatively affect your viewer’s experience is even more important. Remember, unlike my Professor who took the time to find out where my mistake was (yes, above was a true story) the visitors to your website may leave within seconds feeling frustrated and/or confused. Instead of chalking it up to a small mistake or an overlooked detail such as a broken link, missing image or a few typos – you risk them questioning the company all together.

In the next couple of blog posts I’ll talk more in depth about some of the simple things you should do to ensure solid, basic web usability.