UsabilityThe success of a web site is largely determined by how easy it is to use. If half of the visitors who'd like to buy something can't figure out how to do it, you lose half your sales. It's particularly tricky to make a web site usable, because you need to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes -- to imagine what it looks like to a person who's never seen it before and knows nothing about your organization. The thousands of oversized books about how to use GUI applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop demonstrate that most people find it difficult to learn new applications; the difference is that nobody has time to read a book about how to use your web site.
In the end, there's no substitute for usability testing, watching potential users of the site as they try to complete assigned tasks. Just as an independent tester can find software bugs that a programmer would never imagine, ordinary people will find usability problems that are completely invisible to a site's creators. Typically, showing a site to two or three people will reveal a number of problems which can be easily fixed. One or two more rounds of testing and revision will greatly improve its usability. Combining this with an analysis of web usage logs, it's often possible to improve the performance of a site greatly: at first, less than 50% of users may succeed at a task, but this can often be improved to 80% or 90%. (Jacob Nielsen's web site and book are a good starting place for learning about usability.)
Information architecture is related to usability, and is the art of structuring information to make it easy to navigate. IA is connected with graphic design, and applies to many kinds of document from books and brochures to subway maps and railroad timetables. Although it's important for web sites to be well-organized and to visually designed in a way that clarifies that organization, the web offers new potentials for navigation that don't exist in static media. Full-text search is the most common example, but we're keeping up with the latest research in personalization -- that take advantage of user mangagement capabilities to make a web site automatically adapt to the needs and desires of its users.
What we can doWe put usability first in everything we do. We don't push flashy technology on our clients, instead we almost always argue for a conservative, practical and usable approach. If you've already got a web site, we can give your own take on it's usability based on our own experience, and we can help you test your site and improve it.