Whether you're doing the weekly food shop or conducting research for a PhD, reliance on the internet in many parts of our daily lives is increasing.

This has been acknowledged by the UK Government, leading to the creation of a project called 'Race Online 2012' designed to encourage small businesses to do more online.

However, digital participation alone is not enough; to be competitive in today's market the quality of the website matters more than ever. A well-designed website increases awareness of the company and in the case of e-commerce can lead directly to increased sales, thus much research has gone into finding out which features of a website have the biggest positive effect on customer behaviour.

One of the criteria for any successfully designed product is 'usability'. There is some debate about what the term usability actually means, however the International Organisation for Standardization defines it as 'the extent to which a system can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use'. This is a very overcomplicated way of saying that usability is determined by how quick and easy it is for a user to carry out the task for which the website was made. The fact that multiple definitions of usability exist is problematic as each definition has its own set of usability criteria. Jacob Nielsen (an expert in the field of website user experience) suggests that usability is dependent on: the ease with which a user can learn to manage the system, the ease of memorizing the basic functions, the efficiency of the website design, the degree of error avoidance and the general satisfaction of the user in terms of manageability. Other researchers have highlighted the importance of download delay, interactivity and responsiveness. Despite debate about how best to define usability, most researchers agree that learnability, easy navigation, low delay, and useful content are all vital usability criteria.

Even though there is no universal usability standard, some researchers have created tools for evaluating usability based on the criteria suggested by the literature. One example is WEBUSE, an evaluation questionnaire designed to test 20 usability criteria which can be classified into 4 categories: content and readability, navigation and links, user interface design, performance and effectiveness. The reliability (e.g. how much two users' WEBUSE scores differed when evaluating the same website) of WEBUSE was found to be high. In addition to this qualitative data regarding participant satisfaction with WEBUSE, for example how much participants felt that the questions were relevant, was collected and found to be positive overall. Therefore the researchers concluded that WEBUSE was a good tool for accurately assessing website usability. The development of such usability tests, which only take half an hour to complete and can be sent out as an online survey, is good news for businesses seeking to improve their online services.

However such tests are only really useful for measuring the current usability of a website, therefore they may not provide enough information for companies planning to remodel their website. A more professional and in-depth alternative to this kind of usability testing is offered by User Experience consultancies, who perform both user testing and evaluation in purpose-built labs. Some User Experience companies also provide website usability courses, at which delegates learn how to apply user experience tools and techniques to real-world design and development problems. However, outsourcing consultation and training to such companies can be expensive, making them a less viable option for small businesses. Fortunately easy to read usability guidelines provided by the UK Government are available free online, giving companies of all sizes plenty of ways in which they can improve on the usability of their website. But is obtaining a high level of usability really worth the effort?

The simple answer is yes. A high level of usability has consistently been found to have many benefits. Research has shown that online stores with above average usability have much greater revisit rates, increasing the likelihood of future online purchases even if none were made on the initial visit. There are also benefits for companies not directly selling goods online; one study of e-banking services found that high usability increased customer satisfaction, leading to higher customer loyalty and increased recommendations of the company to friends. User experience companies provide case studies of companies which have benefited from the in-depth usability analysis services they provide. Office supplies retailer Staples reportedan increase in traffic of 17 per cent following a redesign of their website, based on the results of extensive usability testing. Similarly Thomson experienced an 80 per cent increase in hotel 'look-to-book' conversions after improving their website's usability.

The evidence suggests that an enhanced level of website usability increases customer spending, customer loyalty and leads to long-term positive perceptions of a company. As these are common goals of online businesses, improving usability ought to be a top priority for managers with a remit to develop and maintain corporate websites. However despite the fact that numerous usability guidelines, consultancies and testing services exist, many companies still have websites that score poorly on 'user friendliness'. An analysis of the usability of 500 company websites found that only 23% had site search capabilities, and 14% had a Frequently Asked Questions or Help option. Such statistics suggest that ways to increase usability outlined by research have not been implemented by the majority of businesses, putting those who do use such recommendations at a distinct advantage in the competitive online market.