It may seem a simple criterion to consider when developing a website, but a lot of construction firms are happy to settle for a meaningless brand extension exercise

In the past month we have published surveys ranking the websites of Building’s top 50 contractors and architects. The results so far indicate that a fairly high proportion of industry websites have issues surrounding accessibility and adherence to coding standards.

Surveyors will be the next group to have their sites tested later this month, but before that we need to address the important issue of websites’ usability.

The internet is a very different medium to print, television and radio, in that it is interactive. Yet many organisations approach website development in the same way as traditional communications, viewing their website as an electronic brochure. As a consequence the two main questions that most people address are: “Does our website tell our story?” and “Does it fit our brand?”

However, the questions they should be addressing are: “What do viewers want from our site?” and, more importantly, “Can they get what they want?”

Viewers of construction industry websites will usually have fairly specific goals. Some simply need to retrieve contact details. Others may know of a specific project and wish to find out more information. Ask yourself whether your website can fulfil these two simple tasks. More importantly, has your organisation looked at what viewers want, and has your website been tested from a viewer’s perspective?

Usability is a large subject, but there are a few simple tests that sites should pass:

  • Can a visitor learn what you do from the home page?
  • Can they get to your contact information easily from any page?
  • Do you provide a search facility? And is it useful? Could someone search for projects by name, location, type, value?
  • Is your website accessible to search engines? A flash site without an html alternative is invisible to search engines.
  • Is your website optimised for search engines? Could someone find your site knowing only that you were the contractor or consultant that worked on a specific project?
  • Once they get at the information is it useful? Are details of projects provided?