Usability is often a point of contention between agency and client and between interactive and account teams or developers and designers. I think people often assume that the user’s goals, the agency’s goals, and the client’s goals may be at odds, when the truth is that when the user is happy, the client should be happy as well. And a happy client makes for a happy agency. When all is said and done websites, CD-ROMs, and applications are useless if nobody can use them – regardless of how pretty they may be.

With that in mind, I’d like to point out an example of really great user-centered design: (site will open in a new window, so that you can follow along with my commentary).Zappos is targeted to serious shoe-shoppers. The design of the site itself is no great shakes – it could certainly stand to be prettier, yes? But, from a user perspective, it’s excellent.

Here’s why:
From the homepage, there are multiple ways to get into the shoe shopping experience. You can scan the page and quickly figure out what you want – by brand, by gender, by lifestyle – and it’s easy to skim for what you need and click right in.

Once you get into the shopping experience, it only gets better. Click on “Women’s” and you’ll get a clear listing of everything that’s in the Women’s Department with subcategories.

Click on “Dress Shoes” and get a list of every shoe that fits that category and all its subcategories.

Here’s where it gets really good from the shoe-shopper’s perspective. First, you can decide whether you want to see 12 shoes per page or 99 shoes per page. (I know the non-shoe obsessed out there are mystified by this, but trust me – when you’re looking for shoes it’s GREAT to see 99 of them at a time). You can filter this list by heel height, color, price, size, or width and sort by popularity, price, and name.

When I was looking for wedding shoes in a size 11, I can’t tell you how helpful all of this filtering and sorting was. Not all shoes go up to Goliath Size 11, and some other sites forced me to go into each and every shoe to see what sizes they’re available in. What a pain in the ass. Zappos allowed me to say, “Show me white shoes in a size 11 with a heel height of 2 inches and sort the list by price.” Within seconds, I had a selection of shoes far greater (and with less hassle) than at the Nordstrom shoe department.

But wait, there’s MORE! Once you find a particular shoe, you can see it from multiple views; it’s almost like being able to pick up the shoe in the store and turn it over. You can also read reviews that other owners of this shoe have posted to see how true to size and width the shoe is, how high the overall rating is, and any comments they may have about the shoe.

Even if you don’t “get” shoe shopping, you have to admit that this site figured out who their users are and how to please them. And by pleasing their users they have become one of the top shoe-shopping destinations online. Everybody wins!

Like I said, the look of the site could be elevated – it’s certainly not going to win any awards as it stands. But – by being first concerned with the user – they’re off on the right foot.

Compare this experience to Fluevog – possibly a “prettier” site, but harder to use from a shoe-shopper’s perspective.

Take a look at the two sites and let me know what you think! Also, if you have other good examples of great site usability, please share them.