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If you’re in the software business, or if your business’ success depends on a Web site, there’s something you must know. Usability – how easy your software or site is for users to work with – is no mere nicety.

It’s the difference between success and failure.

I recently ran across a perfect example of how poor usability is killing several businesses, an example you can see for yourself. First, consider that Web sites are actually pieces of software, not just pieces of “collateral” or “business literature.” You read them on a computer, you navigate through them using a keyboard and mouse, they contain different types of media, and the publisher can lead people one way or another. They are software, so don’t think of them as another type of brochure.

I was recently reviewing a number of spokesmodel services for a client. You may have seen these – someone walks onto the screen, over a Web site, and begins talking. This technique can help increase the number of people who take action on a site if done well.

Let’s start with a couple of sites that do a really good job. Go to www.LiveFaceOnWeb.com. There is a problem on this site – it tends to hide away the starting point. However, once you find the “Order” button – the right side of the navigation bar at the top – you’ll see two clear choices. Click “Female Models” or “Male Models,” and you’ll see a table with pictures of different spokesmodels. Click the “Play” button on a picture, and you’ll see that model in action.

This is all very simple.

Now try www.iSpeakVideo.com. This site is even easier. There’s a big “Meet Our Talent” button on the left side; click that, and then select Male or Female. You’ll see a table of pictures. Click a picture, and the model appears on the right side in a large video.

Both these services make it very easy to view all their spokesmodels – their actors – and pick the one you feel will work best for your site. This is, of course, the critical first step in working with these companies. There’s another service that makes it pretty easy to view demos of the actors, too. Go to www.LaserStreamVideo.com/our-talent.html.

I actually have a list of about a dozen of these services. The two we’ve just seen are definitely the easiest to work with, but in my search for the perfect video spokesmodel, I moved on to review some of the others.

Look at www.videowebpresentation.com. This site has numerous design and usability problems. Click on “Submit Your Order,” and you just get an order form. If you find the “Preview Our Talent” button hidden on the navigation bar, you see the familiar table.

Click on an actor. A new page loads, and you’ll have to wait a while for the video to load. To view all the actors you have to jump back and forth between these pages.

Check out www.videospokesmodel.com. I saw the search function, so I selected a few options and clicked “Search.” I got the familiar table, so I clicked on a model and was taken to another page. Worse, though, when I clicked the prominent “Back,” I wasn’t taken back to my search results. I was sent to a page showing a table with all the actors, and clicking on an actor took me to another page.

Some other sites I reviewed had similar, irritating little usability issues, which slowed my ability to watch the actors in action. So, what was my reaction? I gave up within minutes. “I don’t have time for this nonsense,” was my thought, so I moved on.

I wasn’t completely right about some of the other sites. Some do, in fact, have pages where you can view all the actors in little videos on one page.

VideoSpokesmodel.com has a scrolling bar across the top showing the actors, for instance. But in some cases I was led to view the actors in another, inconvenient way. On VideoSpokesmodel.com there’s a “Play” button under each model, but the button is virtually hidden and easily missed if you’re quickly scanning the page. Just giving the button a prominent color would make this site a hundred times easier to work with.

Either way, all I needed was a few moments on each site to give me that “I can’t deal with this…” feeling.

Decisions about software and Web sites are often made in moments, and if your product or site creates an “I don’t have time for this” reaction among users, you’ve just lost the battle.

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He’s currently working with e-book software company DNAML, www.DNAML.com, to introduce its products to U.S. publishers.