The principles of good web design are “just common sense” and you can learn to apply them. A great website must have usability, in that it must work for customers, serve your purposes and be easy to use. If clients find your site difficult to use, they’ll avoid it, and yet there’s no single right approach to designing a website. To begin, simplify your site. “Don’t make me think!” is the “first law of usability.”
People should never be confused about what to do, where to go or what to click to find what they want. Make everything on your site “obvious and clickable.” If your users have to ask about how things work, they’ll get distracted. Even if their “mental chatter” only lasts “a fraction of a second,” it’s too long. Users should never, ever have to ask, “Where am I?” or “Where should I begin?” What you can’t “make…self-evident,” make “self-explanatory.”
Design your website to answer people’s questions with a few words. Usability is a form of courtesy, so be polite to your users. When people enter your site, they begin with a half-full “reservoir of goodwill.” An organized home page fills that reservoir to the top. If you leave outdated material on your site, the reservoir evaporates. Exclude key information or push promotions too hard, and the reservoir will go dry. You diminish goodwill by making information difficult to find, punishing users for mistakes, using corporate jargon, or making your site flashy or amateurish. Increase goodwill with a clear and accessible site that eliminates steps, shares key data, anticipates questions, apologizes for mistakes and makes pages printer-friendly.
Principles of Website Design
Do the following five essential things to help people use your web pages more productively and efficiently:
- “Create a clear visual hierarchy” – Design every web page to “clearly and accurately portray the relationships among the things on the page.” Draw attention to important aspects with visual cues, like bold, larger fonts. Link things visually as they are linked conceptually. “Nest” items to show clearly which ones are parts of others.
- “Take advantage of conventions” – Many designers don’t want to use conventions. They think their job is to create “something new and different,” and they’re afraid that something familiar – like a shopping cart icon – will be boring. But conventions endure because they work. People know how to use them. They’re accustomed to following conventional cues to cull meaning from written texts. Innovate only if you have an idea that works better than a convention. Otherwise, use recognizable icons – like an image of a shopping cart – even if you didn’t come up with the idea yourself.
- “Break up pages into clearly defined areas” – Make distinctions between different areas absolutely clear. Enable quick navigational decisions.
- “Make it obvious what’s clickable” – People click to get to the next thing. Make that click as easy as possible. For clickable links, always choose different colors than the colors you use for regular text. Make sure indicator arrows point precisely to where people should click.
- “Minimize noise” – The web is busy. You can’t get rid of all the distractions – but avoid any distractions you can. Don’t make your pages busy. Remove exclamation points, extra links and extraneous colors. Subtract anything that draws users away from your focus.
Test Your Site
Web design teams shouldn’t make certain decisions. Designers know what they like about web pages, and they project this knowledge outward, insisting that “everybody likes” what they like. Some designers fall back on rhetorical appeals to “the average user,” but the average user doesn’t exist. Test your site using real people.
A usability test is not a focus group. Focus groups gather a few people to respond to “ideas and designs.” In usability tests, you watch one user at a time. You show the user something on your website and ask him or her to identify it or to perform a specific task. Usability tests are necessary if you want your site to work well. You’re too close to your own site. You can’t predict what works in real life and what doesn’t.
Test your site early in the design process and don’t worry about recruiting “representative users.” Testing “early and often” is more important. When you test, you aren’t trying “to prove or disprove something.” You’re seeking information about how real people use your site. Testing is “an iterative process”: You test, fix the problems and test again. Just about anyone will do for testing. But if your site will be used “almost exclusively by one type of user” or is aimed at a split audience with sharply distinct needs, recruit testers from those groups.