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The foundation of Good Website Design & Effective Web Design Guidelines

Before I dive into the principles of my website design and how to apply these to your own site, it’s important to understand how visitors interact with a website, how they think and what identifiable patterns there are in their behaviour.

Website Interaction

The way visitors interact with your website is similar to how they’d act in a shop. Imagine your website is on the Sheffield high street. A visitor arrives, glances at what’s new, scans through your signage and hones in on the first thing that catches their interest. Most visitors are looking for something that intrigues them, whether that’s a shiny ornament or a clickable link. And, if they don’t find it, they’re out.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Visitors are looking for credible content. They will usually be forgiving about the design of your site providing that there is a lot of quality content.
  • Visitors aren’t going to read everything you write. As humans with time pressures, we don’t read, we scan. Give readers some anchor points throughout your page to help guide their eye.
  • We’re inpatient. We want what we want, and we want it now. The more you rely on visitors having to navigate your site and search for what they’re looking for, the more likely you are to lose them.
  • Website visitors don’t act rationally. The first link they see that could have the information they’re looking for is more likely to get clicked than the correct link which takes longer to find.
  • People don’t read in sequence either. Keep your key information and CTAs in highly visible parts of your page.

1. Don’t Force Visitors to think too much

When I create a website, my job is to keep ‘questions’ to a minimum. What I mean by this is that I want to offer more answers than questions. I want to take visitors by the hand and guide them through the website without them having to engage their brain more than is needed.

Just think of how exhausting it would be if every website relied on you putting in the effort yourself to find what you were looking for. How often do you use the search bar on a website? How does it make you feel? These small moments add up, and the more work you’re expecting from your visitors, the less likely they are to stick around.

Krug’s law of usability states that web pages should be obvious and self-explanatory. I wholeheartedly agree. Your website isn’t for you, it’s for your visitors – never lose sight of that.

2. Don’t test a user’s patience

If your website offers a service or tool to customers, it’s essential to keep the requirements to access it minimal. Imagine you’re in a supermarket and they’re handing out samples of something that you’re curious to try, but haven’t purchased before. You’re more likely to try the sample if it’s offered up to you with no strings attached than you are if you’re required to fill in your details first. The same premise applies to your website.

Allowing users to test a service is a great way to peak their interest. Let them explore your services without the need to share their private data. Then, identify the right stage of the journey to add your barriers, leaving them wanting more and much more willing to jump through the hoops of registration.

Ideally, look for ways to remove registrations and subscriptions from all early stages of the customer journey. Removing this hurdle alone will result in more conversions.

3. Focus A User’s Attention

Since websites contain static and dynamic content, some features the user sees are more important than others. Of course, pictures are more visual than text, and using bold or italics is more eye-catching than plain text.

Web users are drawn toward edges, patterns, and motion because the human eye is non-linear. This is why video pop-ups are so distracting, but from a marketing standpoint, they do an excellent job of grabbing users’ attention.
Using visual effects to direct visitors’ attention to certain sections of the site can help guide your visitors from point A to point B. The less questions visitors have, the better their experience and the more credibility you build.

4. Design intuitively

The most common modern website designs are often chastised for their “dumbed down” layouts, using “1, 2, 3, Done” steps, big buttons, flashy graphics, and so on. However, from a design standpoint, these components are used for a reason – they’re a highly successful way to guide users through the site.
I’ve found time and time again that clear, intuitive website design is fundamental to a successful website. How you achieve this is down to each designer, but what matters is that the visitor comes away feeling happy with their interaction with your site.

5. Web Content is unique to websites

Because the web differs from print, it’s important to tailor the writing style to the tastes and surfing patterns of your consumers. Promotional content is not going to be read. Long text blocks with no pictures or keywords in bold or italics will be ignored. Keep this in mind when you’re considering your web copy.

Keep it professional. Let your personality show, but avoid anything too obviously influenced by marketing. Most importantly, say what you mean! If you want visitors to sign up, put that on your CTA instead of waffling or inviting users to “discover what we can do for you”.

A few tried and tested tips for writing your website content (other than hiring a professional to do it for you) are:

  • Use short, sharp sentences that say what you mean
  • Use a layout that makes scanning the content easy (various heading sizes, text blocks and bullet points all do the trick)
  • Avoid emotive language. Users know when they’re being sold to, instead of promising them the earth, give them an objective reason to use your website, product or service.

WordPress can be a good choice when it comes to achieving a well-optimised website with an easy to use content management system. Just make sure to factor in website design to your SEO plan, and you’ll be sure to see the results you are looking for.

6. Strive For Simplicity

At the risk of driving the point home, I’m going to state it again: keep it simple. If you want to set yourself apart, the core layout of your website and the basic functions shouldn’t be where you do it. As a website designer in Sheffield, I know that competition is fierce, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Stunning visuals and well chosen words will do a lot more to differentiate your website than a complicated layout or frustrating flow.

As a reader, the best websites are pure text, free of advertisements or content that isn’t related to the topic you’re interested in. Now, the world would indeed be a bit boring if all websites were completely plain, but keeping focus on the content when designing a site is essential to the process.

7. Don’t Be scared Of Space

White space is a phenomenal tool in breaking up your content into easily digestible chunks. Our eyes love white space as it provides a micro break and helps to give structure to what we’re reading without adding more visual cues.

The more complex your text is, the more overwhelmed the reader feels looking at it. This is why so many of us scan instead of reading every word. Break up long blocks of writing and unrelated parts of your page with white space instead of visible lines. Not only will it make users more likely to read your content, but it adds to the visual hierarchy of your website.

8. Communicate Effectively & efficiently

In an insightful paper on using visual communication effectively, Aaron Marcus states that there are three fundamental principles in written or ‘visible language’.

  • Organise
    Give a clear, consistent structure that is well-organised and easy to navigate.
  • Economise
    Use as few visual elements as possible to convey your message. Across all your elements, check for simplicity, clarity, distinctiveness and emphasis.
  • Communicate
    Keep in mind your website is a tool to communicate with users of diverse backgrounds and reading levels. Use no more than 3 fonts and 3 point sizes throughout, and keep your content in blocks of 3-4 sentences.

9. Conventional design often works best

Only innovate if your idea is better than what’s already out there. If it isn’t, make the most of conventions.

Far from being “boring”, conventional website designs reduce the learning curve involved in structuring a site. You could start over and create something never seen before, but when global giants like eBay, Amazon and Apple are all sticking with conventional site structure, it’s probably worth riding the shoulders of giants.

With conventions, you can spend less time on trial and error, and more time gaining users’ confidence and proving your credibility. Acknowledge your visitors’ expectations and keep your text structure and site navigation in line with that.

10. Testing

The only way you’re going to find an issue with your website is if either you find it, or a customer does. From the earliest stages possible, begin testing your site and looking for potential problems. According to Boehm’s first law, mistakes are most frequently made during design activities and become more expensive to fix the later they’re found. Keep these points in mind when testing:

  • Testing a single user is better than testing none, and testing that user early in the project is better than testing 50 at the end.
  • Testing isn’t a linear process. Design, test, fix and then test some more. Often problems that aren’t found on the first round of testing have been hidden by larger problems.
  • Testing always produces useful results. You’ll either discover a problem, or you’ll find none – both findings give you insight into your project.
  • Based on Weinberg’s law, a developer should never test his or her code. It’s always easier to spot someone else’s errors than it is your own, which is why independent testers are much more valuable for testing website design than the designer themselves.
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