Website Design Tips: Making Your Web Site Usable

Want to create a Web site that will attract visitors, keep them there -- and keep them coming back for more? Here's how...

Want to create a Web site that will attract visitors, keep them there — and keep them coming back for more? Then give attention to the usability of your site.

Many Web designers construct difficult-to-navigate sites overloaded with beautiful graphics and technological gizmos. Such sites often end up confusing users and making them wait too long for pages to load. Anyone who designs a Web site should follow a few basic rules to keep enticing visitors in instead of driving them away.

Keep It Simple

The most important rule in designing a Web site is to keep it simple. Whether users are researching a product, shopping or just surfing, information is what they’re seeking. Slow download times, confusing page layouts and poor navigation features all serve as obstacles in their quest for information and, with hundreds of thousands of other Web sites beckoning, users will quickly leave your site for greener pastures.

You can follow several basic rules to decrease the download time of your site and make it clear and appealing to users. The first step is to avoid unnecessary graphics. Too many graphics make a site look cluttered. In addition, the graphics often pull a user’s attention away from the more valuable aspects of your site (e.g., the product you’re selling, special sales, links and other such information).

However, avoiding unnecessary visuals does not mean abandoning them altogether. The conservative, creative use of graphics will help decrease the time it takes your site’s pages to load and make it easier for users to find what they are looking for.

A second step: Avoid the use of fancy, often unnecessary technology. It’s extremely tempting to load up on such technology in an effort to construct a cutting-edge site. However, doing so may render your site inaccessible for a significant portion of Web users because their browsers cannot support such features. If you avoid the gratuitous use of the “latest” gizmo or plug-in, you avoid putting demands on the user’s browser.

When considering a Web site’s usability it’s important to remember that the majority of users aren’t concerned with graphics or the latest technology. What they care about the most is the quality of the content on your site, the range of services you provide and how good your customer service is.

Always Let Your Users Know Where They Are

A surprising number of e-commerce and corporate Web sites are as difficult to navigate as the streets of Washington, D.C. Users who cannot easily navigate your site will often abandon it without finding the desired information or product. Consumers who cannot find what they are looking for on your site become frustrated and agitated just as they would in a large department store. However, in a department store they have store clerks to ask for help or store maps to reference. On your Web site, they must go it alone — unless you take measures to help them.

An important measure to take is to include a link to a “site map.” A site map is a page that maps out your entire Web site, with a brief description of what each page contains — a virtual equivalent of a “you are here” map.

When dealing with site navigation issues, remember to always leave the user in control. Specifically, do not disable the “Back” button on your users’ browsers. The Back button is the second-most used navigation feature (second only to hypertext links). If users are unsure of where a link will take them, they aren’t afraid to click through because they can always use the Back button to reload the previous page.

Web site designers sometimes render the Back button worthless by redirecting users when they attempt to use it (subsequently returning them to the undesired page). This serves no purpose other than to alienate the user. Another ploy is to spawn a new window when a user clicks on a link, therefore hiding the original page. Many designers mistakenly believe this will keep users on their site. However, many users do not realize that a new window has opened, so they never return to the original site anyway.

Pack Your Site With Information

This may seem like a contradiction to the “keep it simple” rule. However, you must not sacrifice essential information in a misguided attempt to keep your site uncluttered. A perfect example is your opening page, which should adequately describe your site and convey an accurate sense of what lies within your site. Jamming your opening with information is fine as long as you don’t overdo it. Altering font size, ensuring that there is enough white space and writing in a clear and concise manner should all help you to avoid packing in too much information that can bog down the site.

Another important rule to remember when evaluating a Web site’s usability can be borrowed from the newspaper world; it’s the old “below the fold/above the fold” maxim that newspapers follow. In a newspaper, the most important information appears “above the fold” of the paper and the same should hold true for your Web site. The most important information and navigation tools should appear at the top of the pages within your site.

It is also critically important that you keep the information on your site up to date. Links that no longer work — a condition known as “linkrot” — or information that is no longer current or accurate should be updated. If updating the information is not an option, it should be removed or replaced. An added benefit of updating your Web site frequently is that it entices users to return on a regular basis.

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