2009.01.08 03:46:30
Susan Jackman

Understanding the constraints of the Web as a medium

The web is a growing medium but it is important to understand that a website is not on a piece of paper, you cannot control how anyone sees it, and it is a constantly changing medium.  There are principles and rules that need to be followed.

A website designer always has two customers:

The site owner

- who is paying the bills, who wants something professional, state of the art, exciting, and attractive.

The visitors to the site (or site user)

- who just wants to find what they are looking for as fast as possible.

It’s a very tough balancing act so I will share the following with you to help educate you about these constraints and rules.

Let’s start with some basic Principle of effective web design, keeping in mind that an in-effective website will not achieve your goals whether that is to bring in new customers or make money.

Easy to read, and easy to navigate

By far the most important aspect of making a website usable is making sure it is easy to read and easy to navigate.  Some rules can be bent and some rules will be broken but to ignore the importance of this principle means failure for your website. Reading on the web can be hard work for anyone, not just the older users. Eyestrain is a widespread problem among Internet users. Numerous studies have shown that reading performance drops dramatically on the web. Badly sized Text has a very negative effect on your site visitors.  It's important to keep your text at a standard size.  Making text either too big or too small makes it hard to read and annoying for your users.
Give your visitor what they are looking for

A site visitor means business; they came to your site looking for information and will stay on your site only as long as they are getting what they want.  Provide only relevant information on your homepage, which is specific to your users. Web logs are the best means of finding out which keyword your visitor used and for what purpose they may have visited your website.

Tell your visitor what your site is all about

Often websites are crammed with all sorts of information in no particular order, making it hard to figure out what your sites message is. Your site should instantly give users relevant information about what the site has to offer them.  You can also provide links like “about us” for further clarification.

Keep it calm and simple

Simplicity is more complex than you probably think it is. To design a web site that is user-friendly, presents all information and removes unnecessary details isn’t an easy task. The expressions "Keep it simple, stupid", "Kill your darlings”, and "Less is more" all discern the fact that simplicity is important.  This principle is doubly important for web design. 

It is inexperience than can make you want to use every bell and whistle, every possible feature and every new trick in the bag. When you create complex frames and tables, use large busy fonts, use flash and animated GIFs, you end up with too many features competing against your message. Users are quickly overwhelmed.  Ask yourself if your idea of a flashy animation is actually doing anything to improve the purpose or goal of your webpage.  Does it add any real value or help to communicate your message? 

I’m not saying you can’t use animations or have a little flash, but keep it minimal and only use it if it has a real value.  Light box effects, for example have a very great value of saving page space. A simple design does not mean uninteresting and dull.  Keeping it simple means you should think about how people will be using your pages. Then present your information to them so it matches their requirements and expectations. Earn their attention and use technology where it makes your users experience easier. You're not designing web sites for yourself, you’re publishing a web page because you expect someone to stop by and use it.

Quick Page Load

While some would argue that 10 seconds is an appropriate time I would rate this as an excellent time but considering other factors this is not a stead fast rule.  Users will be satisfied with the load time if the most useful information is loaded quickly even if other things take longer.  10 to 15 seconds is still a pretty good load time.  The problem with a slow loading page that doesn’t show the user something worth waiting for is that users will get bored and go somewhere else.  Things like animations, slideshows, video, large images, lots of images, or several front-end scripts on one page will all slow down the page load.  Going with a cheep server host will also cause slow page loads.

There are times when longer load times ARE appropriate, but it is best to minimize any other elements that would effect the page load as well as warn the user if something will take longer to load before they click on the link.  If you are considering using these ask yourself if you really need them or if you can give users the same information in a more web friendly way.  If you are considering adding PDF documents to the website would it be a better idea to convert these documents to web pages?

Do NOT use frames

Search engines may have difficulty in referencing them, human users may have difficulty printing or book marking them, and with small displays the contents frame may be too small to be useful. Frames violate too many accepted web standards to be a worthy information delivery system.

Use as simple and straightforward a domain name as you can

You really want it to be short enough to be remembered by a customer you meet at the bus stop, but that is getting harder and harder to do.  If you can’t keep it short, keep it as straightforward as possible.

Update your site

A stale site is not only bad for search engine rankings but it’s going to put off your users as well.  Along with regular updating comes regular maintenance.  Errors or broken links can be hard to control and you need to frequently test and clean up the site.

Limit Scrolling as much as possible

It’s been researched and proven again and again, users hate to scroll.  Statistically only 10% of site visitors actually scroll pages they visit.  Horizontal scrolling is one of the biggest no-nos. Just don’t do it!

This rule ties in with the next rule:

Above the fold

The space that is viewable without scrolling is called above the fold.  This is your prime real estate and everything that a user NEEDS should be above the fold. Above the Fold, is a term that comes from the broadsheet newspaper business? If a broadsheet newspaper is set up in a news rack, you can see only the top half of the front page. The stuff "above the fold" has to be compelling enough to get you to buy the paper.

Consistent branding

Brand all the pages of your site and make sure that every page has a very clear indication to the user telling them where they are in the site and who’s site they are on.  Some users may come to your site “through the back door” rather than from the home page.

Content and Context is King

You’ve probably heard this before, but there is more to it than just having lots of content. Your content needs to be targeted to your users.  Make sure that your content will have specific appeal to your target audience.  Use original content, that is unique and not like every other website. Good content will be interesting and informative and show the writers personality. Well-written content is important because it engages your visitors, increases your search engine rankings and traffic, and helps you get quality links from other sites. Your content should be a credible source of information. You should provide author, source citations, and contact information.

Limit Banner advertising

When you're trying to make money from your website, it's all too easy to try to fit in more ads than you really should, or start using ad formats that are too intrusive. If you've put a new ad on your site, go to the site as if you were a visitor, and ask yourself honestly: is this just too much? Avoid free web space that forces pop-up ads.  As a web browser you don’t like them so why would you force them onto your users.  Watch out for marketing guys who try to convince you to have as many ads as you can fit to make more money from your site, they don’t know anything about web usability.

Using design elements that get in the way of your visitors

As a web designer this is something I struggle with my clients on quite frequently.  You do not want to have design elements on your site that get in the way of your message or what your user is there to do.  Graphic should be used to show real content or improve usability, not just to decorate the page because you like them.  While there is certainly a need for design elements to give your site the look and feel that you want to convey, these elements should not get in the way of usability and functionality.

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