Fortunately, the most common website mistakes are very easy to prevent or fix. See below my big list of website design tips which will help you do just that.
CONTENT IS KING
- Make sure each page in your website has something valuable to offer. Though this doesn’t really relate to design, it’s actually more important than design, which is why it’s the very first tip. I know that many people reading this page are trying to find out how to make useless pages look pretty, because they think that style is all that really matters. So let’s step back a minute and realize that fundamentally a web page exists to provide something that’s useful or interesting to visitors. If your page doesn’t have that, then you must fix that problem before you worry about how to present it. What are you offering to your visitors? Why is it worth their time to visit your site? Please focus on that before you move on to how it should look.
- If you do not have sufficient copy, or any real text on your home page, and to a lesser extent your whole site, hire a copywriter. Content is King, repeat after me ‘content is king’. Search engines don’t index fancy graphics and Flash, they index text. If you don’t know how much text, or how to write good text, hire somebody who does (it’s essential to your ranking and to selling your product or service).
- If your plan is to make money from advertising, then go for a ratio of not less than 75% editorial to 25% advertising. Amazingly, I see some sites that are almost nothing but ads. We know that no one would turn on the TV if it were just commercials, and no programs, or buy a magazine if it were just ads, and no articles. By the same token, a website also has to have more than ads if it’s to be successful.
AVOID ENOYING AND SLEAZY ELEMENTS
- Don’t distract your visitors with blinking or scrolling text, animated GIFs, or auto-loading sound. Animation and sounds are distracting. How can anyone concentrate on reading what’s on your site when there are things flying around the page? It’s like trying to read a newspaper when someone’s poking you in the shoulder repeatedly. Also, visitors who have slow connections may resent that you wasted their time by forcing them to load animations and sound files against their will. (If you think that everyone has fast connections these days, think of the thousands of people at hotels, who are all sharing the same connection.) Conventional wisdom is that people will be drawn to an animated ad, but it’s actually the opposite: Readers who are assaulted by blinking ads are more likely to leave the site immediately without clicking on anything, and are far less likely to bookmark the site, return to it, link to it, and recommend it
- Let’s talk scrolling text. Besides the fact that it’s annoying, there’s another problem: the reader can’t read it at their own pace. They’re forced to read it at whatever speed you deliver it. They might have preferred to read those two sentences quickly and then move on, but because it’s scrolling they’re forced to sit there and wait for the text to slowly appear. This brings up an important point: Always keep your visitors’ interests in mind. Make sure you try to please them, not yourself. Scrolling text does nothing to serve the visitor. Don’t design the site for yourself, design it for the people who will actually use it.
POP-UP WINDOWS ARE ANNOYING
- Nobody likes popups. Here again, the only reason a site would have popups is because the site owner is thinking of his/her own interests rather than the readers. We all know that when we’re browsing we hate popups, but suddenly when we switch hats and become the site owner, we lose our ability to see through the users’ eyes. So let’s remember to put ourselves in their shoes.
- Think about what content you have and how it should be organised. This is at least as important as what your pages look like, so actually spend some time on it. You do your readers a disservice if they can’t easily find what they’re looking for and if everything is thrown up on your site in a haphazard fashion.
- Put as few clicks between your visitor and your information as possible. This is so important I’ll repeat it: Put as few clicks between your visitor and your information as possible. The more you force your visitors to click around your site the more likely they’ll abandon it. Even if they don’t leave they might get annoyed, or not view as much of your content — either of which is bad for you.
- Limit page length to 2 screenfuls, or 6-7 screenfuls for articles. While you should put a lot of info on each page to minimize clicking, don’t go too far in the other direction by putting too much info on a page. You should normally limit a page to no more than two screenfuls of info. Articles (like this one) are exceptions, because articles are longer by nature. But even so, very long articles (more than about 6-7 screenfuls) should usually be chunked into separate pages.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE ‘HOME’
- When users get lost they like to start over from square one. Make it easy for them to do so. Even if you’re including a clickable logo on the top of every page, make sure to also include text that says something like ‘Home’, because some users don’t realize that logos take you back to the home page. Also remember that users might not be able to hit the “Back” button to go back to your home page, because they might have entered the middle of your site after clicking a link to it from a search engine or from some other site.
- While you should provide a way for users to get back to your home page quickly, you shouldn’t force them to go home before they can go somewhere else. Include a menu on the left or the top of each page.
- Don’t put navigation links only at the bottom of pages, because then users will have to scroll down to the bottom to get to them (unless your pages are very short). Users clearly dislike links at the bottom of long pages. On long pages, you’ll want navigation elements on BOTH the bottom and the top or left, so that users who have read a lengthy page don’t have to scroll back up to get to the menus.
DON’T USE FRAMES
- Nothing is more annoying to readers than waiting for a 300k graphic to load when it should be only 20k instead. Graphics software can compress files so they take up less room on your disk, and therefore take less time to load into your visitors’ browsers. I would highly recommend Riot image compression software (which is free and super easy to use). And as mentioned earlier, don’t bog your site down with auto-playing sound files, either.
FLASH CAN BE TO FLASHY
- Flashy graphics and multimedia controls may look nice, but they’re bad when they make it hard for visitors to get the information they want from your site. Nobody wants to be annoyed by having to use a cumbersome Java scroller to see all the text in a field, much less wait for all the doodads to load — if they even work at all. Google “Flash sucks” and you’ll see why users revile Flash-based websites.
MAKE TEXT EASY TO READ
- It’s hard to read light text on a light background, or dark text on a dark background. There are also some colour combinations that don’t work. Also, it’s hard to read text on background images that have a wide mixture of light and dark; any background images should be simple and mostly dark or mostly light. You can improve readability of text on a background image by increasing the text size and/or making it bold.
- You should almost never put text on an image or textured background. Unless you really know what you’re doing, such text is usually difficult or annoying to read, if not impossible.
- Make the text large enough to read. Obvious I know, but still worth a mention. Don’t punish your visitors if you want them to actually read your content.
- Another trick to help with readability is to increase the line spacing. Putting some space after each line gives it some breathing room and makes it a lot easier to read.
- Don’t type more than a few words in ALL CAPS. Words that are in ALL CAPS draw attention to themselves because they seem different from the small letters around them. But if you type everything in all caps, then you completely lose the effect, since everything looks the same, so none of it looks important. If you want to draw readers’ attention to something, make the headline stand out — bold, bright colour, maybe a little larger, but keep the text that follows it normal.
- Don’t use more than one exclamation point! Typing several (or worse, a gazillion) exclamation points does not make your text seem any more important than just one. In fact, rather than conveying urgency, what multiple exclamation marks really scream is ‘Amateurish!’. Actually, what they really scream is ‘Desperate!’ The writer is desperate to get the reader to believe something. But think about it: Do exclamation marks really impress you when you read them? Are you more likely to believe something because it has a screaming mark at the end? It’s probably the opposite: You’re used to desperate marketers trying to sell you something with their exclamation marks, so when you see lots of them you sense that desperation and tend to discount what they’re trying to convince you of. So when you switch hats and you’re the one giving the message, don’t let your desperation show by using lots of exclamation marks. Play hard to get.
- Always use a spelling checker. Yes, people who spell poorly may not notice or care that your site is badly misspelled, but literate people may notice and care, and they’re in the majority.
- Don’t underline words if they’re not links. On the web, something that’s underlined is supposed to be a link. If you underline gratuitously, readers will be annoyed when they try to click those underlined words only to discover that they’re not really links. If you want to emphasize something, use italics instead (or boldface, or another colour).
- Make links a different colour or underlined, or both. Users expect links in body copy to be a different colour and/or underlined, because that’s the way they appear on 99% of other websites. If you use a different colour then at least the underline is a clue that a link is a link. Likewise, if you remove the underline but keep the link a different colour, then the colour is the clue that a link is a link.
- Having links that aren’t a different colour and aren’t underlined makes your links invisible and pretty much pointless. How are users supposed to know what’s a link at that point?
- Links in menus don’t have to be blue or underlined, as long as they’re clearly menu items. The differing colour/underlined tip is for links that are in the middle of the page.
- Always explain what you’re linking to. When you’re able to provide more information about what a link points to, do so. For example, if your site has a Links page, include a short description of each site you link to, say 1-5 sentences. That way visitors have an idea of what’s on those sites, which will help them make their decision on whether to visit those sites, and help them find what they’re looking for, while avoiding what they’re not looking for.
- Nothing is less useful than a whole bunch of links to other sites when those links consist of nothing more than the names of those sites (or worse, the URLS). Without any description of what you’re linking to, readers are forced to visit each and every site to get an idea of what’s there. Imagine 100 of your visitors all repeating that same laborious surfing, needlessly. You could have told them what’s on those sites, because you (presumably) visited those sites yourself, so you know what’s on them. Do your readers a favour and share your knowledge with them.
- Don’t open internal links in a new window. The owner of a site I just ran across thinks it’s a good idea to pop up a brand new window when a visitor clicks a link within his site, but that only annoys users when they suddenly have a gazillion windows open on their screen. Opening new windows for external links to other sites is fine, but links within a site should always open in the same window. Visitors can still get around your site just fine when links open in the same window, because you did include a good navigation menu at the top or the left of the page as in the tip above, right? Opening new windows means that after five clicks within your site, your visitor’s screen is cluttered with six different windows.
- Be Accessible. Put your contact info, or a link to it, on the top and/or bottom of every page. Don’t waste your readers’ time by making them hunt around your site for how to contact you. Make your contact info easy to get to. Put your contact info (or a link to it), on the top of every page. If you’re not printing your phone and/or email anywhere because you don’t have the resources to handle inquiries, then do your readers the courtesy of letting them know that, so they don’t spend forever hunting in vain for contact info that doesn’t exist.
- Test your links. Make sure your site works! Load your site in a browser from the Internet (not from your hard disk), make sure all the images appear correctly, and click on all the links. This may seem obvious, but if it’s so obvious, then why do I constantly find sites whose images and internal links don’t work right? If you’re using a link checker that’s built in to your web editor and your site is framed, then you can’t depend on the link checker, because it can’t check for framing problems (e.g., pages load into wrong frames, clicking a link results in frames within a frame, etc.). Check it yourself.
- Remove dead external links periodically. If you link to any external sites, some of those links will almost certainly stop working at some point as the sites move or become extinct. Don’t waste your readers’ time by forcing them to follow broken links. Check your links at least once every few months. You can use software to automatically check your links to external sites to see if any of them have gone dead.
OTHER WEBMASTER TIPS
- Don’t ask for “permission” to link to a site. I don’t know how anyone got the idea that you have to ask another site owner whether you can link to their site, but it’s just not necessary,
- Don’t ask to exchange links with other sites. Link exchange requests are only a little less annoying than “permission to link” requests, and completely useless. Link to other sites if you think they’ll be of value or interest to your readers, not because the other site links back. If you want links to your site, make your site worthy of being linked to, link to other worthy sites, and then ask those other sites for a link (not a link exchange). Don’t make your link to them contingent on whether they link back or not. If they’re worth linking to, they’re still worth linking to even if they don’t link back.