Websites vary greatly in design, purpose, target audience and content but they all share the same aim of attracting clients/customers or users to the site and meeting the needs of these users with the aim of fulfilling the specified purpose of the site, whether this is to provide information, generate sales, act as a forum or meeting place etc. .
Usability in relation to web design covers the experience that users have when they access and use a website. Some of the questions which should be considered are:
- Is the site navigation obvious and easy to use?
- Can users find the information they want easily?
- Do users feel comfortable using the website?
- Does the site display correctly in different browsers and at differing screen resolutions?
- Is the download time for pages acceptable?
Effective navigation is one of the key aspects of a user friendly website, if visitors can navigate quickly and easily between the different pages then this will help to provide a positive user experience and increase your chances of the site fulfilling its goals. There are a few simple rules with site navigation which will really help keep users on your site once they have found it:
- Make it obvious - The navigation should be obvious and easy to find - people hate having to hunt around to find the other pages on the site and may well end up leaving the site if they have to spend too long looking for a way off a page.
- Never maroon users - There is nothing worse than clicking on a link in a search engine to a web page deep within a site and then finding you have no way of getting to the other pages. Don't rely on the browser 'back' button for your navigation, always have a link somewhere on every page of the site and preferably links to the main pages or sections of the site.
It can be very tempting when designing a website to add a multitude of colours to 'jazz up' the site and use the technology at your fingertips to its fullest extent. But before doing this you should ask yourself if the addition of colour is fulfilling any useful purpose.
The answer to this question depends to some extent on the target audience of the site and in some instances use of garish colours can be in keeping with the site aims. As an example, online gaming sites are aimed at a generally young user base who expect to be entertained by the site and are ready to be assaulted by colour and sound - it's all part of the experience.
But a good general rule to follow when deciding about colour is "Less Is More". Keep in mind that most visitors are looking for specific information when they come to your site and anything which distracts them from this primary goal can affect their site impression and ultimately how they feel about the site and whether they will visit again.
In relation to web design the term 'font' refers to the particular typeface used to display the text. When first designing it can be tempting to use exotic fonts which look unusual or "interesting" to jazz-up the look of the pages but this can be a big mistake. As with all aspects of usability it is always best to take a step back and try to look through the eyes of a site visitor.
Nowadays Internet users surf the Web with a particular goal in mind, whether it be finding out information or looking for a specific product or service. To this end the primary objective of the site designer should be to ensure that the site text is legible for the widest possible user base. This ties in with site accessibility - a high percentage of your possible clientele may be vision impaired - a font which appears perfectly fine to your 20/20 vision may cause problems in visitors with a visual disability.
The same holds true for the size of text used on a site and more importantly whether or not the text-size can be altered by a visitor. The designers life can be made easier if the text is given a fixed size because then you can be sure of identical layout and display across different computers and don't have to allow for increasing font sizes leading to broken or visually unappealing page layouts.
But the fixed text-size policy goes against both usability and accessibility considerations. If visually impaired users are unable to increase the size of the text then the site may be unusable for them - this goes against good business sense and against most accessibility legislation. Why alienate a portion of your potential audience when there is no need to do so if care is taken in the design.
In the current era of broadband Internet connections and multi megabit download speeds it is tempting to ignore file sizes and download speeds for pages but this is a mistake. Yes, compared to 10 years ago bandwidth for the normal home computer user has greatly increased but the demands placed on this bandwidth have also increased.
Formerly households had one computer which everyone took turns to use due to the nature of a 56K Dial-up connection, but now every member of the household can have a computer and the tasks performed on these computers can be very bandwidth heavy. Online gaming, watching videos and downloading videos or music can soon eat up even the quickest connection.
Users also tend to have less time and patience when it comes to surfing the Web and very specific goals when they go online. Studies have shown that you only have a few seconds to capture people's attention when they come to your site so don't waste it by making them wait for the site to download. Steps you can take to speed up download times and retain visitors include:
- Optimize images - On the main entry pages of your site use images sparingly and ensure they are optimized using a program such as Photoshop. Large images have their place in product displays or slideshows but only when the visitor has chosen to see a large image.
- Use videos or Flash sparingly - Streaming videos and Flash content can use a lot of bandwidth and slow down the flow and usability of a site. It's probably best to avoid them unless the user has chosen to engage with them and knows that there may be some waiting involved.
- Avoid splash screens unless necessary - In terms of websites the term "splash screen" or "splash page" refers to an opening page that is displayed before the home page as an introductory screen. Legitimate use of a splash screen can be to offer visitors a choice of available languages for the site content. Unfortunately splash screens are often misused to try and wow visitors with Flash effects or display images or video to entertain the visitor whilst the main content of the site is downloading. Always remember that you only have a few seconds to capture interest and wasting these important opening seconds by making the user wait before getting to site content is a bad idea and will lose you visitors/clients etc.