WEBSITE DESIGN GUIDE - BUILD A BETTER WEBSITE
Are you looking to improve your current site? Are you building a new website? In either case, you're in the right place.
We've taken our experience of understanding visitors' website experience and compiled a guide of website design tips and advice. From this you will learn good website design principles and what visitors most want from your website when they visit.
This content has been written for amateur designers or those responsible for the websites of small businesses. It does not contain any advanced technical tips, nor code examples - simply the fundamentals of good visitor-centric website design.
This content has been adapted and abridged from our book 'Building a website your visitors will love: a plain English guide to boosting your revenue by delivering an incredible online experience'. If you find these pages useful, consider purchasing the full book or looking for other ways to support us.
1. BEFORE YOU GO ON: A FEW HARD TRUTHS
Every visitor is visiting to achieve something. Our websites are a means to an end to help them achieve that thing.
Some designers initially find this idea a bit uncomfortable as it highlights that visitors aren’t visiting for the sake of it, or out of love for that site, but because they want something for themselves. Once they have that thing (or realise our sites can’t offer them that thing) then they leave and might have no reason to ever return. This is true for all sites, from the very smallest to the very largest.
There’s an economic framework that has recently risen in prominence that takes this idea a step further. The ‘Jobs To Be Done’ framework (JTBD) focuses on the reason why visitors are on their mission in the first place, and suggests that we ultimately hire products to do a job for us. So, for example, someone isn't looking to buy a new shirt, they're looking to hire something to make them look employable at a job interview. Someone isn't looking to buy a bookshelf, they’re looking to hire something to make their living room neat and tidy.
A product might be able to do one job or it might be able to do multiple jobs - for example someone might hire a McDonald's burger as a quick fix before going out, or to reward their children for getting good exam results. There might also be multiple ways to get the same job done - for example those children could be rewarded with a McDonald’s or with a trip to the cinema.
Whether we consider visitors’ missions, or their jobs to be done, we need to accept a few fundamental truths:
Visitors don’t want our stuff, they want what that stuff can do for them and how it can improve their lives.
Visitors don’t really care about our website, they care about how it helps them achieve their goals.
If a visitor thinks they can get their job done quicker, better or easier through a different website, or through a different source entirely, then they’ll leave us for that other thing.
There are three incredibly useful things to ask yourself before you start building a website or looking to improve your existing one:
Who is the kind of person visiting my site? Think about their lifestage, gender, level of income and where they live.
Why are they visiting my site? Think about the mission they’re on - for example to find information, to contact me or to buy a product.
What job are they wanting to get done? Remember, they’re not really interested in stuff - they’re interested in what that stuff does for them.
For example, for a fictional window company:
My visitor is a homeowner living in the North East. They are visiting my site to find information on the different types of windows available to them so that they can make an informed purchase decision. Ultimately, they want to keep the inside of their homes warmer and quieter.
2. SHOWING YOU CAN HELP
Many elements of a website can shape the experience of visiting it, but nothing is more important than how well it communicates how it can solve a problem, meet a need, or help a visitor realise their goals. This is why visitors are visiting - not because they are interested in the stuff you have, but for how that stuff can help them.
Your stuff is only ever a means to an end - if a rival started offering something better, or something that achieved the same goal but in a different or more efficient way, then your visitors would go elsewhere.
As designers, we need to recognise that:
People make quick judgements about a website through the language it uses and the way it presents information.
Decision making is not always rational, and visitors use lots of different cues and heuristics to help them assess a website’s suitability.
Most people are time short and want to spend only as long on your site as is required to meet their goal.
The homepage, your content and your design choices are all critical to the success of your website. Your site can have the smoothest navigation or be perfectly mobile-optimised, but this will mean nothing if it can't effectively communicate its value. Only when that is achieved - when you have something that visitors believe is worth visiting for - should you start to worry about other parts of the experience.
We’ll start by looking at the homepage - a key part of the site whose job it is to start the experience off on the best foot and provide the visitor a reassuring sense that they’ve come to the right place. We’ll then discuss how to write compelling content that encourages your visitors to take action. Finally, we’ll reflect on how your site looks, and what your design choices communicate to the visitor and how they impact on their experience.
This is all fundamental to the success of your website.
3. WEBSITE NAVIGATION
If your homepage is the equivalent of a store front, and your content is the products within that store, then your navigation is the store map and signage that shows visitors how to get around.
Research shows that navigation is consistently a key determinant of overall visitor satisfaction. This makes perfect sense - visitors are only on that website to get their job completed, ideally as quickly as possible, and bad navigation gets in the way of that goal.
Getting navigation right is hard work. It requires you to have a good understanding of your visitors’ missions and be able to build a site structure that accommodates them. However, taking the time to get it right is well worth it. Visitors will feel the difference when they visit, your exit and bounce rates (the number of visitors leaving from each page) will decline, and all the effort you've invested into creating compelling content will pay off as visitors will be able to find more of it.
Luckily, there are many conventions that we can follow to give ourselves a head start. It's for that reason that this section starts with some general practices that should be adhered to when thinking about navigation across all pages of your site. We’ll then deep-dive into two specific areas of navigation - the main navigation bar and the search box. This section will cover a lot of ground, but at the end of it you'll have a clearer idea of how to design a navigational structure that makes your site feel effortless and frictionless to get around.
4. SELLING PRODUCTS
In these guides we’ll be focussing explicitly on transactional websites, that is to say websites with an online store or marketplace that displays products (or, much less commonly, services) that can be ordered and paid for online.
Some of this advice might not be possible to action. That is because you maybe well be forced to use a marketplace provided by either their website builder or by another third-party provider. These tools often give you some control and customisability, but there is a limit on what you can change.
Another reality is that your choice of marketplace might well be driven by the financial terms (the flat fees or commission) available. You will have (hopefully) evaluated the functionality your marketplace offers, but it is unlikely that you spent much time considering the experience your visitor will have whilst shopping it.
That is understandable - you want as high a profit as possible - but a bad visitor experience has its own, very real, impact. Visitors drop off your site having not found what they want to buy or, even worse, having found it but having not been able to buy it.
Throughout these three guides, we’re going to run through pitfalls at four different stages of the purchase journey. We’ll cover how to make it easier for visitors to find the products they are interested in, help them evaluate whether they really meet their needs and, finally, check out smoothly and quickly. There is a lot to take in, but understanding where visitor pain points lie, and remedying them, will have a direct impact on your sales and will ensure that fewer visitors fail to purchase as a result of shortcomings in your site itself.
5. OPEN TO EVERYONE
The rise of website builders isn't the only change the internet has seen in relatively recent times. Just as who is designing websites is changing, so is who the actual website visitor is, and how they're visiting.
More people, both young and old, are coming online than ever before. Additionally, technology is helping people with disabilities, that would have previously precluded them from using the internet, to enjoy a far greater level of access. Mobile usage is higher than ever, with one in two visits now likely to come through those devices. Internet Explorer no longer has a monopoly on internet browsing - now Google’s Chrome browser has the largest share.
Whoever your visitor is, and however they choose to visit your site, it is your responsibility to provide them with a positive experience - not only because it makes financial sense for you, but because everyone, everywhere should have the right to the same benefits that the internet can provide.
These guides will explore how you can design in a way that enables visitors of all types and preferences to enjoy your site. We’ll start by exploring the idea of accessibility before finishing with a review of mobile design philosophy and how you can support multiple browser types.
Both of these topics are broad and dense, and so these guides will serve only as an introduction to get you thinking about these topics. It is then up to you to do further research and make ongoing changes to give the best possible experience to all of your visitors.
6. BALANCING INTERESTS
Typically, the interests of your website and the interests of your visitor align quite nicely. You have a product you want to sell, your visitor has a product they want to buy. You have content you want your visitor to consume, your visitor wants to consume it. Everyone is happy.
That is not always the case. Sometimes your website needs to do something that is in direct conflict with the interests of the visitor, in order to succeed.
The best example of this is advertising. Many websites rely on this as a source of revenue but it almost never improves the visitor’s experience of that website, and in many cases it actively damages it. If it damages it too much, the visitor will leave and never return to the site, limiting any monetary gains to the short term. The same is true when using pop-ups - previously thought to be a good way to capture visitor attention, they are now seen as an annoyance that many visitors avoid through the use of browser plug-ins.
Alongside these, you also have to fulfil your legal obligations around collection, storage and protection of visitor data. These regulations haven’t been written with your website’s interests at heart but to protect your visitors.
In the final three guides we’ll briefly explore these three areas; advertising, pop-ups and visitor data. Some of these things you need to understand (such as your obligation to comply with GDPR regulations) and others will simply help you balance your website’s interests and the interests of your visitors, leading to a better experience for them.
7. THE TOP 10
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide. To help distill it, here's a top 10 list of the most important areas for you to focus on, or common themes that cut across multiple different parts of website design.
This list is in no particular order.