10 Principles Of Effective Web Design

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Usability and the utility, not the visual design, determine the success or failure of a web-site. Since the visitor of the page is the only person who clicks the mouse and therefore decides everything, user-centric design has become a standard approach for successful and profit-oriented web design. After all, if users can’t use a feature, it might as well not exist.

We aren’t going to discuss the implementation details (e.g. where the search box should be placed) as it has already been done in a number of articles; instead we focus on the main principles, heuristics and approaches for effective web design — approaches which, used properly, can lead to more sophisticated design decisions and simplify the process of perceiving presented information.

Please notice that

This article has been translated to Hebrew4.

Principles Of Effective Web Design

In order to use the principles properly we first need to understand how users interact with web-sites, how they think and what are the basic patterns of users’ behavior.

How do users think?

Basically, users’ habits on the Web aren’t that different from customers’ habits in a store. Visitors glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. In fact, there are large parts of the page they don’t even look at.

Most users search for something interesting (or useful) and clickable; as soon as some promising candidates are found, users click. If the new page doesn’t meet users’ expectations, the Back button is clicked and the search process is continued.

  • Users appreciate quality and credibility. If a page provides users with high-quality content, they are willing to compromise the content with advertisements and the design of the site. This is the reason why not-that-well-designed web-sites with high-quality content gain a lot of traffic over years. Content is more important than the design which supports it.
  • Users don’t read, they scan. Analyzing a web-page, users search for some fixed points or anchors which would guide them through the content of the page.

    Screenshot5
    Users don’t read, they scan. Notice how “hot” areas abrupt in the middle of sentences. This is typical for the scanning process.

  • Web users are impatient and insist on instant gratification. Very simple principle: If a web-site isn’t able to meet users’ expectations, then designer failed to get his job done properly and the company loses money. The higher is the cognitive load and the less intuitive is the navigation, the more willing are users to leave the web-site and search for alternatives. [JN / DWU]
  • Users don’t make optimal choices. Users don’t search for the quickest way to find the information they’re looking for. Neither do they scan web-page in a linear fashion, going sequentially from one site section to another one. Instead users satisfice; they choose the first reasonable option. As soon as they find a link that seems like it might lead to the goal, there is a very good chance that it will be immediately clicked. Optimizing is hard, and it takes a long time. Satisficing is more efficient. [video6]

    Screenshot7

    Screenshot8
    Both pictures show: sequential reading flow doesn’t work in the Web. Right screenshot on the image at the bottom describes the scan path of a given page.

  • Users follow their intuition. In most cases users muddle through instead of reading the information a designer has provided. According to Steve Krug, the basic reason for that is that users don’t care. “If we find something that works, we stick to it. It doesn’t matter to us if we understand how things work, as long as we can use them. If your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboard, then design great billboards.”
  • Users want to have control. Users want to be able to control their browser and rely on the consistent data presentation throughout the site. E.g. they don’t want new windows popping up unexpectedly and they want to be able to get back with a “Back”-button to the site they’ve been before: therefore it’s a good practice to never open links in new browser windows.

1. Don’t make users think

According to Krug’s first law of usability, the web-page should be obvious and self-explanatory. When you’re creating a site, your job is to get rid of the question marks — the decisions users need to make consciously, considering pros, cons and alternatives.

If the navigation and site architecture aren’t intuitive, the number of question marks grows and makes it harder for users to comprehend how the system works and how to get from point A to point B. A clear structure, moderate visual clues and easily recognizable links can help users to find their path to their aim.

Screenshot9

Let’s take a look at an example. Beyondis.co.uk10 claims to be “beyond channels, beyond products, beyond distribution”. What does it mean? Since users tend to explore web-sites according to the “F”-pattern11, these three statements would be the first elements users will see on the page once it is loaded.

Although the design itself is simple and intuitive, to understand what the page is about the user needs to search for the answer. This is what an unnecessary question mark is. It’s designer’s task to make sure that the number of question marks is close to 0. The visual explanation is placed on the right hand side. Just exchanging both blocks would increase usability.

Screenshot12

ExpressionEngine13 uses the very same structure like Beyondis, but avoids unnecessary question marks. Furthermore, the slogan becomes functional as users are provided with options to try the service and download the free version.

By reducing cognitive load you make it easier for visitors to grasp the idea behind the system. Once you’ve achieved this, you can communicate why the system is useful and how users can benefit from it. People won’t use your web site if they can’t find their way around it.

2. Don’t squander users’ patience

In every project when you are going to offer your visitors some service or tool, try to keep your user requirements minimal. The less action is required from users to test a service, the more likely a random visitor is to actually try it out. First-time visitors are willing to play with the service, not filling long web forms for an account they might never use in the future. Let users explore the site and discover your services without forcing them into sharing private data. It’s not reasonable to force users to enter an email address to test the feature.

As Ryan Singer — the developer of the 37Signals team — states14, users would probably be eager to provide an email address if they were asked for it after they’d seen the feature work, so they had some idea of what they were going to get in return.

Screenshot15

Stikkit16 is a perfect example for a user-friendly service which requires almost nothing from the visitor which is unobtrusive and comforting. And that’s what you want your users to feel on your web site.

Screenshot

Apparently, Mite requires more. However the registration can be done in less than 30 seconds — as the form has horizontal orientation, the user doesn’t even need to scroll the page.

Ideally remove all barriers, don’t require subscriptions or registrations first. A user registration alone is enough of an impediment to user navigation to cut down on incoming traffic.

3. Manage to focus users’ attention

As web-sites provide both static and dynamic content, some aspects of the user interface attract attention more than others do. Obviously, images are more eye-catching than the text — just as the sentences marked as bold are more attractive than plain text.

The human eye is a highly non-linear device, and web-users can instantly recognize edges, patterns and motions. This is why video-based advertisements are extremely annoying and distracting, but from the marketing perspective they perfectly do the job of capturing users’ attention.

Enso17

Humanized.com18 perfectly uses the principle of focus. The only element which is directly visible to the users is the word “free” which works attractive and appealing, but still calm and purely informative. Subtle hints provide users with enough information of how to find more about the “free” product.

Focusing users’ attention to specific areas of the site with a moderate use of visual elements can help your visitors to get from point A to point B without thinking of how it actually is supposed to be done. The less question marks visitors have, the better sense of orientation they have and the more trust they can develop towards the company the site represents. In other words: the less thinking needs to happen behind the scenes, the better is the user experience which is the aim of usability in the first place.

4. Strive for feature exposure

Modern web designs are usually criticized due to their approach of guiding users with visually appealing 1-2-3-done-steps, large buttons with visual effects etc. But from the design perspective these elements actually aren’t a bad thing. On the contrary, such guidelines are extremely effective as they lead the visitors through the site content in a very simple and user-friendly way.

Screenshot19

Dibusoft.com20 combines visual appeal with clear site structure. The site has 9 main navigation options which are visible at the first glance. The choice of colors might be too light, though.

Letting the user see clearly what functions are available is a fundamental principle of successful user interface design. It doesn’t really matter how this is achieved. What matters is that the content is well-understood and visitors feel comfortable with the way they interact with the system.

5. Make use of effective writing

As the Web is different from print, it’s necessary to adjust the writing style to users’ preferences and browsing habits. Promotional writing won’t be read. Long text blocks without images and keywords marked in bold or italics will be skipped. Exaggerated language will be ignored.

Talk business. Avoid cute or clever names, marketing-induced names, company-specific names, and unfamiliar technical names. For instance, if you describe a service and want users to create an account, “sign up” is better than “start now!” which is again better than “explore our services”.

Screenshot21

Eleven2.com22 gets directly to the point. No cute words, no exaggerated statements. Instead a price: just what visitors are looking for.

An optimal solution for effective writing is to

  • use short and concise phrases (come to the point as quickly as possible),
  • use scannable layout (categorize the content, use multiple heading levels, use visual elements and bulleted lists which break the flow of uniform text blocks),
  • use plain and objective language (a promotion doesn’t need to sound like advertisement; give your users some reasonable and objective reason why they should use your service or stay on your web-site)

6. Strive for simplicity

The “keep it simple”-principle (KIS) should be the primary goal of site design. Users are rarely on a site to enjoy the design; furthermore, in most cases they are looking for the information despite the design. Strive for simplicity instead of complexity.

Screenshot23

Crcbus24 provides visitors with a clean and simple design. You may have no idea what the site is about as it is in Italian, however you can directly recognize the navigation, header, content area and the footer. Notice how even icons manage to communicate the information clearly. Once the icons are hovered, additional information is provided.

From the visitors’ point of view, the best site design is a pure text, without any advertisements or further content blocks matching exactly the query visitors used or the content they’ve been looking for. This is one of the reasons why a user-friendly print-version of web pages is essential for good user experience.

Screenshot25

Finch26 clearly presents the information about the site and gives visitors a choice of options without overcrowding them with unnecessary content.

7. Don’t be afraid of the white space

Actually it’s really hard to overestimate the importance of white space. Not only does it help to reduce the cognitive load for the visitors, but it makes it possible to perceive the information presented on the screen. When a new visitor approaches a design layout, the first thing he/she tries to do is to scan the page and divide the content area into digestible pieces of information.

Complex structures are harder to read, scan, analyze and work with. If you have the choice between separating two design segments by a visible line or by some whitespace, it’s usually better to use the whitespace solution. Hierarchical structures reduce complexity (Simon’s Law): the better you manage to provide users with a sense of visual hierarchy, the easier your content will be to perceive.

Screenshot27

White space is good. Cameron.io28 uses white space as a primary design element. The result is a well-scannable layout which gives the content a dominating position it deserves.

8. Communicate effectively with a “visible language”

In his papers on effective visual communication, Aaron Marcus states three fundamental principles29 involved in the use of the so-called “visible language” — the content users see on a screen.

  • Organize: provide the user with a clear and consistent conceptual structure. Consistency, screen layout, relationships and navigability are important concepts of organization. The same conventions and rules should be applied to all elements.
  • Economize: do the most with the least amount of cues and visual elements. Four major points to be considered: simplicity, clarity, distinctiveness, and emphasis. Simplicity includes only the elements that are most important for communication. Clarity: all components should be designed so their meaning is not ambiguous. Distinctiveness: the important properties of the necessary elements should be distinguishable. Emphasis: the most important elements should be easily perceived.
  • Communicate: match the presentation to the capabilities of the user. The user interface must keep in balance legibility, readability, typography, symbolism, multiple views, and color or texture in order to communicate successfully. Use max. 3 typefaces in a maximum of 3 point sizes — a maximum of 18 words or 50-80 characters per line of text.

9. Conventions are our friends

Conventional design of site elements doesn’t result in a boring web site. In fact, conventions are very useful as they reduce the learning curve, the need to figure out how things work. For instance, it would be a usability nightmare if all web-sites had different visual presentation of RSS-feeds. That’s not that different from our regular life where we tend to get used to basic principles of how we organize data (folders) or do shopping (placement of products).

With conventions you can gain users’ confidence, trust, reliability and prove your credibility. Follow users’ expectations — understand what they’re expecting from a site navigation, text structure, search placement etc. (see Nielsen’s Usability Alertbox30 for more information)

Screenshot31
BabelFish in use: Amazon.com in Russian.

A typical example from usability sessions is to translate the page in Japanese (assuming your web users don’t know Japanese, e.g. with Babelfish32) and provide your usability testers with a task to find something in the page of different language. If conventions are well-applied, users will be able to achieve a not-too-specific objective, even if they can’t understand a word of it.

Steve Krug suggests that it’s better to innovate only when you know you really have a better idea, but take advantages of conventions when you don’t.

10. Test early, test often

This so-called TETO-principle should be applied to every web design project as usability tests often provide crucial insights into significant problems and issues related to a given layout.

Test not too late, not too little and not for the wrong reasons. In the latter case it’s necessary to understand that most design decisions are local; that means that you can’t universally answer whether some layout is better than the other one as you need to analyze it from a very specific point of view (considering requirements, stakeholders, budget etc.).

Some important points to keep in mind:

  • according to Steve Krug, testing one user is 100% better than testing none and testing one user early in the project is better than testing 50 near the end. Accoring to Boehm’s first law, errors are most frequent during requirements and design activities and are the more expensive the later they are removed.
  • testing is an iterative process. That means that you design something, test it, fix it and then test it again. There might be problems which haven’t been found during the first round as users were practically blocked by other problems.
  • usability tests always produce useful results. Either you’ll be pointed to the problems you have or you’ll be pointed to the absence of major design flaws which is in both cases a useful insight for your project.
  • according to Weinberg’s law, a developer is unsuited to test his or her code. This holds for designers as well. After you’ve worked on a site for few weeks, you can’t observe it from a fresh perspective anymore. You know how it is built and therefore you know exactly how it works — you have the wisdom independent testers and visitors of your site wouldn’t have.

Bottom line: if you want a great site, you’ve got to test.

References

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/09/27/10-usability-nightmares-you-should-be-aware-of/
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/10/09/30-usability-issues-to-be-aware-of/
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-rss.php
  4. 4 http://d-webs.com/lhe/apage/27944.php
  5. 5 http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html
  6. 6 http://www.etre.com/usability/eyetracking/showme/
  7. 7 http://searchengineland.com/070413-121955.php
  8. 8 http://blog.eyetools.net/eyetools_research/4_community_of_learning/index.html
  9. 9 http://www.beyondis.co.uk/
  10. 10 http://www.beyondis.co.uk/
  11. 11 http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html
  12. 12 http://expressionengine.com/
  13. 13 http://expressionengine.com/
  14. 14 http://www.thinkvitamin.com/training/webapps/web-app-form-design/
  15. 15 http://www.stikkit.com/signup
  16. 16 http://www.stikkit.com/signup
  17. 17 http://www.humanized.com/
  18. 18 http://www.humanized.com/
  19. 19 http://dibusoft.com/
  20. 20 http://dibusoft.com/
  21. 21 http://www.eleven2.com/
  22. 22 http://www.eleven2.com/
  23. 23 http://crcbus.mattiaviviani.net/
  24. 24 http://crcbus.mattiaviviani.net/
  25. 25 http://getfinch.com/
  26. 26 http://getfinch.com/
  27. 27 http://cameron.io/
  28. 28 http://cameron.io/
  29. 29 http://web.cs.wpi.edu/~matt/courses/cs563/talks/smartin/int_design.html
  30. 30 http://www.useit.com/alertbox/
  31. 31 http://babelfish.yahoo.com
  32. 32 http://babelfish.yahoo.com
  33. 33 http://web.cs.wpi.edu/~matt/courses/cs563/talks/smartin/int_design.html
  34. 34 http://nibis.ni.schule.de/~lepke/homepage/webdesign/webdesign.html
  35. 35 http://www.macgregor.net/speaking/digitaleve/UID.swf
  36. 36 http://www.usability.gov/pdfs/guidelines.html
  37. 37 http://www.sylvantech.com/~talin/projects/ui_design.html

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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. Vitaly is writer, speaker, author and editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine. He runs responsive Web design workshops, online workshops and loves solving complex performance problems in large companies. Get in touch.

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  1. 1

    This tells me nothing

    -8
    • 302

      Thanks very much for this great ronduup, and for sharing a couple of my posts as well. Much appreciated. Cheers!

      -10
  2. 603

    These tips are overly generalizations and I don’t buy 50% of them. Design and engaging graphics do matters. The best site design was pure text -15 years ago. Today’s users expect quality design. I don’t think I would stay on an all text site for a moment unless it was Craig’s list. The better way to design is to understand the purpose of the web site. Some web sites only need to convey text or need a simple design, other web sites need dynamic design and graphics. It depends on what you are selling and what the website goals are. Simplistic articles like this should be taken with a grain of salt.

    -14
  3. 904

    OH nana, what’s ma name , OH nana what’s mah name.? the square root of 69 is 8 something

    -7
  4. 1205

    So, the owners of this site delete comments that describe the usability issues with large titles/headers, but allow dozens of comments along the lines of, “I like cheese…” and “OH nana, what’s ma name , OH nana what’s mah name.? the square root of 69 is 8 some” to remain??!

    Unbelievable.

    Your credibility is zero, in my book.

    -1
  5. 1506

    nicely put up together
    For detailed learning go for “don’t make me think ” by steve krug
    very well written and nicely formatted .

    0
  6. 1807

    Nice read, I especially like number 8, communicating properly makes a huge difference. I think this guy makes some of the same very valid points http://coalitiontechnologies.com/seo-strategies-that-work/1226/

    -3
  7. 2108

    shot solly
    this is a real help

    2
  8. 2409

    Cheer cuz, mean as g.

    -3
  9. 2710

    your the man j-dagg xx

    -4
  10. 3011

    trisha kaye jongo

    June 21, 2011 5:14 pm

    very informative!!!! i learned a lot

    -3
  11. 3312

    Great information! I really liked the advice on writing simply instead of trying to confused things with exagerated or unclear advertising jargon. I’ve been reading this blog. clocktowermedia.com/blog/view/seo-tip-chapter-1-seo-demystified and it has some good info on integrating email marketing and social media advertise to work in conjuction with your website.

    -3
  12. 3613

    Steve Southampton

    August 9, 2011 4:00 am

    Great article, so many in-depth points that people should consider when involved in the design of a website. So many of these points are not taken seriously enough and could make the difference between a site failing or being a success. Thanks for sharing.

    -3
  13. 3914

    Oh come on. You guys are stupid. The mnemonic is “Keep it simple, stupid,” or KISS. Not KIS.

    -1
  14. 4215

    good article.
    crusher

    -6
  15. 4516

    ang haba naman nito

    -5
  16. 5118

    V HELPFULL ALL FEATURES MENTIONED ABOVE ARE PRESENT IN YOUR WEBSITE

    -1
  17. 5419

    This is a really well done article. Thank you for the list and the supporting sites as examples.

    -4
  18. 5720

    Thanks for the info, this article will surely stick to my mind for the rest of my web developer career… :D

    -2
  19. 6021

    Good web design is also about ease of use. Ease of use is not simple, because users are not a homogeneous group. There are several explanations of what usability is and how this can best be achieved. Much of this is made ​​by Jacob Nielsen, a proclaimed guru in usability. Personally, I have more sense of User Interface Engineering’s forskningsresulateter published on this subject. I choose to use a rewritten version of the conclusion of their article Testing the Three-Click Rule in my aktivtek.no webdesign academy.
    Ease of use is that the user can easily find what he seeks.

    -2
  20. 6322

    like ur site , but u shd be precised too …
    lengthy is boring…. !!!!!

    -7
  21. 6623

    These are very good point but you made mistake in Number 10th heading.
    “Accoring to Boehm’s first law” You forgot to put “D” in according.

    -5
    • 6924

      Ahmed El Sokkary November 17th, 20118:10 amVery Interesting, thkans for the effort you took collecting this amazing materials.

      -6
  22. 7225

    Regarding the principle #5:
    ‘…if you describe a service and want users to create an account, “sign up” is better than “start now!” which is again better than “explore our services”… ‘
    In this article http://bokardo.com/archives/why-you-should-bury-your-sign-up-button/ the author states exactly the opposite:
    ‘ …”they took away the “sign up” button and instead put a “learn more” button at the bottom of the page they got a 350% increase in sign ups” …’
    What’s the better approach?

    -6
  23. 7526

    Well written and very useful. Liked how straight to the point each of the ten items were and there were no tangents.
    Thanks, very helpful

    -4
    • 7827

      Joan Bauer November 18th, 2011 4:09 pm Good stuff Sarah!! I ejyenod this article and your presentation.

      -6
  24. 8128

    Great article! Thanks!

    -6
  25. 8429

    thank for this important information. I m will graduate in this year for graphic designer, and I m having a first footprint in this.
    I m Cuban, sorry because of my english

    -10
  26. 8730

    good post and amazing picture. Good web design is also about ease of use. Ease of use is not simple, because users are not a homogeneous group.for more information about web design development visit http://www.chennaipixel.com

    -4
  27. 9031

    TOO LONG

    -7
  28. 9332

    Awesome…Excellent Description

    -8
  29. 9633

    Brilliant idea and also great for freedom of speech and exposing things that need exposing.
    Thank you for this information. Is there any tips for making a website secure and make the chances of someone hacking your site less likely?

    -7
  30. 9934

    great article

    -3
  31. 10235

    thanks for sharing! ;)

    -3
  32. 10536

    The max 3 type styles and 3 type sizes recommendation is ridiculous. Unless Mr. Marcus can show empirical data on it, that recommendation is meaningless. Look at the top 500 sites on the web and tell me how many sites break that recommendation. You can use 4, 5 or 6 type sizes and be totally OK as long as you’re using them logically and consistently. Recommending a 3 size max is akin to the “Must be able to get to all pages in 3 clicks” myth that was shattered with a little actual research. Thanks for the rest of the content though. Much of it is very helpful.

    -6
  33. 10837

    These are great and the best fundamental principles of design the world have had @ the moment so far, is not easy thinking to design as a good designer but let your ideas and innovations lives generations long for the others to emulates you. Produce the best and lets your best be from these tips for the world to remember forever.

    -6
  34. 11138

    I will try to apply these effective website designing principles on my web sites. Then I will tell you the results. Thanks.

    -3
  35. 11439

    Best article I’ve read about web design to date. Learned a lot. Thanks!

    -6
  36. 11740

    No problems encountered certain people and certain countries where the internet connection is very slow and can not open a website

    in fact almost 50% of internet users get internet speeds are low, of course this is very detrimental to the owner wesbite

    -3
  37. 12041

    Great Post Vitaly! amazing tips to go through. it is also important now to create your website design with friendly to smart phones. in 2013, most likely you will have lots of visitors browsing your website from a smart phone, so in order to not lose them, it is essential to build a web design friendly and optimized to meet this technology which is always in a rapid usage increase.

    Regards,

    Ann Daniel
    http://www.smarttouch.me

    -2
  38. 12342

    Hey Vitaly

    Thanks for this useful article!

    I published a blog post recently: “Webpages That Work” brightbyte.co.uk/webpages-that-work/. I hope your readers find it useful.

    Thanks

    -5
  39. 12643

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was wondering what all is required to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% sure. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Kudos

    -1
    • 12944

      @Enrique.

      It’s not necessarily that expensive. All I had to do to get setup on a WordPress blog like this was to pay for a domain name and get hosting. I was able to get a .com domain name for around $10 per year. For hosting, it really depends on what type of hosting you need. Many people will only need shared hosting which I’ve seen for $4 to $6 per month.

      And this is to get your own domain name and have the freedom of a self hosted blog. If you didn’t care about the domain name and you didn’t mind being limited, you could have a blog for free.

      If you’re interested, wordpress has a ton of info at wordpress.com for the non-self hosted version and wordpress.org for self-hosted blogging.

      1
  40. 13245

    Principles of a good Website design also includes high appreciation for analysis and quality. It offers users with good content, with minimal advertisements and maximum design. If the navigation time of the website is higher than users seek alternatives and leave the site

    Moreover there are other things that can be taken in consideration for the effective website design.
    1. Analysis
    2. Process Methodology

    http://www.idslogic.com/web-design.html

    0
  41. 13546

    Websites must be relatable to users.the design itself is useless if the content is not relevant to user”s needs in gathering information. Ideally, it is said that websites like any other technology-related stuff must be “user friendly”. Good thing that in modern time, there is an easy access to refer any problems regarding innovative approaches relating to web designs.

    1
  42. 13847

    Thank you very much for sharing these informative tips.I think Web site design and organization is based on the goals you have for your site and the needs of your viewers

    -2
  43. 14148

    Nice read, I especially like number 8, communicating properly makes a huge difference. I think this guy makes some of the same very valid points http://www.redcherryinc.ca/services-software-development-calgary.php

    -1
  44. 14449

    fantastic article, im very happy for find this beutifull content. bravo

    0
  45. 14750

    Great article, so many in-depth points that people should consider when involved in the design of a website. So many of these points are not taken seriously enough and could make the difference between a site failing or being a success.

    -1
  46. 15051

    Great article! Very informative! However, there are a lot of grammatical errors. It’s a virtual epidemic throughout so many design articles. Your advise looks like Web design 101, year 1995. Get a refresher course.

    -6

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