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 Link

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? Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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” Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

Footnotes Link

  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 UX, front-end and performance problems in large companies. Get in touch.

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  1. 1

    Great Article!

    2
  2. 2

    10. Test early, test often

    This has to be the best tip!

    Thank you for this smashing-roundup!

    0
  3. 3

    Raj from BlogHash.com

    January 31, 2008 8:42 am

    Wonderful. Bookmarked to use it for my next website design.

    0
  4. 4

    Nice Article! Love the usability stuff!

    1
  5. 5

    Love the article, hits on some very important parts. Made may sit back and think of the things i’ve done in the past and how it affects things i do now. These type of articles makes a developer rethink the whole process of building a website. Which i think keeps your mind open to new methods.

    2
  6. 6

    Good advise. It’s always good to take a step back from design, personal taste etc to make sure that it is easy to use for the audience. My toughest critic is my dad ie someone who is not all that web saavy. But a lot of the time this is our audience, someone who is not all that good with computers.

    Thanks for the article

    1
  7. 7

    I’m still amazed I wasn’t reading your website before. Thanks a lot.

    1
  8. 8

    Wow nice article. I didn’t think so much about these. Thanks for the article

    0
  9. 9

    Really helpful article.

    0
  10. 10

    GREAT STUFF.

    This is definitively going on my post.

    2
  11. 11

    This article is frustrating for 10 + 1 reasons almost:
    -1 “Usability and the utility, not the design, determine the success or failure of a web-site.”
    Usability and the utility are the design. If by design you mean decoration, that too has a rich history filled with meaning.

    0 How do users think?
    That’s like asking “How do people think?”. they think in all kinds of ways, rational, irrational, quickly, slowly, etc. There is no point in asking this question because the answers are infinite. I agree with this statement “users follow their intuition”, which is totally unpredictable.

    1 “Don’t make users think”
    That’s right people. Strive for the status quo and the familiar. Do what has been done before and make sure people are comfortable. Wear your khakis and polo shirts.
    Making something “obvious and self-explanatory” doesn’t hinge on simplicity or how much someone has to ‘think’.

    2 “Don’t squander users’ patience”
    Okay. How will you know what will make them impatient?

    3 “Manage to focus users’ attention”
    This is all adding up to a Target commercial.

    4 “Strive for feature exposure”
    What?

    5 “Make use of effective writing”
    Even if it us unnecessary. Just put it in somewhere.

    6 “Strive for simplicity”
    Strive for whatever you want. Do something crazy. Do something dumb. Do something elegant. Do something messy. They are all valuable.

    7 “Don’t be afraid of the white space”
    Don’t be afraid to dump everything you own into a pile on your living-room floor. It will probably be more interesting than lots of white space.

    8 “Communicate effectively with a “visible language” ”

    9 “Conventions are our friends”
    Here, Here, for mediocrity!

    10 “Test early, test often”
    Just wing it. It will force you to be creative and maybe do something you’ve never done before.

    -11
  12. 12

    @theSupermarket: you have no idea what you are talking about.

    3
  13. 13

    The above poster proves the point that you can never make EVERYONE happy….but atleast they were able to get out their frustrations by posting that lengthy list.

    Hope you feel better now.

    :)

    0
  14. 14

    I agree with Thomassl

    -1
  15. 15

    Great article even if the first part was featured in another article (that I actually printed in COLOR with my expensive HP printer, but I don’t care, totally worth it).

    -1
  16. 16

    Amazing.. !! this is a real good reference for my upcoming projects !

    5
  17. 17

    I really love this stuff :)

    -6
  18. 18

    Thank you for this article!

    It’s really useful for new webdesigners!

    0
  19. 19

    Great stuff, keep on the good work! :)

    0
  20. 20

    Wonderful article…best one I have read this week (and I read a lot of them). Thank you for sharing such great information.

    0
  21. 21

    If you need a good sample website for #6, you should use kokokaka.com as opposed to crcbus… especially considering when crcbus ripped off kokokaka, they documented it in their ‘style of the day’ area. :)

    0
  22. 22

    I don’t agree with you in that first point. Sometimes users have to think about websites. It’s about content that matters. And about development of our work. There has been a basic article by Larissa Meek at Devlounge about metaphors in website design and content. I really didn’t like it when i read it the first time. But actually i do think that we have to think about it. Maybe it’s up for transcending designs? How can we bring the web one step further without changing ourselves and our work?

    Stefan

    -3
  23. 23

    This is what I call a Qualitative Post .

    Great Job!

    0
  24. 24

    Very good article! All communication professionals should read it.

    -3
  25. 25

    Outstanding article!

    -1
  26. 26

    Great article except I read #7 (don’t be afraid of whitespace) and I wonder whatever happened to the nice flow that SM used to be. The damn column is so narrow now that there’s either too much whitespace (on the right) or not enough (on the left).

    -1
  27. 27

    I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly follow any web design suggestions from a site as poorly designed as this one. One narrow column and a page full of ads? You’ve got to be kidding me!

    -3
  28. 28

    Surely, usability is objective. What works for some people might not for others..and unless your data sample is huge, you cant make statements as such. That said, the trends above are a damn good basis to work from.

    -1
  29. 29

    Great, really great,
    I’m especially amazed with the “don’t be afraid of the white space-part”; in the 11th and 12th century architects and artist put many paintings and sculptures in the interior of churches, not only to teach the illiterate folk, but also to avert the “HORROR VACUUI”, the fear of empty space, empty walls…. many centuries later Malevich did the complete opposite. The white square on white.
    It’s obvious this article is made by a proffesional!!!
    Marko, BA in arts+web designer
    Croatia

    -1
  30. 30

    nice article, does anyone know the font used for the finch logo fresh creative? Its pretty sweet. I wanna buy it.

    0
  31. 31

    Great resource! Really useful stuff.

    0
  32. 32

    I like the advice to strive for simplicity. I enjoy visiting sites that don’t over complicate things. Thanks for another great article.

    5
  33. 33

    extreme webmaster

    January 31, 2008 4:54 pm

    Useful stuff. Applicable in all areas where there is any human-machine interaction involved. And Steve Krug’s book rules. He is a master – he explained these concepts in a way so simple, entertaining and clear, that his book is really a classic.

    -2
  34. 34

    10 point you have to follow

    -3
  35. 35

    Super article. I really think that we as web developers must focus on keeping things simple. Remember the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)!

    0
  36. 37

    a great and comprehensive article, I’ve to keep in mind with my further designs

    -2
  37. 38

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. I have been a web developer for quite some time and ideas presented here are very much welcome.

    -2
  38. 39

    Nice Article!.. i really do find some sites that looks nice and eyecandies but its usability specially rule no.”1″.. many of them leaves questions like “what the hell does that mean?” and “what’s this site really do?”, this article is really a big help for me to understand more about usability. Thanks!

    -3
  39. 40

    Yes, the people were impatient…
    When see a site with great content, they wants to get a lot of information site fast…
    So, it’s good to structured the navigation to help the people…

    This is really great explanation about web-design principle.

    -1
  40. 41

    Great, all-around tips for designers!

    -1
  41. 42

    The 4th bullet under the “How do users think?” headline reads:
    “As soon as they find a link that seems like it might lead to the goal, there is a very good change that it will be immediately clicked.”

    Is it me or doesn’t it seem it should read: “… there is a very good chance that it will be immediately clicked.” ???

    Great article though, Just wish authors would catch this kind of thing, it’s starting to get old.

    — Micah

    -1
  42. 43

    err… ok, so.. how you can have a note like this,, and not a “share it” link?.. i want to send this note to someone… didnt find the “share it” feature…..??!!!!

    this is a “do what i say must not what i do” sample =P

    1
  43. 44

    Spyros Papaspyropoulos

    February 1, 2008 1:38 am

    Great article! Some things written in it had never crossed my mind.
    Many thanks for this!

    -1
  44. 45

    I mean its simply great… really loved the article..

    0
  45. 46

    Superb Article.
    Provides great insights into a subject which is usually not given much consideration.

    0
  46. 47

    Good points! I’ve have a look to my site from this perspective! Thx

    0
  47. 48

    Good work! Interesting and complete.

    0
  48. 49

    I definetly will save this for future reference. Great writing guys! Thanks.

    0
  49. 50

    cool work! i enjoy it!

    0
  50. 51

    Awesome article! Comes right when i need it the most. Thanks SM!

    0

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