If you regard yourself as a professional Web site designer, then you need to be aware of, and then follow, these 13 design rules for building effective Web sites.
If you ignore these rules, your clients will be looking elsewhere when it's time to update the features and contents of their sites.
Rule 1 Eliminate annoying features
The quickest way of aggravating visitors to a site is to "pop" up a new window each time that they enter and/or leave the site. If the message that your client is trying to convey is that important, incorporate it instead into the site's home page in an attractive and less annoying fashion.
A second way of upsetting a lot of people is to have a piece of music start playing when the site's home page appears. You (or the client that you're supposed to be advising professionally) might like the music, but a large percentage of visitors won't.
Even if visitors do like the musical selection that has been chosen, it's most likely that it won't be appropriate for them to listen to it anyway. Listening to music in a busy office, even if headphones are used, is generally not a practice that's acceptable to many employers.
Rule 2 Ban poor navigation
It should be easy for visitors to find their way around a Web site. Before you unleash any new site on an unsuspecting public, conduct some usability tests to determine just how long, and what effort it takes, for people to browse the contents of the site.
Once a site starts to grow in complexity, consider adding a site map, which lists the major features of the site, along with a Frequently Answered Questions section where visitors can turn to for immediate help.
And under no circumstances should you disable the browser's "Back" button in Microsoft Internet Explorer (or the equivalent button in other browsers) in such a way that it prevents people returning to a site that they've previously visited.
Rule 3 Choose the right colours
Picking bright colours for both the background of a Web page and for the text to be displayed on it simply won't work. Neither will the overuse of colours on pages. Remember too that a not-insignificant proportion of the general public suffer from a variety of sight-related problems.
If you don't know how to select the right colour combinations for a Web site, get professional help, or at least read one of the many Web site design books that explain colour selection. An excellent book is "Creating Killer Web Sites" and you'll find its companion Web site at http://www.killersites.com On the home page, click the "design tips" link to read about the "Color Cube" as well as other colour tips.
Rule 4 Avoid the cluttered look
Most people don't like working at a messy, cluttered desk in an office or at home. So don't assemble Web pages that look like pieces of information have been hastily thrown together higgledy-piggledy.
Don't overpower visitors to a site by cramming too much information onto Web pages. Instead, use progressive disclosure to reveal information as visitors either need it or request it. But don't bury vital information so deep into a Web site that they have to follow half a dozen or more links before they can access it.
Rule 5 Make contact a click away
Unfortunately, visitors to many sites can now only provide feedback or ask questions by filling in an online form. A lot of people don't like forms. It could be that a form doesn't answer the specific need that they have. More often though, forms are usually time-consuming and boring to fill in, and sometimes ask for information that visitors don't want to reveal.
If your client insists on using a form on a site, also provide an e-mail address link that people can simply click to provide a quick, unstructured message.
Rule 6 Be consistent
Don't make the common mistake of having one part of the site's interface behave differently to another part.
For example, when displaying lists of information, such as titles of articles to read or names of staff members to contact, always include a "Top" link at the bottom of the list that, when clicked, positions the visitor back to the top of the list. It's infuriating to visit a site that sometimes uses such a function but only in an arbitrary fashion, that is, it is not consistently used at the bottom of all lists.
Rule 7 Give visitors a reason to return
A lot of Web designers get so caught up in designing the most striking Web site, using the latest technology, that they forget one of the most important rules. That is, unless a site can be easily maintained, and have new, fresh content regularly appear there, visitors won't return to it. While appearance is obviously important, nothing guarantees a site's success more than high quality, up-to-date content.
Rule 8 It should be obvious
Like me, you've probably visited Web sites that you've had no idea what their purpose was! It should only take a matter of seconds for visitors to understand what a particular site does, and whether or not it can be of use to them.
Rule 9 Don't write a novel
The content of Web pages needs to be written in a specific way - short, jargon-free and to the point. Visitors to a Web site don't read online content the same way that they read the pages of a book.
If the information on the Web page doesn't grab them immediately, and doesn't continue to hold their attention, they'll click their mouse and move to a different site (usually a competitor site of your client). Where it's impossible to avoid jargon, provide an online glossary on the site in a highly visible location.
Rule 10 Short download times
While it's true that a picture may indeed be "worth a thousand words", too many pictures and graphics included on a Web page will result in excessive download times. People who browse the Web are not renowned for their patience, and they will just not tolerate sites that take too long to appear on their computer's monitor.
Rule 11 Drive the site with a database
Unless your client has requested a simple site, in terms of content, you should seriously consider designing and building a database driven site.
You can then write routines that allow your client (or staff) to update the database's tables with a minimum of effort. Subsequently, if the site is properly structured and configured, the updated information in the tables should then automatically appear in the appropriate locations on the site's pages.
Rule 12 Don't use technology just because it's there
A self- explanatory rule - if the technology being deployed doesn't enhance the appearance or functionality of the site, don't use it.
Rule 13 Test, test, and then test some more
No-one likes testing the functionality of a Web site.
Testing takes a long time, it's boring and it takes a lot of effort and thought to get it right. But if a site doesn't work as it's expected to, it won't make matter if it looks great or it's got the latest and hottest information. Visitors will lose confidence in it and go elsewhere on the Web.
Learn from others
In conclusion, most of us learn best by good example. But with Web site design, there's a lot to be gained from closely examining Web sites that have been poorly designed. Here are three sites that specialise in highlighting both "bad" sites and unacceptable design techniques:
- "Vincent Flanders' Web Pages That Suck" (www.webpagesthatsuck.com)
- "Building Really Annoying Web Sites" (www.annoyingwebsites.com)
- "Worst of the Web" (www.worstoftheweb.com)
Tony Stevenson is the author of the two best selling Internet books, "The Australian Guide to the Internet" (www.mkdsoftware.com.au) and "The Australian Guide to Online Business" (www.mkdsoftware.com.au/online).
His company also publishes the two free e-mail newsletters, "Internet Update" and "Sites of the Day". These newsletters are distributed to readers in more than a dozen countries.