When you were a kid, doing something because "everyone else does" was rarely a good idea. But now that you're grown and designing Web sites, the situation has changed. If "everyone else" designs pages using certain rules, so should you. Here's why.
There's No Time To Learn
People are willing to spend time learning certain skills: driving an automobile, using a software package, playing a game. But few visitors have enough time (or interest) to learn how to use a Web site.
Now it's ok - even recommended - to play copycat! Look at what works for other sites and learn from their success. Large, successful sites use certain design techniques that most visitors expect and are comfortable with. Web visitors are like houseguests: the more comfortable you make them feel, the longer they're likely to hang around.
It's easier than you think to adhere to common design expectations. Just think about where you expect to find links, search boxes, and other information on a Web page. Think about sites that are particularly easy to read online and navigate through. Then look for common characteristics.
Meet Visitors' Expectations
Make sure that you've considered these important elements and their placement on your Web pages - particularly your home page.
1. Contrast and readability: A light background with dark text is the standard because it's legible and easy to read for an extended period. It's also easier to print if visitors want a hard copy of your article or product description.
Remember that people read differently online because it's more tiring on the eyes. Good contrast and readable text helps keep visitors at your site longer.
2. Logo link and placement: Place your site's logo at the top middle or left-hand side of the home page. Then create a smaller version of the logo, make it a link to your home page, and place it in the top, left corner of every other page in your site.
3. Search box position: You'll need a site search function for large sites or sites containing a lot of different products, articles and information. Place the search box on the home page in a prominent spot or provide a clear link to a special search page as part of your main navigation menu.
4. Site navigation structure and location: Be sure that your navigation menu looks like navigation! Place your most important links either as a top navigation bar or on the left-hand side of the page.
Always remember to include alternate text links (usually at the bottom of the page) if you're using image-based or DHTML navigation. Those text links are valuable to visitors using assistive technologies or visitors surfing with images turned off in their browsers.
5. Use language visitors understand: Your links and link titles should be descriptive. Avoid obscure language and use link text that clearly describes the destination.
Jakob Neilsen and Marie Tahir's book Designing Homepage Usability notes the most common language used by the sites they evaluated. Use it as a guideline to select the best text for your navigation links.
Note that some labels give you several options. The site sign in or login label doesn't appear to have a standard yet. But you'd certainly want to label your company contact link "Contact Us."
Find Unexpected Problems With Regular Testing
While you may think you've covered every visitor expectation, laid out a foolproof navigation structure, and created content that every visitor - even a small child - can understand, don't bet on it.
The only way to be sure that you've met users' expectations is through usability testing. It's a process that should begin early and continue all the way to your site's launch date. Testing early and often is the best way to avoid expensive and time-consuming changes later.
But as useful and necessary as usability testing is, it isn't the only testing you need to do. Remember that your visitors will be using a variety of operating systems, screen resolutions, browsers, and even browser versions. There are so many options that you could go broke trying to set up a testing lab like those used by the big sites.
Or, you could test your site using Browser Photo. It gives you the resources of a professional testing lab without the expense. You can view actual screen shots of your Web pages in 16 different browser, screen resolution, and operating system combinations.
With just a little planning and effort, you can design a Web site that looks great in all browsers, works like visitors expect it to, and uses language they understand. That's a winning combination that will keep people coming back to your site for more.