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Designing a website

Step 2 - Designing your site

Designing for the user

The success of your site rests quite literally in the hands of your users. So when you're designing a site, you need to focus on what your users want to do, not what you want to say. After all, your website is for your users, not you. And the more you think about them—their goals, their expectations, their abilities—the more effective your design will be.


4 steps to user-centered design:

  • Focus on the user and the user's goals. You can't design a usable site unless you know how it will be used. Understanding the audience should be your top priority.

  • Provide intuitive pathways through the site. After you know what users want, help them find it through the organization of content, the order of events, the labeling of links. Well-designed sites lead users down clear paths to what they want.

  • Follow interface conventions. Over the past 10 years, conventions have evolved for how sites look and behave. If you follow them, users will understand your site more quickly.

  • Test! Test! Test! No matter how much you know about how people use the web, you'll always be surprised by what you find.


User-centered design begins at the beginning: with the user's needs and goals. "Everything that happens on the site—whether it's structure, or labeling, or visual design—should be appropriate to the specific users you're designing for," says Steve Mulder, Manager of User Experience for Terra-Lycos.

The biggest mistakes, he said, happen when companies fail to recognize "the importance of designing a product based on user needs."


And you don't learn what users need through usability testing alone. Usability tests come at the end of the design process, but user research should begin before you start designing.


User-centered design begins at the beginning: with the user's needs and goals.

"Design is now inseparable from user research," said Veen. "We literally do nothing until we talk to people. We try to go into a project with no assumptions, and just hear how people approach the task."


"Unless you are, for some reason, designing a website for yourself to use, you've got to talk to the people who are going to use it. You've got to!" Veen said. "That's the difference between art and design, right? If you want to make art, that's great. But if you're going to design things for people to use, then it's a totally different process."


And this process can be harder than it sounds. "The idea of a user-centered approach to design is very simple," says Nadav Savio, principal with Giant Ant Design. "I think people generally understand it, but people mistake the simplicity of the idea with the idea that it's simple to do. It can actually be incredibly hard."


"A lot of time you'll ask, 'What's best for the user?' and it's a difficult question to answer because there isn't one monolithic user. Even if you know exactly who's going to use your site—and even if you're only designing for two people—it can be hard to figure out what works best for those two people. Even if you ask them. People are not always good at knowing what's going to work best for them."


So user-centered design requires not only research, but also good instincts and common sense. "You need to balance user research with the fact that you're a smart person, and you can make your own decisions," Veen said.


Putting the user first?

10 ways to make your site more usable

  1. Think about the user. This is perhaps the most obvious statement you could make about website usability, but it's also the most important. Web designers should not only understand their user's goals and needs, but also put themselves in the user's shoes and imagine what it's like, for instance, to be on a 15-inch monitor, on a dial-up connection, with the kids screaming in the background.

  2. Follow conventions. Over the last 10 years, conventions have evolved for where things should appear and how they should look on a web page. (Think of the shopping cart icon in the upper-right corner.) These conventions are your friend. They save you the trouble of reinventing the wheel with every site you build; they allow you to assume some basic user knowledge. They allow you to focus on your unique design challenges, rather than having to twiddle around with the placement of each icon.

  3. Label things clearly. The specific words you use to label site sections can determine whether or not they're used. People rarely click on things they don't understand, so site sections should be named clearly and intuitively. Resist the urge to make up clever little names that need an explanation.

  4. Avoid jargon. Every industry and every company has its own jargon for describing its business and the world. Unless you're building an intranet, you'll need to translate everything into a language the rest of us can understand.

  5. Don't use your org chart as site navigation. Too often companies divvy up their websites to mirror their organizational structure, assigning a link on the home page to each department. This might satisfy internal politics, but it rarely serves the user.

  6. Avoid lengthy instructions. Unless you're building an interface to a complicated, specialized application that's essential to its users, your site shouldn't require lengthy instructions—largely because people won't bother to read them. "Resorting to instructions is an admission of failure," says professor Michael Twidale of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

  7. Pay attention to detail. When it comes to a user interface, details count. Seemingly small matters like alignment and labels can make a big difference in user comprehension.

  8. Make links look clickable. This is a simple rule, but it sure makes sense: If you'd like people to click something on your site, make sure they know it's clickable. Links should look like links. (They should be underlined.) Buttons should look like buttons.

  9. Focus on organization more than navigation. Your site's navigation—the visual elements that guide the user—is important, but the site structure is more important. If your underlying organization doesn't make sense to users, no amount of visual ingenuity will make it work.

  10. Test, test, test! The best way to improve the usability of your site is to test it with real users and modify the site to reflect what you learn.


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