Sometimes I’ll just stare at a website for minutes on end, trying to figure out why it’s so confusing. Unfortunately, most websites we visit are far more complex than they need to be. I don’t mean complex in terms of functionality, but in terms of all the types of content you are confronted with on a single page. In addition to the basics—a logo, navigation menus, page title, the main content, and one or two calls to action—most web pages are simply overrun with advertisements, social media widgets, and lures to even more (supposedly related) content. Follow these tips to cut the clutter.
1. Reduce the bling. Upon first glance at a web page, visitors make a quick, subtle judgment that, I believe, goes something like this: “Look at all those fancy widgets. They must have a team of programmers working night and day on this thing! Woah, Bing ads. They’re connected, and rich!” These eyesores just encourage bad design to flourish on the web.
2. Purpose should be a guiding principle of web design. Suppose books were designed without purpose. Gone would be the days of settling in to a good story: When squeezed into a narrow column of text, that narrative would be drowned out by the noise of surrounding advertisements. Before you could dive into a tale, you’d be pulled away by the promise of another. “Who’s Pip’s secret sponsor? Oooh, A Tale of Two Cities sounds good. I wonder if I can get that on my Kindle…” No reader would ever finish a book.
3. Allow users to read. Currently, the big players on the web receive such a large volume of traffic that crowding their pages with as many opportunities to click makes statistical sense. When hundreds of thousands of users access a web page on a daily basis, it’s highly probable that a significant number of them will click a link (any link will do) that either continues their visit or sends them elsewhere via a paid advertisement. Either scenario is valuable to the site’s owner, but not the user. Instead, focus on making the viewer’s experience more satisfying.
4. Highlight quality and relevant information for viewers. Give new and top content proper placement to direct viewers’ attention to what they are looking for. This placement does not need to be image or widget heavy.
5. Satisfying web experiences rely upon focused attention, the kind you need in order to read and comprehend text. The more a page is divided by non-overlapping, attention-seeking magisteria, the less likely it is to win your attention for the long-term. While mass-media sites can profit from visitors that are mostly just passing through, smaller sites need to cultivate visitors who will stay a while by creating an environment conducive to their focused attention. Remember, most websites offer content to inform and inspire prospective customers of a product or service.
6. Effective web design and good business are not mutually exclusive, but that case must be made in light of what most web users are used to. If a bigger, more established competitor employs certain tactics that make sense given its large volume of traffic, the question of whether to adopt a similar approach should be answered on the basis of reasonable expectations. Few websites see explosive growth overnight, and those that do struggle to sustain it. If you’re the little guy, the smart thing to do is realize that the audience you’re after has already given some of its attention to the big guy. To win (and keep) their attention, you’re going to need to do things differently from your competitors, things that fall in line with the unique purpose of your website, which is where good web design starts.
Learn more about the principles of effective web design—including topics such as information architecture, well-chosen fonts, adaptive web design, site analytics and more—at the 2012 HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco, October 29–31.