Good Web Design Pays Dividends

To avoid gaffes, analyze traffic, poll visitors and look at rivals' sites, eWEEK Labs recommends.

More and more, a companys Web site is its primary public face for customers, partners and clients. But eWEEK Labs daily browsing experiences show that many businesses dont put enough work into the design and structure of their Web site.

Web users can probably rattle off a list of sites they find unfriendly and difficult to use and navigate—as well as a list of sites that are intuitive and easy to browse and that, not surprisingly, keep them coming back. All businesses, especially those that rely on Web visitors for profit, should do everything they can to make sure they are on that second list of user-friendly and well-designed sites.

However, for large businesses, achieving good Web site design is easier said than done. Corporations, especially those that derive revenue from the Web, face many challenges that can interfere with good Web design. These can include the need to incorporate and work with older Web-based content, which may be several site redesigns old; complications or restrictions caused by the Web CMS (content management system); and conflicting requirements from different departments in the company.

For sites that use Web ads, theres the added challenge of balancing the desires and demands of advertisers with the need to provide a friendly Web site for visitors.

None of these challenges is insurmountable. With proper planning and management, site administrators can easily avoid the misplaced content, navigational dead ends and clutter that plague the worst Web sites.

A wealth of information

Unless you are a brand-new company, you already have a Web site in place. While this can cause headaches and limitations in redesigning the site, it can also provide a wealth of information when it comes to planning and researching potential design and usability changes for the site.

The two most useful elements will be the sites traffic logs and its regular visitor base. Many administrators never go beyond the basic traffic numbers in Web site analysis, but site designers who look deeper will find valuable insights into how visitors use the links and content on a companys site.

A good first step is to use traffic path analysis tools to look for dead ends and infrequently used click-paths. Also, many current Web analysis tools provide page analysis that enables administrators to look at a Web page and see the traffic numbers for every link on the page.

If a link isnt getting clicked, it could mean users arent interested in the content, but it could also mean they cant find the link or that its poorly placed in the site. Check through all historical logs to see if the linked content had more traffic in previous site designs.

In addition, if youre concerned about whether your current site design is working or if planned changes will work, go directly to the source and poll your site visitors. Simple giveaways are often enough to get visitors to fill out a Web-based poll form. However, we advise caution when designing this poll: Make sure the poll isnt leading visitors to the answers you want, instead of to the ones you need.

A good technique is to leverage the disagreements you may already have in-house. If different site developers or groups are regularly at odds over site design decisions, have them collaborate on the questionnaire. It may take a little longer to create, but it will most likely be more balanced.

For new companies, research can be more difficult because they have no historical data or current users. For these sites we recommend resisting the urge to launch with a big, splashy site and to instead start with a simple, flexible design.

Administrators should constantly analyze usage and talk to visitors during the first few months, regularly tweaking the site design to maximize both usability and visitor traffic.

Probably the most common sources of good research and design ideas (although many site designers will never admit it) are competing and similar Web sites. A good site designer can learn from the techniques and designs of other Web sites without stealing their site design outright.

In the William Gibson book "All Tomorrows Parties," a character remarks that the flashier a Web site is, the greater the chance that theres a dinky, nothing company behind it. Given the ease with which site developers can add multimedia, Flash and crawling ads, the temptation to go overboard is always there. But you wouldnt fill your company lobby with neon signs or televisions blaring commercials, and you wouldnt make it so cluttered that visitors couldnt find their way through it.

Next Page: The case for KISS.