What Makes a Website Successful?

by on July 9, 2013

One of the most powerful concepts I’ve learned during my internship at Inverse Paradox is how to create an effective design. Before working here, I approached design in a much different way. Essentially, I would think, “How creative can I be?” After being immersed in an atmosphere with a bunch of talented people, a whole new world opened up to me. Today, I’d like to share a few key points I’ve taken to heart with my ever-evolving personal design process.

As a web community we’ve come a long way since the days of Flash-based websites. The basic function of a Flash website is to impress the user with special effects and animations. Usability gurus like Jakob Nielsen have helped push people into focusing on more than how flashy a website can be. Nowadays, the average website aims to be as functional and effective as possible.

Usability is the hot topic in the design and development world. Usability’s purpose is to make something as easy to use as possible. Seems like common sense, right? The more I learn about websites and their functionality, the more I realize that it isn’t only the visual design that matters but the thought process designers took when creating it. There are some hideous sites out there and yet, they still fulfill their basic purpose in that they are usable. Craigslist is the perfect example. Millions of people use it and yet, what does the design look like? Blue text links with a plain white background.

It all comes down to these basic points:

1. Focusing on a product’s goals.
Not only applicable to website design, focusing on a product’s goals can and should be applied to any design process; whether it’s designing an online shop for prom dresses, a box for cupcakes, a billboard ad, magazine layouts, or business cards. The most important aspect before a designer can take “pen to paper” (or Photoshop) is to understand the product’s function and goal. Without this knowledge, they’re just painting a pretty picture.

Let’s take Amazon for example. Amazon’s goal as a company is to provide the most tailored shopping experience–with the end goal of a customer buying as many products as possible. The Amazon team set out to design a homepage that is highly flexible, yet also predicable. By utilizing previous searches and previous purchases made by a user, Amazon creates an individual homepage for each user with items he/she may be interested in.

2. Who is the target audience?

When designing anything, understanding the target audience is crucial to the design’s success. This can be, but is not limited to things like:

  • Literally–who is the user? Age? Sex? Demographic? Etc.
  • Where are they interacting with your design? On which devices?
  • What are their motives in using your design?
  • What expectations do they have and does your design meet them?

The best example for this is a Victoria Secret campaign created to drive more customers into their stores. After finding out that their target audience mostly uses a mobile device to browse the Victoria Secret website on-the-go, they developed a campaign that integrates Wi-Fi to communicate with potential customers nearby. As soon as a potential customer enters the Wi-Fi zone of one of the Victoria Secret stores, his or her phone vibrates and offers special discounts and exclusive download material.

3. Clarity
A designer’s job is to eliminate any questions a user could have. Usually this is accomplished by putting the right things in the right place to be discovered at the right time. A solid information architecture is the key. In a nutshell, group items where people expect to find them and not only will they feel more confident using your design, but they’ll prefer it over others that are harder to use.

Visual hierarchy can also play a role in meeting user’s expectations. Emphasis in design can help highlight what is most important on a page while minimizing less critical elements.

4. Simplicity
Sometimes, less is more and sometimes the simplest designs are the most thoroughly thought out. Using white space efficiently can be a challenge but is key to establishing balance. Melissa once told me to lead the user’s eyes from content area to content area. Learning how to adjust white space within a design can do wonders in helping a user locate important information quickly or provide an upscale elegance to an otherwise bland design.

The design should never distract from the message. Don’t ever let the navigation stand in the way of the user and what they came to accomplish by forcing them to learn how to use flashy dropdowns, crazy mouse over effects, and swirly, hard-to-read fonts. I’m not saying that these things don’t have their place, but they should be used sparingly and where appropriate.

5. Consistency
When used consistently throughout a website, font-style, color schemes, and icon usage are powerful tools to establish a company’s branding. Consistency in design elements across multiple web pages is also key to success. For example, if a help icon is found in the same spot on every page, a user will have no problem locating it.

Let’s look at this hypothetical online shop: Before a user will purchase products from your website, a designer needs to establish a feeling of security, confidence, and trust. If you have an e-commerce checkout page that is inconsistently branded with the rest of your website, it can cause confusion and even worse–shopping cart abandonment. Because Inverse Paradox specializes in creating online shopping experiences, I’ve been fortunate enough to learn the what to do and not do to create a positive checkout experience.

Another benefit of consistency is that it will help lessen a user’s learning curve. Using common navigation elements like dropdown menus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, because they are already familiar with how it works, it’s one less barrier getting in the way of the end goal they came to achieve. When it comes to navigation, you don’t always have to re-invent the wheel–but if you do, make sure the new design is easier to use.

6. Testing
It’s very important to realize that as a designer, you are not your user. A common pitfall of many designers is not putting their design in front of potential users. To quote Steve Krug in “Don’t Make Me Think” (a highly recommended read): “Testing one potential user is better than testing none.”

Test early in the project, not at the end. One of the benefits of working at a design studio is that there are always knowledgeable people around to give a second opinion. We are always bouncing ideas off of each other to make our designs that much stronger for our clients. This constant questioning helps us keep our designs on the right track and address any usability issues before they have a chance to present themselves in the wild.

To conclude, interning at Inverse Paradox has taught me a lot about the right combination of usability thoughts and aesthetic design elements. My main rule is to think like a potential user to eliminate any usability issues, because every second a user is trying to learn how to work your website, is a second they are not engaging with your product.

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