The Right Stuff
1. Descriptive tag lines: "Right from the home page, some companies don't do a good job of communicating what their companies do," says Hoa Loranger, a user experience specialist at the Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, California. "If your business name isn't descriptive, you need a descriptive tag line."
2. Excellent content: Vincent Flanders, whose WebPagesThatSuck.com shines a light on bad website design, says, "You can get anyone to visit your website once, but why would anybody come back a second, third or fourth time? Content. Great content solves problems."
3. Edited text: "The gap between presentation and what users actually read is, by far, the most pervasive problem in web usability today, and among the easiest to fix," says Eric Anderson, director of agency services at White Horse Productions in Portland, Oregon. "Estimate the absolute least amount of text your users will read on your site, then cut that in half. Keep your font size at 10 points or above and your paragraph size at 120 words or [fewer]."
4. Simple design: "Overusing colors, fonts and graphics creates clutter and keeps people from focusing on your information," says Loranger. "The minimalist approach makes a site appear more professional."
5. Using text hyperlinks: If you want to feature something, use a text hyperlink instead of a graphic, says Loranger. "People have trained themselves to look away from graphics and rectangular boxes because they look like advertising," she says. "Designers include graphical elements to grab people's attention, but they backfire."
6. Consistent layout: "Each page or section should have the same general look," says Flanders. "Don't have navigation at the top in one section and on the left side in another section."
7. Sticking with what works: Certain web conventions put visitors at ease and help turn them into customers. For instance, put your logo at the top-left corner of every page, the search engine in the first screen at the top right, and make sure all links are clearly labeled.
8. A focus on search: A site's search function is the user's lifeline--the more lost at sea he feels, the more he'll grab for it, says Anderson. "If your web analytics show a high proportion of users going to that lifeline, chances are your navigation isn't doing the job," he says. "You need to attack the problem on two fronts: gather usability data to improve your navigation, and make your search function the best it can be."
9. Guided search: "The technique known as 'faceted' or 'guided' search is a must for sites with heavy catalog or product content," says Anderson. "It's a way of displaying search results according to the product categories they fall into."
10. Designing for users: "Don't assume your target audience has the same skill set or likes the same things you do," says Loranger. Instead, perform a usability test with three to six average customers. Have them test the site by doing specific tasks, such as browsing the site for shoes and then buying them.
Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.