Website design tips

Website basics

The first question to ask yourself when designing your website is, "Who will be looking at my website, and why?"

Two main reasons people visit websites are:

  • They are going to your website for specific information about your business or organization.
  • They are searching for information on a particular topic, or for a particular product or service.

The first group is easy to design a website for - simply include all the information about your business or organization that people may want to know (consider the common types of questions you get over the phone):

  • Name and address (with a link to a map if appropriate).
  • Hours you are open (do your hours change seasonally or during holidays?).
  • Contact information: phone, email, fax.
  • Products you carry or services you provide, with pricing information.

For the second group, you'll want to provide more detailed information about who you are, and what you offer.  Let's say you have a store with needlepoint supplies, and want a website.  Some of your website visitors will already be familiar with needlepointing, and simply want information on your store hours and what you carry.

However, other website visitors may be new to needlepointing, and will benefit from more basic information as well: what is needlepointing; what types of supplies are needed and why; why are there so many different types of needles, fabrics and threads, and how do you know which to use; what are some good beginner projects; and what makes your store different or special (personalized service, many years of experience, beginner and advanced classes, ....).

Whether your website is large or small, it should - above all else - be clear and logical.  Present your information in such a way that people will easily be able to find the information they're looking for.  I once spent about 15 minutes at a the website of a major (national) company trying to find their address (to send them a letter).  I believe I finally found it buried in some obscure subsection under 'investor information'.  Good web design would have ensured that such basic information was much easier to find.

Your main page should have links to all the basic website sections, and every page should (at a minimum) have a link back to the main page.  How many basic website sections should you have?  The less the better, as long as they're descriptive enough.  From four to ten is a good general guideline.  For extensive websites, a 'site map' page is a good idea, containing a link (and sometimes a brief description) for every page on the site.

Animated GIFs (moving images), scrolling text, counters, and other effects are fun, but don't use so many that they take attention away from the information you want your visitors to see.  A bunch of bubbles (or anything else) following your mouse pointer around is cute, sure - for the first couple of minutes.  After that, it gets really annoying!

Music and sound effects are special effects that belong in their own category.  Some things to remember about music are: many computers in public computer areas (such as libraries) have sound disabled and will be unable to hear your theme song or wolf howl; and some visitors are checking out your website from work, where a sudden blast of music - announcing to the entire office that they are checking out Internet websites - may not be all that welcome.  Some websites use sound to good effect - for instance, clicking on various birds to find out what their calls sound like.  For most websites, however, music seems to be used 'because they can'.  If you absolutely must use sounds or music on your website, make it a user option - have the audio controls visible so your visitors can choose whether or not to play them.

Flash can do some wonderful things, but remember that it will make your website inaccessible to some visitors.  Some firewalls (especially at businesses) prevent Flash from coming through, and those on dial-up access may not be willing (or able to afford) to wait the 5 to 15 minutes it can take to download a Flash movie or effect.  If you want to use Flash anyway, go ahead - but please add a text link to a non-Flash version of your site, to help maximize the number of visitors able to view your website.

Frames are one way to control how your website displays.  In a frame website, often one section ('frame') of the screen stays the same (usually with a list of links), and the information is presented in another section. While it may seem to be an advantage, remember that it also has the side effect of downsizing the amount of screen available for your information (since some of the screen will always be taken up by the 'links' frame).
     Frames can be difficult to design well, as different browsers and varying screen resolutions can make your carefully-laid-out pages display very differently than the way you planned.  Be sure to check your frame website with as many different browsers and screen resolutions as you can, to make sure it still looks good.  If frames cannot be resized (and sometimes, even if they can be), your visitors will often have to scroll side-to-side to see your information, and that tends to get really annoying to most people.  Frames can also make it difficult or impossible for your visitors to easily print out pages from your website.  As with Flash, it's nice to have a link to a non-frames version of your website.

Make sure that your text is visible (contrasts well) against your background.  Remember that links usually change color, depending on whether they're unvisited, visited, or active - make sure they're visible in all three colors.  Be aware that some text/background combinations may be unreadable if a visitor is colorblind.  And some combinations may be visible, but not practical, like white text on a black background (this combination can be difficult to read, and may not print correctly).

Your website should be kept up to date.  This doesn't necessarily mean daily or weekly updates, especially if your products or services don't change much throughout the year.  However, any references to time should be kept current, or else you run the risk of "Check out our new Christmas merchandise" still on your page in March!  You either need to update phrases like this frequently, or use wording that would be appropriate any time of the year, such as "Check us out for all your special occasion and holiday shopping - great new items arrive all year round!"

For ideas, check out the websites of businesses or organizations similar to yours.  Notice which layouts make it easy to find information - and which make it difficult.  Are there common main sections for information?  Notice the use of any pictures or animated images - do they fit well with the pages and add visual interest, or are they overwhelmingly large, slow-loading, or so many that they're annoying?  A good sampling of several websites should help you pick out design elements you'll want to use - and those you'll want to avoid.