Developing User-Focused Websites
The success of any website ultimately hinges on its users. Without visitors a website will be unable to produce value for its owners. As a result, users should be the focal point of web development efforts.
The key to developing user-focused websites is being aware of what your visitors/users will be looking for, and then providing answers to their questions, solutions to their problems, and present it in a way that is easy for them to process.
1 – Benefit from repeat visitors
2 – Are more likely to get referral traffic
3 – Are more likely to get inbound links from other websites
4 – Leave visitors with a positive impression of the business/website
5 – Offer a pleasant all-around experience, which includes valuable content, attractive design, appropriate colors, ease of navigation, efficient performance, etc.
User-focused websites are not:
1 – Aimed solely at making money
2 – More interested in advertisers than visitors
3 – Developed only for search engines and not for human visitors
When developing a website the first step you must take towards being user-focused is to know who you are targeting. What level of knowledge will they have on your subject/topic? What will they be looking for when they arrive at your website? How can you provide them with what they are looking for and give them a positive experience?
I have broken down the characteristics of a user-focused website in the following categories:
The most obvious part of being user-focused is providing content that visitors will want to find. Having useful information on your website is a necessity if you hope to build a successful site.
What determines if content is valuable? That depends on the type of the website and what you are trying to accomplish. An artist might have a website that primarily consists of a portfolio and artwork that is for sale. The portfolio would serve as the content that an artist’s visitors would most likely want to see. A restaurant might post its hours of operation, a menu, driving directions, and some coupons. Our website, for example, uses blog articles and some other resources as content to draw visitors. Just about any website in any industry can benefit from quality blog content. The type of content may vary from one website to another, but it must satisfy the users that it is targeting.
A big part of having content that is user-focused is developing content that is effectively written for the web. Reading online is much different than reading from a book. I won’t go in depth on this topic because I have already written a post 10 Keys to Effective Writing for the Web, but the most important point to remember is that when reading online most people only scan the content. Make your content easy to scan (with headings, lists, bold font, short paragraphs, etc.) and your content will be more useful to the user.
Your website should provide a way for visitors to contact you. Most websites accomplish this by using a contact form while others simply post an email address. Whichever method you choose, it should not be difficult for visitors to find contact information. Ideally, a link to your content page should be provided from every page on your website.
If possible, allow for user interaction on your website. A few examples would be user-submitted content (such as social media sites), blogs, or even polls and surveys. When visitors become more involved they are likely to stay longer and come back more frequently. Visitors will be able to connect to a website owner more effectively if they have participated or contributed.
Part of making user interaction successful on your blog involves following up with visitors. For example, when a visitor submits a comment on your blog you can encourage future communication by following up, answering questions, responding, or just saying thanks for visiting. The internet is impersonal by nature. By focusing on communications with users you can make your website more personal and give visitors a more enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Another important aspect of communication with your visitors is keeping them up-to-date. Email lists are an easy way to be able to communicate with your users, and RSS provides the same benefits and has more capabilities than email. If you choose to publish an RSS feed don’t forget about the users who would prefer to receive communications via email instead of RSS. FeedBurner offers a free service that converts your RSS feed into email and sends it to your subscribers who have opted in. RSS and email are not only great for providing content, but they also provide a way to offer special promotions and announcements to your mailing list.
Effective navigation is an often overlooked aspect of website design. How many times have you been on a website and not been able to find what you’re looking for? Chances are you left that website and have never gone back. Complicated and illogical navigation will confuse and frustrate visitors, leaving them with no choice but to get the information somewhere else. On the contrary, effective navigation will help the user to see everything that is available on your site and it will make it easy to find.
A general rule of thumb is that every page on your site should be accessible within 2 or 3 clicks from your homepage. Pages that are buried deep into the structure of your site will be hard for your visitors to find (and also hard for search engines to find).
For larger sites there are some methods to help users find what they’re looking for quickly. First, offering a site-wide search will enable visitors to find your content that is most relevant to a particular search query. Google offers a free site-wide, customizable search engine that you can put on your website. Second, a Frequently Asked Questions page can help users by providing links to pages on your site that will answer their questions. Third, a sitemap that contains links to all of your pages, or at least the most important ones, is another good idea.
A few other guidelines to follow when developing navigation for your site are: Links should clearly indicate to the user where they will be taken if they click on the link (they may not need to know the exact page that it links to, but they should at least know what type of information they will find). Don’t make links open in a new window (just a general rule – in some situations this is necessary).
A user-focused website is committed to providing its content to visitors quickly ad easily. Anything that distracts the user from its content is counterproductive. Some examples of common distractions are:
1 – Excessive advertisements
2 – Flashy (blinking or moving) advertisements
3 – Harsh color combinations
4 – Pop ups and pop unders
5 – Audio or video that starts without being prompted by the user.
In addition to the items listed above, the user should have a consistent experience while navigating through your website. Your website should demonstrate consistency with:
1 – Fonts
2 – Colors
3 – Layout
4 – Location of navigation
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use more than one font, it means that you should use fonts consistently. For example, if you use Arial for the main text of your pages, use it consistently. If you use Georgia for headings, use it consistently. Changes to the items may seem insignificant, but they can be distracting to visitors. Drastic changes can even lead visitors to believe that they have left your site and entered another.
This part of the information is difficult to know for sure about your users before you launch your website, but with Google Analytics you can quickly get some answers after you are getting some traffic.
What is your user’s internet connection speed? If the majority of your users are using dial-up connections, keep pictures and graphics to a minimum to help with page load times. If most of your users are accessing your website via high-speed connections you can probably afford to user more images.
What is your user’s screen resolution? To avoid forcing visitors to scroll horizontally make sure that the width of your page (if you’re using a fixed width) fits within the screens of most of your visitors.
What browser do your users prefer? You should test your website in any browser that more than a handful of your visitors are using. Each browser views pages slightly differently so you should be aware of any major issues with browsers.
In what time zone are your users located? This is more important for bloggers or website owners that update content frequently. Test to see what time of day creates the best response to blog posts. This one may not be as important as the others, but it is a subtle detail that can make a difference.
All of the issues mentioned in this article contribute to a website being user-focused. Remember that if your website’s goal is to serve your visitors you must always design and build your website with them in mind.
Published July 15th, 2007 by Steven Snell