Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Don't tell me how to do it!

Today I was working on a client's online payment system, and came across the following paragraph on the online bank's merchant account page:

"To help you navigate through this system, please use the boxes below."
This is an example of one of my pet hates on websites. 

If you have to tell me how to navigate through your site, it's not intuitive, and therefore almost certainly not as usable as it could be.

Don't make me think

Steve Krug (an internet usability guru) wrote a book called "Don't make me think!". If users have to think about how to navigate your website, then you're putting barriers in their way and they're likely to go elsewhere to a website which is easier to use.

In the old days of the web we used to try and make all pages reachable in less than 4 clicks. However recent research has shown that people don't mind so much if they have to make a few clicks if they don't have to think to make those clicks, ie if the website navigation is intuitive and their options are obvious.

Don't make false promises

In my last post I mentioned that you shouldn't put links to pages that haven't been written yet.

In a similar vein, don't put instructions to things that aren't there!

To add insult to injury, on the online bank's merchant account page that I quote above, the boxes it refers to didn't even exist!

It reminds me of another online payment gateway which has the following instruction on the payment page:
"To modify a payment click the Modify link. To remove a payment click the Delete link"
...except neither the Modify or Delete links exist! 

What is it about online payment gateways that makes them have such poor usability? Is it any wonder the "abandonment rate" for online shopping carts is almost 90%?

Intuitive navigation

So how do you make a usable navigation system for your website?

There are several ways to do it, depending partly on your budget, the time available and the size of your website.

People have written whole books about it, but if you want to skip the reading and commission me to help you, then please get in touch:

Friday, 30 November 2012

Websites - under construction

Are websites ever truly finished?

In the old days of the web it was common to see an 'under construction' icon on a page that hadn't been written yet.

Nowadays that is seen as bad practice; you should only ever link to existing content so that users aren't misled into thinking your website has content that it doesn't.

But my experience of website design tells me that it's only the smallest websites which are ever "finished" - ie all the content has been written and added - but larger websites are always going to change and be added to.

Just think how often prices will change, or staff will leave or arrive, or new products or services get added? Most websites (even the smallest ones!) will need to have at least some of their content updated at least once a year.

And then there's the design.

My own website is barely a month old, and I'm already on the 3rd version of the design:
There are still pages to add and tweaks to do. I wonder if a web designer's website is ever "perfect"?

Design for today

I guess the other thing I've learned is that you need to do the best design you can for now, but expect to revisit it every 2-3 years as the design starts to look tired or a bit old-fashioned (trends change even in web design!).

Standards-based web design

One of the great leaps forward in web design some years ago was the creation of standards-based design using HTML and CSS.

With a standards-based website, the HTML purely covers the content and structure of the website - the text, images, headings etc, and what follows what - and the CSS takes care of the layout and design - the colour scheme, and where things go on the page.

So with a small change to the CSS your website can change from purple to pink, for example, or you can add a background image or change the colour of Headings. And the change will apply to the whole site, just by changing the one CSS file, rather than you having to change the Heading colour on each and every page of your site (a chore unless the website is very small!).

So standards-based design makes for re-usable design - or should that be re-usable content? You can give your website's "look and feel" a makeover without having to change the content and structure of every page on the site. This means that updating your website every 2 or 3 years becomes less of a major upheaval.

Using standards helps Accessibility too

I've always been an advocate of making websites as Accessible as possible to people with varying abilities. browsers and hardware. 

Using standards-based web design also means that your website will be more likely to be Accessible to (for example) a blind person using a "browser" which reads and describes the website to them, rather than them seeing it.

So standards-based design really is something that every website designer should be doing - I certainly do!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Website design should be the last thing you do

No, I've not had second thoughts about being a freelance web designer!

I'm just sharing something I've learned in many years of developing and designing websites.

The design of the website should be the last thing you do.

So how do you develop a website?

The first thing you should do when starting to create a new website is to think about the content of the website. 

What do you want to say? Who are you saying it for, or to - who is your audience? What are you trying to achieve with the website?

Write a list of all the topics you need to cover to meet your website's aims.

Content creates navigation

Once you know what content you will have on your website - what the pages will be - you can then start to think about grouping them together (if there are more than 7 pages) and that starts to create the website navigation.

Why 7? Well, research has shown that the ideal number of items in a navigation menu is 7 +/- 2, ie between 5 and 9 navigation choices.

Once you know how many pages or sections your website will have, you can then start to think about the design. But only then.

Don't get fixated on design

You want users to find stuff easily on your website - otherwise what's the point? So the navigation structure is really important.

If you start with a fixed idea of what you want your website to look like, you'll immediately constrain the options for setting up the navigation, and might end up with a website that isn't very usable, and therefore won't get used as much as you want. 

So try to keep an open mind on design.

Think of concepts - for example: uncluttered, professional, friendly - but don't get a picture in your head too soon, or you'll give your web designer a really difficult task.

Putting it into practice

I'm in the process of designing my own website - ISPs permitting (this may be the subject of a future blog post!) - and I've followed my own advice, and thought about the content first, before I decided what I wanted it to look like.

Did I practise what I preached? See what you think:

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Twitter - the water cooler of freelancers?

Do you tweet?

I've never been a great fan of Twitter - it was always too "one-way" for me, difficult to have a proper "conversation" with someone.

But my hubby really likes it. He uses it to communicate with other freelancers, to share tips, to pick up news and to find out what his favourite sportsmen are up to. 

I began to think this was because he worked on his own all day - this was his "water cooler", where he could chat and pass the time of day. Whilst I could go into the office and trade pleasantries or discuss something with a colleague, he had nobody to talk to except the cat. 

Should I tweet?

Now that I'm also a freelancer, I wonder if I will start to use twitter more?

Find out here!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Do I need a blog?

I've never seen the need to have a blog. 

Maybe it was false modesty, but didn't feel like I had anything to say that people would want to hear. Or maybe it was because I've always worked for organisations where I've been the "expert" on web design, and I was concerned that my musings or rantings would affect the organisations's reputation.

Things have changed now. 

Now that I work for myself, I don't have to worry about PR or political correctness. So I guess I can say what I want!

As long as I think it's worth saying...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Do I need a website?

For many years I've worked with websites, used websites, written websites, designed websites, analysed websites and written code for websites, but I've never seen the need to have a website of my own.

However, I now need a website. What has changed?

When a client comes to me and says they need a website, most of the time they do need one, because they want to:
  • sell something
  • say something
  • show something

Websites for sales

eCommerce is an obvious use for a website - you've got a product or service to sell, or you want to set up an online shop. 

You'll need to think about how you're going to process payments and deal with any orders you receive, but these days many viable businesses are run entirely online.

Websites which say something

Political or government organisations or charities (probably) aren't selling something, but they have a legitimate need for a website to give information to the public or describe what they're about or tell people how to get involved. 

They need to consider how interactive they're going to be - are they only "telling" people, or are they also going to allow questions, petitions, comments? If they do, how much time do they have to answer those questions or comments, and will they take action on a petition?

Websites which show things

Artists and musicians fall into the category of people who may use a website primarily as a way of digitally reproducing their portfolio or back-catalogue. Or perhaps a guru in a certain technology will provide tutorials to help others.

I think there's nothing worse than a website which hasn't been updated since 2010 (or earlier!) so you have to be careful that this isn't just a fad that will wear off. Is your 'brochure' site really necessary - or are you actually trying to say something or sell something?

So why am I now developing a website?

For all of the above reasons!

I'm leaving the realms of monthly salaries, team meetings and performance appraisals, and am striking out as a Freelance web consultant, web developer and website designer.

So I'll hopefully be showing off what I can do, selling my services and maybe even finding something interesting to say along the way!

The website itself is under wraps until I move ISPs, but as they say - watch this space!