There are many, many factors and decisions that go into making a website. It’s not just about what looks good on screen. You must consider the visual aspect, of course, but also how different elements interact, how the website works, and the audience who will be interacting with the site. In the long run, your opinion of your site matters little to not at all. The opinions of designers don’t matter. The only opinions that do matter are those of the people who will be utilizing your website. Building a great website is totally possible if you keep a few points in mind.
A clear purpose
Your website needs a raison d’etre. Before you start building, decide what you want your website to do for you. Is it an e-commerce site whose purpose is to promote and sell your products? Is it a strictly informational site? Is it meant to behave as advertising? Whatever it is you need or want your website to do, you have to have that in mind while building. It can have multiple purposes, but whatever your end goals are, it must be clear.
Ask yourself what you hope your website accomplishes. What are your goals for your site? That should direct you towards your site’s purpose. The purpose of my site is to give creative entrepreneurs a one-stop shop for tools and services related to their specific creative business needs. As time has passed, I’ve become clearer about that purpose and my end goals, and that is reflected in this site’s design.
Sometimes, we have so many things we’re passionate about, it can be nearly impossible to focus on one purpose. It happens to me ALL THE TIME. There are a handful of people who can, for example, blog about every topic under the sun, but they are by far the exception, not the rule. So before you start building your website, examine where you want it to go.
Just like your site needs a clear purpose, it also needs a clear sense of self. Remember in the ’90s when website building was just becoming available to the general public? You would have sites where one page was black with neon green text and another was blue with flashing purple marquees. They were all over the place. We, the viewing public, ignored that because the technology was so new and impressive. But these sites were bad. So very bad.
Thankfully, technology advanced and design principles evolved to work with the emergence of digital design. We learned how to apply tried-and-true marketing strategies to the web. We learned how to develop a brand that is cohesive across all media. These principles hold true on- and off-screen. A good, well-designed website needs to maintain its identity across all its pages.
This is important for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, if you’re building a business, your website needs to resonate with the rest of your brand identity. Secondly, it avoids confusion. I have been on websites that change drastically from page to page (and not just in the ’90s). So drastically that I thought I had left the original site by mistake. Imagine my surprise! And this leads directly into the next element your website must have in order to be successful.
“User-friendly” is not an unfamiliar term. We’ve been hearing it in reference to one thing or another for decades. In this case, all it means is that your end user — your customer — must be able to use your website with ease. They should e able to perform basic website tasks without confusion. “Basic website tasks” varies depending on the purpose of your website. If for instance, your site is an e-commerce website, then they should be able to view products, add them to a cart, and make purchases with relative ease. Users shouldn’t need to consult FAQs or contact support unless they have a real problem.
To avoid any “real” problems cropping up, take some precautions when building your site: Don’t get clever. Out-of-the-box thinking is great and I’m a fan, but not if it inhibits your success. Professional programmers and designers can create some amazing effects with web design, but that doesn’t mean those effects have a place in your online shop’s design. If a clever design trick takes away from the effectiveness of your website, it has to go.
Hand in hand with this is the need to maintain website convention. That doesn’t mean your site has to be boring; it just means, don’t get cute. It’s tempting to try and come up with avant-garde navigation labels. After all, “about” isn’t sexy. While it may not be sexy, it is what users expect. Users expect certain naming conventions, certain placement of particular elements. Subverting these expectations can work, but, again, only if the user-friendliness of your website is not affected. Conventions like where to place a website navigation menu are conventions for a reason: They make sense and they work.
I don’t want to stifle your creativity. Web design is, like any other medium, a chance to express yourself. A website is also a tool, and an important one if you want to build a business. Keeping that in mind means that function always trumps form.