Evaluating Your Website: Design; Navigation; Technical Attributes

Let’s face it, if your design sucks people won’t stick around. Period. Why would they?

You wouldn’t shop in a store with cluttered shelves, carpet on the walls and a crazy person in the back popping up to remind you that you’re the millionth visitor when right next door is a store selling the same goods and services with clean, well organized stock, friendly service and no distractions.

Design

People are visiting your website and in their minds your website is a direct reflection of the quality of your business. Crummy website = crummy business. The inverse is also true and something you can and should take advantage of. If you’re a small business with a stellar website you have a great opportunity to put yourself on a level playing field with the big boys.

1. It is immediately apparent to a casual visitor what your company does (have a non-employee do this)?

At first, asking a question like this might sound absurd, but it is If by just scanning your homepage a visitor cannot immediately determine the purpose of your site and your business then you are doing something wrong. Plus, if a real person can’t tell what you do then it’s fairly certain that search engines also will have no clue what you do and therefore will rank your page lower than you would like.

2. Does your logo look professionally made? Be honest.

If you didn’t pay a professional to do your logo and instead used either a pre-packaged one or had a friend or relative do it for free then there is a very good chance that your logo looks like it was done by an amateur… because it was. Remember that done right, your logo will provide you with [good] brand recognition. People often balk at spending a few dollars here, but this logo will affect the design of both your online and your printed materials and if it starts off looking bad then you can expect subsequent marketing materials to follow suit.

3. Is your site at all [handicap] accessible?

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has published guidelines to use to ensure that your website can be browsed by individuals limited or no sight, vision and movement. In order for many of these people to browse the web they need the assistance of special tools that either magnify the screen or read the content aloud to them. While it may sound like a daunting task to make your site accessible, the truth is that by at least working toward a base level of accessibility you are helping all of your visitors. The core guidelines basically state to:

  • Separate structure from presentation. This means don’t make your entire site in Flash, or out of images. This also means use proper underlying tags to format and frame your content.
  • Provide text and text equivalents. This means that your site should have text (duh) and that any images on your site are tagged with text describing the images. This is good for accessibility as well as to make your site search engine friendly (SEF). Doing this kills two birds with one stone.
  • Make content understandable and navigable. This means using proper links on the site for navigation, proper headers and limiting your use of non-traditional navigation, linking and page orientation.

By following these guidelines when developing your site you are opening it up to a greater number of visitors as well as using proper techniques to make your site more understandable and usable for everyone.

4. Did you purchase images and graphics for your website?

If your website has clip art from your Microsoft Word, or images that you just found online and saved or simply contains no images then this is a red flag. As we mentioned earlier, your visitors can tell the difference between quality and junk and if you’re using clip art then you are leaning toward the latter. Secondly, if you just borrowed some images from other websites then you are stealing and breaking the law. Also not good. Purchasing images can be extremely cheap ($1-$10 each in many cases) and make your site look far more professional (probably because the images are done by professionals). Please note that when I say images, I do not mean only photos. This includes backgrounds, illustrations, etc.

5. Does your site have a consistent look and feel on every page?

If your site has five different sections, one for each line of products you sell and every section has different fonts, backgrounds and branding just so your visitors understand that they’re in a different section then you are not only insulting the intelligence of your visitors, but you have made a lot more work for yourself come time to update the site. Or, if you have simply hand-coded every single page and are not using any consistent template or formatting across any pages then you’re in real trouble when you want to add new content or change a layout.

The key here is to choose a format that works for what your objectives are and run with it. You can customize each page a bit with images and text, but being consistent is critical from a search engine optimization (SEO) standpoint as well as from a visitor sanity standpoint.

Navigation

Good navigation is critical for three reasons. First and foremost so your visitors can find what they want. Second, so search engines can find and organize your information in their indexes. Lastly so you know where to put new information easily and quickly. The key to success with your navigation is your ability to categorize and organize your information into sections that make sense and then your ability to add both information and new categorizations over time with minimal effort on your part.

1. Does your navigation scheme make sense to someone that knows nothing about your company or products?

If you are a paint company and your navigation scheme looks like a color wheel this might seem cute and fun, but is impractical and probably doesn’t make sense to many of your non-professional painters. While this site has any number of other issues, its complete lack of navigation makes it impossible for visitors to get to what they need. This is the opposite of what you should be trying to do. Your goal is to get people to the content they want as fast as possible.

2. How many clicks does it take you to get from the homepage to critical information?

You may have heard of the “Three Click Rule” in which users should be able to retrieve their desired information within three clicks. On small sites this may be true, but the underlying concept of taking time to consider critical paths is really what this is all about. A well constructed navigation and well organized and commented content allows for this. This also means that you should always be thinking about what “critical information” is to your visitors. This information might change and if it does, you should be aware of this and adapt. If you don’t know what visitors are looking for, or haven’t even tried to get to it yourself then it’s going to be hard to make these determinations. Sit down at your own website and pretend to be a customer and find the information, or have someone that isn’t intimately familiar with your business do this and observe them. If you, or they are getting frustrated or lost then so are your customers and guess what, they’re going elsewhere.

3. Do you have to manually update HTML or other code in order to add a menu item?

Having to manually update code to add pages or menu items is extremely error prone. You don’t want visitors browsing to broken pages. In addition to being error prone, having to manually update code to add pages is time consuming and unless your HTML is properly formatted, might also make your site very non-search engine friendly.

4. Do you have any broken links, or Under Construction pages on your site?

Broken links are like having a door in a store that leads into a brick wall. It doesn’t take walking face-first into one very many times before customers go elsewhere. Having “Under Construction” is as bad, or worse. If your content isn’t available, then it isn’t available. Either write the content and post it, or don’t put up links until you do have the content. Imagine going to CNN’s website to look for an article only to find out that the only part that was written was the title and the rest of it is “coming soon.” You wouldn’t go back. Your visitors are no different.

5. Did you perform any usability testing on your navigation scheme before launching your site?

This might sound daunting, but it isn’t. Grab a couple friends, family members, co-workers and have them each attempt to do the same task. Observe them and see how they accomplish it and then ask them to comment. Such tasks might be “locate product X” or “submit a request for service Y” or “purchase twenty widgets.” Ideally you do this before launching your site the first time, but if your site is already live then still have them do it. After these tasks are done ask them not only how easy or difficult was it to do, but how they feel about it. What you find might be eye-opening. Not everyone looks for information the same way and people react differently to any difficulties they have trying to do these tasks. Your goal is to make your site easy to navigate and use for everyone, not just you.

Technical Attributes

The best design and navigation in the world is worthless if it requires a specific browser or application to run it, or if it generates errors at any point while visitors are on the site.

1. Does any page on your site take more than four seconds to load?

Four seconds is a long time when you’re trying to just get to some information. Imagine it taking four seconds for you to flip the page in a book. Reading it wouldn’t be any fun. Your website is no different. Test it on fast and slow connections to see how everything loads. Properly written code, limited scripting, proper use (not over use) of graphics and good hosting all contribute to the page load speed. If any of your pages are taking this long to load then fix them. People won’t complain about them, they will just leave and find somewhere else that has content that loads at a proper speed.

2. Does your site force people do download plugins to work properly?

The only plugin that you should ever think about using on your website is Adobe Flash. If users are required to download anything else then your site doesn’t work right. People aren’t on your site to do anything but get information or buy things. Stop making them do more work than is necessary to accomplish these tasks.

3. Are you using Microsoft FrontPage or Word to create web pages?

If the answer to this is yes then you can skip the rest of this series and go to the part where we discuss complete redesigns and rebuilds. FrontPage is fine for kids doing school projects. It is not an acceptable tool to build professional websites. FrontPage and Word violate a great number of standard web rules and put in absolutely huge amounts of code where none is needed. This makes your pages extremely slow and frequently they don’t work on non IE browsers. Again, if you are using FrontPage or Word then it’s time for a rebuild. You will love some of the other tools that are out there and they’re no more difficult to use than what you are used to.

4. Are you using any kind of content management system to manage your website? If so, what?

Content management systems (CMS) are pieces of software that reside on the web server which help you manage the structure, navigation, design and content on your website. If you are currently just uploading pages via FTP then odds are that you are not using a CMS. You should be. CMS have built in search engine friendly features and have the ability for you to drop in plug-ins and modules that extend and expand the function of your website with little or no coding. They also allow full searches of your content by default and offer a host of features that make your content easy to manage and update. The best part is that many of them are free (Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, DotNetNuke). The days of editing your web pages in DreamWeaver, FrontPage, or other HTML editors are over. This is a subject that there are thousands of articles about, but in this case not using a CMS is not good.

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