There are many factors to consider when creating a website, no matter what its purpose. The ten most important (and most often ignored) issues are relayed below. Before hiring a designer, or designing your page, make sure to give adequate thought to these questions.
- What content will my site offer?
This question is perhaps the most important question to ask yourself. I have seen customers request a five or six page site (and pay through the nose for it) for the equivalent of a digital flyer. Think long and hard before even planning the site itself.
You need to consider:
- The importance of your information
- The availability of your information elsewhere
- The amount of information
- The quality of information
In some cases, you may find that you no longer even need a website. For example, if you have just Photoshopped a hilarious picture, and you want to share, post it on a website that accumulates such things and receives high traffic. More people will enjoy it that way than if it is placed in some obscure corner of the web.
- Who is my target audience?
Your chosen audience should influence every decision in design and content. A site that is mainly seen by prospective clients should not contain pictures of you and your drinking buddies getting hammered. A site devoted to a statistical model should not contain animated gifs of dogs. A site devoted to selling your software should not contain an open forum discussing flaws. These sorts of errors are, in a less exaggerated form, prevalent in sites across the web. Take care not to turn off your audience.
- How will people reach my site?
It is easy to leave this out of the design loop, but many issues can arise from such an omission. Search engines are useful tools, but they are limited by the technology with which they are implemented. It is difficult to get a high ranking in large searches unless those searches are extremely specific.
For the purpose of example, I’m going to discuss Google, which I know the most about. Google uses a technology called “Page Rank” to order the results of its searches. This differs from the first search engines, which simply counted the number of query words in resulting pages, and ordered them by how “in order” those words appeared, and how close they were to the top of the page. Page Rank takes that raw data, and combines it with how many pages link a result page, how content is organized on a page, how long a domain is registered for, and other factors, to provide a more “accurate” ordering. Unfortunately, this is bad news for a new website. A new site may have all the information in the world, but it is likely no one has linked to it yet. If not actively submitted to Google, it may not even become indexed. Individuals searching for information will likely not find the new page, and therefore no one will add it to their links page. The page is condemned to low hits despite its content.
A good example of the issues plaguing search engines is the Graham Highlanders website. I designed the site with Bill Herreid when I was in high school. After completion, it took months for it to appear on Google. However, now that the band’s clients have had time to find the site and place links to it on their pages, It is now the top hit for “graham highlanders” and has a page rank of 3/10.
All websites need a plan for how they expect to generate hits. I’m not talking about scams where you pay for a ranking; I’m talking about interested visitors. My personal site is listed on my business card and resume, and appears by my name everywhere I post content. My blog is categorized, tagged, and listed by Technorati. In this manner I generate the hits I want.
- How long does my site take to navigate?
If an average visitor wants to reference your site, he wants to get in, find his information, and leave in under 30 seconds. Badly labeled sections, flash intros, loading screens, ambiguous navigation, navigation that relies on large pictures, and complicated sitemaps can bog the user down so much that he may look elsewhere for information.
When organizing the logical structure of your site, try to make your indexing as obvious as possible, to avoid ambiguity. Then, take a second look. If a user has to go through more than three consecutive links or has to scroll more than two page lengths to reach his information, simplify. If that’s not possible, add a search function.
When creating page layouts, think. Are there any large images on a data rich page? Do you have to pass through pages with large graphics to get to data rich pages? Is anything in my site slowing down the user by its very nature?
Rethink flash intros and complicated animations.
Retool your interface to run faster.
Reconsider a search option.
- How accessable is my site?
Internet Explorer is the most prevalent web browser. It has many nifty features such as ActiveX, Microsoft filters, IE Behaviors, and Jscript. Internet Explorer displays images, applets, flash, and some proprietary security protocols. However, Internet Explorer is not the only browser. Hundreds of thousands of people use browsers like Firefox, Mozilla, Opera, Safari, Konqueror, Lynx, and a multitude of others for limited platforms and disabled users. These people should not be ignored. If you design only for Internet Explorer, you are going to severely limit your user base.
Keep in mind that straight html and text is visible to everyone. Build your site up from a compatible framework, so that if a user doesn’t support one of the decorative elements of the site, he can still get information. This is the idea behind the use of CSS.
- How much accessibility is too much accessibility?
Accessibility is necessary, but too much is a bad thing. If your site is optimized for users in 16 color 640×480 environments, running text based browsers, you’ve gone too far. Technology does still advance, and we have to strike a balance that makes use of new technologies while not ignoring those who have different systems.
- How easily can my site be indexed?
Search engines are automated and, as such, have obvious limitations. If you want your site to have a listing for relevant keywords you need to give the crawler something it understands, namely text. Keyword metatags are ignored by almost every search engine; therefore, you need text on your main page for the crawler to index. A good index page has a short description of the site that lies within. This is another reason splash screens are a no-no.
- Why will people return to my site?
Your overall goal in creating a website is to generate a strong base of supporters who will not only visit your site, but will talk about it months after their first visit. For this to happen, you need users to return to your site frequently.
There are three ways in which you can generate return hits.
- Have an enormous amount of useful content – Merriam-Webster doesn’t need to update often, and they’ll still receive hits every time a user comes across a new word
- Offer an online service – The Neevia Document Converter allows a multitude of file types to be converted to PDF. Sites like that will be visited every time a user needs their service
- Have Dynamic Content – update your gallery, news, blog, etc. frequently and those users who are interested in what you have will check for updates regularly. This is the strongest draw for repeat users, because, if you strike a balance between how often you update, and how many users you have, users will check back constantly to see if new content is there yet. The difficulty is that you can’t disappoint them too often.
- Do I NEED Flash?
Flash allows for great freedom in designing interfaces and sites as a whole; however, Flash also poses major problems for users, such as:
- ambiguous navigation
- inability to select text
- “busy” designs
- longer load times
- requires a plug in
Users want a fast, logical site more than they want a stylish site. Try to limit the use of Flash.
- How can I make it pretty?
Now, after all of your other considerations, go for aesthetics. Users will always want a pretty site to provide their content. In fact, some users relate aesthetic appeal to professionalism, so an ugly site can actually drive away customers. Its all about balance.
Remember, anyone with Photoshop and Dreamweaver can make a pretty site. When designing, you must make a functional site; and that, my friends, is a different kind of beast all together.