The first ten years of the Internet are over. The web is no longer a new thing. It is an ingrained part of our lives.Studies show that users form their first impression about a website in 1/20th of a second. What are they going to think if that time is spent watching Flash animation load? Or watching a marquee slowly scroll through a list of headlines? Or searching for creatively placed navigation? They’ll think it’s time to visit another website.

As Internet users get more sophisticated and impatient, the need for designs that emphasize usability becomes paramount. Here are a dozen guidelines for web designers that we’ve developed over the years. We try to have these principles guide all of our design work.

1. Know your audience. Not only in the marketing sense. Know the technical boundaries you’re working within. The user experience for a high school math student in Jersey and a journalist in Zimbabwe are very different. Bear this in mind when making initial decisions.

2. Understand the purpose of the site. The client can lose sight of this, but the designer must not. If the site’s purpose is to raise funds, that component must be ever-present in the design. If the client decides to punch the site up for the sake of visual impact, this must be addressed immediately, before the project loses its focus.

3. No Surprises. Web sites are not meant to be mysterious. The web is not new. Certain standards of usability remain because they work. Users stampede away from sites that remain mysterious. Links should be written clearly, marked clearly as links, and users should be alerted to the mildest of surprises like opening a .pdf or Powerpoint.

4. The Cool Backlash. Usability has been talked to death, and thanks to Jacob Nielsen (and his site) there seems to be a slight backlash, giving into website design that is cool for the sake of being cool. While the art created with programs like Flash is spectacular, most websites simply shouldn’t use these technologies. Inevitably, they cause more problems than they solve and end up frustrating users. Animation has been eliminated on most business sites. Even the slightest motion is an irritation to the user. The eye still sees it as an animated gif from 1999 and will ignore it as surely as the client deems it “jazzy”.

5. Sweat the Details. The nuances of the design are what will create a positive or negative user experience. The forms must be as simple to complete as possible, and work perfectly. The search must be useful. The FAQs and Help links must be worth the user’s time. The contact us link/form/phone number being difficult to find is the easiest way to lose a user forever.

6. Column A, Column B. Clients like the palette from the first design, and the layout of the second. This will happen for a variety of reasons (adult attention deficit disorder, failure to take meds, it doesn’t matter) and is difficult to control. Some clients will always want to mix and match. If you can’t beat them, help them. Take their concerns seriously, and move past the simple step of combining designs. You may take a beating in the short run, but the client and user will benefit in the long run.

7. Keep an Eye on What’s Next. How easy a design will be to implement should be a consideration. Changing a design, while not sacrificing quality can sometimes save hours of maintenance time. For example, if it is obvious that a client will change their mind frequently on what will appear in the navigation, it would be best not to create a design that requires images to be created for every change. In general, maintenance time and site loading time will be less when using fewer images. When the audience is made up of people who are most likely to use the latest browsers, designs that can be implemented almost entirely without images are the best option.

8. The Information is Key. While the design of a website is important, and often the quality of design validates the website content for a user, in most cases the design is not as important as the information on the website. It is more important that the information on a site is accessible for every user than it is that every user sees the exact same design in every browser. Redirecting a user to download other software should never be an option, there are plenty of ways to design and build sites so that they degrade gracefully for every user.

9. Keep it minimum. Monitor size ranges from 640×480 pixels to today’s standard size of 1024×768 pixels to even bigger sizes. Your design should try to look good in all of these sizes. Current practice accepts minimum size of 800×600. Design for that size and use the extra space most users will see for non-critical additional content.

10. Mind the browser and platform loyalty. Keeping in mind the numerous browsers available and platform loyalty of users, you need to make sure your site is designed for and tested on a variety of browsers and platforms to ensure compatibility. Your personalized scrollbar may work with your IE browser but won’t work with Mozilla browsers.

11. Create a style guide. The more content a site has, the more likely that multiple people are contributing to content editing. As the content is handed off from person to person, one finds that the design and the layout deviate from the original. One should create a style guide for the consistency in look and feel.

12. The brand is in the experience. Yes, the site needs to be visually appealing. If a user can easily find your site, get what they need, and be on with her life that’s what’ll drive the memory – the site experience. And they’ll tell others about it.

About the Author
Tom McCormick
Tom McCormick is the head of the Brick Factory's design department, overseeing all of the company's creative work. In that role, Tom consults with clients to design websites that are beautiful and functional. He only writes blog posts that have something to do with football, probably because he is a Redskins fan and needs some kind of catharsis after they lose every week.