Web design is so much more than pretty graphics and carefully selected colour palettes. It's about expertly implemented technology and knowledge. Even if a website overflows with gorgeous, attention-grabbing imagery, without a helpful and intuitive layout it will lack the depth and clarity required to satisfy its users. Add to that, considerations around content and SEO, loading speeds, compatibility across platforms etc, and you can see that web design is far more complex than often envisaged.
This article looks to set out six common 'myths', – six statements often referred to when asked "what makes good web design?" – to scratch below the surface and provide justified, informed responses that instead take the form of six useful tips.
1. THE MYTH: Quality content will always be read.
Whilst it is true that quality content is more likely to attract and retain readers, it does not necessarily mean that it will be found or well-read solely because it is well written.
There is a growing body of research that aims to establish the reading patterns of people for both online and printed content. Naturally there have been a number of observations made that highlight differences in the way we consume written content on and offline, and these findings have helped shape more informed and authoritative web design standards.
Jakob Nielsen (2006) studied the reading behaviour of over 200 web users and found that the majority of people absorb web page information in an F-shape. This means that they generally read the top of the page in a horizontal manner, scan down, read another horizontal section, and then skim the left hand side to the base of the page. This research has led to a surge of guidelines around effective content positioning, which is the reason that many websites now follow this "F Rule", consisting of a title at the top of the page, an intro below and to the left, and a sub-heading with further information underneath that.
This research also outlined the importance of effectively dividing text to make it as easy to scan as possible, whilst reducing ambiguity and clearly communicating the main points of the message.
THE TIP: Ensure your content is well presented, of a high quality, and easily navigable.
2. THE MYTH: Users love elaborate websites.
While many successful companies' websites are hi-tech and extravagant, some walk a fine line between cutting-edge and overcomplicated. Although implementing all the bells and whistles can encourage a user to explore your website, at the end of the day all users want and expect is a clear and easily navigable site.
Therefore, clearly labeling your site at every level is essential to creating a seamless and enjoyable user experience. An initial tagline and banner on the homepage help to identify your organisation, your logo integrated throughout the site then maintains consistency, and relevant calls to action and on-page navigation guide the user through the site's content.
Some web designers claim that good design should mean that users don't need to think about the process of navigation or information location – such should be the self-explanatory and obvious nature of quality website design.
THE TIP: Make your website as intuitive, structured and straight-forward as possible.
3. THE MYTH: Anyone can do web design.
A common misconception is that just because someone can create nice digitally-rendered graphics they are good at web design. Having a little Photoshop or graphic design knowledge does not always translate into competent web design skills.
Of course web design, as with any art form, is to some extent subjective and so individual taste will always impact upon our perception of quality. However, people often underestimate the skill set behind good web design and that every inch of the design has been through a significant thought process to support end use and accessibility. For example, a good web designer will not only consider the overall aesthetics of any given feature or element but also consider its relevance to the core message the client wishes to communicate; its relevance in relation to other site features; how it is positioned, structured and presented; and how it will interact and perform in relation to web development and digital marketing.
THE TIP: Make sure you employ a trusted web design supplier who understands your business objectives and listens to your requirements, whilst working harmoniously with your web development and digital marketing resources.
4. THE MYTH: Animations and pictures make a site more appealing.
Without a doubt pictures and animations can support a more engaging user experience, as long as they are used with care. One person's tasteful is another's tasteless, and excessive movement or flashing features can be distracting, if not completely overwhelming.
There is also the issue of loading speeds. Videos and animations require a larger bandwidth than simple images and text (and at times special plugins), and in today's 'now' society, where consumers expect everything instantaneously, nothing deters a web user more than a page taking too long to load. Add to this a universal growing dislike of Flash animations, due to its heavy-duty nature, inaccessibility, lack of integration with search engines and tendency to crash your browser, and animations become increasingly less appealing.
For these reasons and more, adopt restraint when applying animation and consider making it an opt-in feature rather than an automatic load. Also, think about the benefits it is likely to bring to the site and ensure these outweigh the potential negatives, whilst ensuring they remain in line with your original business objectives.
THE TIP: Adopt a "less is more" approach with animation, and instead apply a mix of quality content – text, images, audio and video.
5. THE MYTH: Build it and they will come.
Whilst a fresh, new website with improved quality and content can attract a boost in web traffic, this is short lived if you fail to maintain your website and its content.
A new website is not a cure-all on its own and it will require continuous input from either the owning organisation or a contracted digital agency in order to monitor, analyse, update and continually optimise new content. Even minimal changes to web pages on an occasional basis can help to keep a site ranking well, as search engines will re-visit websites periodically to ensure that they have not been abandoned and are continuing to supply users with relevant content.
A website's content will often dictate its overall aesthetics, rather than the other way around. By focusing on the core message rather than purely on appearances good web design will deliver a more coherent and clear end user experience.
THE TIP: Regularly update your website with optimised and relevant content to ensure it maintains performance and search rankings, and keeps your visitors returning and engaged.
6. THE MYTH: Good web design increases traffic.
Not in itself it doesn't. An impressive, intuitive and professional-looking website may keep visitors hooked once they are there, but they'll only arrive in the first place if the website is easy to find, access and use.
A site's SEO is easily as important as its layout, graphics and content. Without efficient search engine optimisation, consisting of well-optimised, relevant keywords, your website is unlikely to be found via search engines when users enter key search terms. Thus, a new user's sole route to your site would be referral – a risky business model.
Then you must consider the source of your traffic - if your users are accessing your site via mobile/touch devices, or alternative platforms, the web design will not necessarily render correctly in their browser. With UK-based mobile web traffic expected to make up 15% of national Internet visitors by the end of 2012, ensuring your site's design is optimised across platforms will enhance the user experience and help future-proof your website in a rapidly evolving digital world.
THE TIP: Increase traffic by optimising your content and keeping your website user-friendly, visually appealing and accessible across platforms.