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5 Web Design Principles Improve Site Quality

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Building a high-quality website requires following certain web design principles that used to be a matter of opinion.

More often they are now based on facts that publishers discover in website analytics.

When print editors make decisions, they do so in isolation. They can’t see or measure how readers read the paper, how much of a story they do read, whether they like the presentation, etc.

So the print editors have to use their best judgment based on logic, years of experience and subjective feedback.

Choices made about a website story choice or presentation is based on direct feedback.

Online editors get to view daily — and in real time with some tools — audience reports that show exactly how many times a story is read, how long a visitor stays on a site and how many pages they view when they are on the site.

But publishers don’t need to spend years reading audience reports and figuring out how to make a better website. They can get started with a few simple principles.

1. Keep the Navigation Simple

The typical online surfer visits more than 100 sites a month. Data shows that they often go “information harvesting” rather than read stories at length.

Make it as easy as possible for them to get to stories quickly.

Some sites use a three-click rule — all content must be accessible within three clicks. Thoughtful navigation is critical.

Note that drop-down menus are popular but don’t get many clicks.

In addition to a top navigation bar, include blocks of headlines to related articles embedded in the parent article.

2. Don’t Clutter Pages

Newspaper sites tend to design large pages and pack them with an overwhelming number of elements.

“Too busy” is one of the most common criticisms of many websites, according to research.

Others are “too slow” because of heavy pages and “can’t find what I want.” (See No. 1.)

Clutter used to be the number of elements on a page. Now it includes animation, audio and video. So limit the number of titles and graphics.

3. Go Wide Rather Than Deep

It’s a well-known fact of site usability that many people don’t like to use the scroll bar on their browser. Analytics show that click rates decline farther down the page. This fact is an important web design principle that should guide designers and content managers.

I proved it with a lengthy experiment on a major site where I used code to track the number of clicks on every link on the home page.

There was a significant drop-off in clicks below the fold, meaning below the point on the browser where people have to scroll.

So use horizontal space effectively and avoid long pages that require excessive scrolling.

4. Use White Space Liberally

The tendency to pack web pages with everything but the kitchen sink leads to designs that reduce the air around elements to the point where it’s even harder to scan the page.

White space makes the page easier to absorb and leads to higher clickthroughs.

In keeping with the point that started this column, publishers will find out how effective they are in creating a quality site by tracking the pages per visit.

Newspaper sites typically range from three to five pages per visit while many business sites average about two pages per visit. Where do you fall in that range?

5. Prioritize Content

Online publishing makes it easy to put just about anything and everything on a site.

It’s not only the quantity of content that can be published. It’s also the number of features and functions that can go on there as well, such as comments, polls, forums, galleries, video, archives, etc.

The temptation to put so much on a site often results in a site that loses its primary focus. It ends up being all things to all people.

Online publishing is much more about targeting niche audiences than appealing to mass audiences simply because there are so many competitors.

That’s why it’s important to be great at five web design principles rather than bad at 50 of them.

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