Being what I consider an industry veteran (I’ve been building and marketing websites since 1998), there’s always been one constant that separates the successful sites from those that fail: good design. It’s not the only rule to abide by, but it has very few exceptions. With the plethora of content management systems and website templates out there, it still baffles me that site owners don’t take advantage of these resources and still expect their sub-par design to have a chance against competition. I don’t claim to be the expert on this topic, but I certainly can spot a website where the owner has taken the time to consider form, function and presentation versus one that has enlisted cousin Jim, who’s a “webmaster,” to put together a company’s internet presence. Sure, saving a few bucks on a designer seems like a good idea, until you realize that the only traffic you receive is from a link in the design hall of shame (see this digg and this website). No where is this commandment of good design necessary than in e-commerce. When your site’s main purpose is to convert visitors into sales, a good design can be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and a poor one can stifle even the best marketing. Let’s look at some components of good and bad web design in the e-commerce industry:
Colors: Deeply rooted in the psyche of the internet consumer is a preference, a visual security blanket that can strongly affect their decision making process. A website needs to satisfy that need for chromatic comfort to really appeal to its users. Certain color combinations can evoke emotions and visually prompt or deter certain activity. It’s important to consider this when branding your company and deciding on what image you’re trying to convey. Avoid contrasting colors and choose calm, subtle combinations, especially those found in nature. The color scheme can set the tone and mood for the website and influence your visitors. Use a resource like colourlovers.com to choose complimentary palettes and take a look at graphic-design.com’s color page for more information.
Navigation: There’s nothing worse than not being able to find something on a website. Well, I’m sure there’s something worse, but there’s probably medication for that. Horrible navigation however, has no fix. Examples of this include scattered page links, confusing structure, mystery buttons, and a break from what has worked for over ten years now. Let’s face it, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to navigation, especially when there’s money on the line. Stick to the basics: Use a top or left side menu, link your logo to your home page, include links in your footer, add a search function, and keep it simple. Don’t let your page structure get too complicated or nest too many sub pages. Also, don’t design like this.
Layout: One often overlooked aspect of web design is page layout. There’s a healthy balance that needs to be struck between white space and content, or elements. Too much space can give the impression that the website is unfinished, or something is missing. Content too close or on top of each other can distract a user and make the site more difficult to read. Web 2.0 design components have redefined many of the rules with page layout. More sites are adopting a user-friendly design with simple instructions, larger font and more white space. Take a look at mint.com or icebrrg.com to see examples of Web 2.0 design and excellent use of white space and page layout. One more thing to consider with layout is the placement of elements and the natural progression of the user through the site. Ensure the user experience makes sense and there’s a logical order to the site in terms of activity or information. A good way to do this is to watch a friend or colleague use your site and ask them about their experience.
Rules: There’s a few standards that need to be followed in order to be considered legitimate. First, check your spelling and grammar. Come across as professional, and you’ll be considered the same. Second, check and re-check your links. Make sure every link on your page works, and they lead the user down a logical path. Third, avoid the bells and whistles. Although a Flash intro page and animated gifs may seem like excellent ways to make your site fancy, they detract from the purpose of a page. The rule of thumb is “keep it simple”. Give users reasons to move through your site, and ensure their visual experience is complimentary to your message.
I’ve only touched the basic principles of web design here, but it’s good starting point for understanding the concepts that go into designing an effective, user-friendly website. Especially in e-commerce, it’s very important to consider these design aspects and integrate them seemlessly to ensure the opportunity to be successful. Another place to find more detailed information on the principles of design is over at Digital Web Magazine. For now, good luck in getting your design done, or if you’re like me, re-doing what you’ve already done 400 times over in some strange obsessive fashion.