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11 ways to make your website design easy to use

Author: Ben Jeffery

1. Be careful of dropdown menus

At first sight, dropdown menus appear to be a good way to structure and present complex website navigation. However visitors are often confused by their use. For instance, we analysed a previous incarnation of our own website which used dropdown menus and quickly realised that nobody clicked on the top level item pages (our most informative pages) because they thought they were just headings for the dropdowns. It can also be tricky on mobiles.

Alternatives would be repeating the top menu item in the dropdown to make sure it's clearly an actual page. Or avoiding the dropdown altogether by having a single top-level page which then shows a sub-menu within the page once clicked.

2. Make menu items simple and familiar

Adhering to standard conventions such as presenting a textual menu with familiar items like Home, About Us and Contact Us helps users feel comfortable browsing your site. The use of such pages helps them identify where to go if they have specific questions and actually clarifies the main navigational structure itself.

Avoid using unclear descriptions or graphics for menu items. Users should be able to instantly tell what a link will do.

Simple easy fast

3. Include a site map

Users feel comfortable finding information in different ways. Some people like to see the structure of your whole website in one page to get a handle on the site and where everything is. A simple site map can help both your users and search engine penetration. A site map link in your footer is the most familiar position. The site map itself should use as simple a structure as possible. A ‘nested’ list will adequately convey the hierarchy quickly and easily in most cases.

4. Write brief, clear text

People don't generally read lots of information online. They want concise information, so write your content with this in mind. Make sure your content is to the point, containing enough information to give the person what they are looking for without the need to scroll through paragraph after paragraph. Keep the text understandable to a wide audience unless you are specifically targeting technical users.

5. Don’t fix your page height

Some designs dictate a fixed height of content, using additional scroll bars within the page rather than the default browser scroll bars. Users are familiar with browser scroll bars and therefore using that method to navigate vertically down the page is intuitive. If you add your own scroll bars within the page users may just avoid them or not even realise there is extra content to view. Allow your page design to expand vertically with the content, rather than restricting to a fixed height. This also means site owners have more control over content rather than having to fit text to a constricted design.

6. Add a contact form

A contact form makes things easier because your potential customers don't have to think about what they want to say. They can just answer your questions and send it, and often users will take this option where they might not have picked up the phone. Make sure you ask how they found you, and keep the form nice and short (you can always call them back to ask extra questions).

7. Display your contact details clearly

It's surprising how many websites don't include a prominent number on their website. Lots of people just want to get in touch, and a phone number reassures them that you're personal where your competitors might not be. We always suggest having the phone number on every page, right at the top with your logo. Mobile tip: make it plain text so mobile users can click to call.

8. Write a custom 404 error page

404 error pages appear if the user goes to a page on your site that does not exist. By default most websites display a white page with a technical error message explaining that a 404 error has occurred. This is not very helpful to the user since they might not understand what that message means and have no easy way to continue to navigate your site.

Write a custom 404 error page on your website with the same design and layout as your other pages, with a plain English explanation and helpful links. Your menu can also be included in the page so it is very easy for the user to continue through your site. This is a simple technical task so no website should be without it.

9. Keep your layout consistent

When a new user arrives at your website it takes a certain amount of time to gain an understanding of your site. This will include things like how to navigate the site and where a login button is. Keep your site layout consistent so that as the user navigates your site they don’t have too much extra to learn. If you change your layout on different pages then the user may become confused and frustrated, and they may go to a competitor’s website instead.

10. Let them search

Depending on how much content your website includes, you may want a search to make things easier. If you want to save money, use something like the Google custom search tool, which can be added to an existing website. Make sure you check what search terms people use if you can, so you can get a better idea of your customers' needs and what they can't find.

11. Analyse your visitors

Making your website easier to use is an ongoing project, and analysis tools like Google Analytics let you monitor and improve the site. What content do most people read? How long do they spend on the site? How many of them leave the website immediately after arriving (the 'bounce rate')? By reviewing your visitors' behaviour regularly, you'll get a better idea of what they need and how you can help.