Don’t alienate your users
If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it. This doesn’t mean that everything you do should follow the same old look – after all, experimentation is necessary for growth and change. However over time we have been accustomed to several conventions on the web – conventions which have stuck because they work. These conventions are particularly strong in the case of icons and layout. For example you know when you click on the image of a house it is going to take you to the homepage and not somebody’s garden shed.
Using a conventional layout is not necessarily boring. Sure, you might want a design that makes you stand out and be able to show innovation, but be careful. Often it is possible to do this by addressing areas where conventions play less of a role, but if you do choose to interfere with those areas where convention is important, the key is to look at what it is that makes the convention work, and to make sure you retain that essential understandability. If you want your navigation bar in an unusual place for example, ask yourself whether you are doing this for a good reason. Perhaps you have an alternate method of drawing their attention to it, or maybe you even want them to take time figuring out your layout. But if you are making changes to a convention simply for the sake of change, then it is unlikely to be a good thing. In other words, don’t mess with the system for no good reason.
Simple navigation is key
Ever been on a site and just not know where you are? After a bit of frustrated playing around, you end up leaving and looking for another option in the search engine. It is like being stranded in a grassy field with no directions or map.
It is rarely a good thing for users to feel disorientated on your site (sites where confusion is an element of the design are an exception, but are uncommon and a lot harder to design successfully). Your site needs to be usable and easy to understand, so give your users a point in the right direction. Make the most of headers, highlight menu items if on that page, and use breadcrumb trails to guide your user round the site. Breadcrumb trails allow a user to see where they are in relation to the site’s hierarchy, making it easier to get a good understanding of the overall layout.
Know the habits of web users
Web users have habits, which have evolved from natural behaviour. When browsing they like to avoid long passages of text for instructions and they don’t generally like to have to think too deeply or problem solve as part of their navigation. It shouldn’t be like trying to put together a flat pack barbeque.
Testing your site will give you a good indication of user habits, which brings us to our next point.
Let users try your website
Market research for web design is overlooked remarkably often. And yet it can give you a huge advantage. Things you may have thought were pretty obvious turn out not to be, instructive text may not even get read, and testers may have encountered some confusion that you missed, which can be simply rectified.
The depth of market research done will depend on the budget, but even getting a few friends together in the same room to test the site is a big improvement on doing no research at all.