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How to Make Websites That People Will Actually Use

2010 September 15
by Greg Satell

Websites are important.  They allow us to promote, sell and communicate more effectively than we ever have before.

So it’s somewhat paradoxical that most websites fail miserably.  What’s more, the reason that they fail is seldom a lack of investment or even effort.  They fail because they are too difficult to use.

There’s no reason it has to be this way.  Although much in the digital world is complicated and mysterious, web usability is fairly straightforward with sound principles that are well established.  Here are 5 simple rules that will help you.

Use the Simplest Tech that Can Get the Job Done

Mathematicians have a great rule which says that you should always use the simplest model that explains the data.  The concept is just as important in developing web sites:  You should use the simplest technology that will allow users to do what you want them to.

Technology moves fast, but people change slowly.  Humans, by nature, form habits that we are loathe to change.  If you are hearing about technology for the first time, you probably shouldn’t use it.   New tech is often full of bugs and there is usually a shortage of people who know how to deploy it properly.

Yet it is not just new technology that gets us into trouble, even old standards can ruin a website.  The best example of this is Flash animation, which is often used with no regard to function.  When in doubt, leave Flash out.

The web was designed to be scalable, so it’s usually easy to upgrade later if the new tech becomes truly important.  If the old stuff works, go ahead and use it.

Design for Function, Not to Impress

Probably the most common website mistake is to load the design up with too many bells and whistles.  What may look really cool to your colleagues in the office is probably confusing for the average consumer and downright annoying after repeated visits.

Most of the pitfalls can be avoided using these simple guidelines:

Follow web conventions: Most websites have the same basic layout.  For instance the logo on the upper left links back to the home page, the search box is in the upper right, etc.

Unless you have a very good reason not to, you should follow these conventions.  Most users expect your web site to look and work that way and it frustrates them when things aren’t in their usual place.

Use flat colors: Many designers like to jazz up a web page by shading colors or making cool designs.  While this might keep your web designer entertained, it takes attention away from the important elements that you want to direct users to.

Preview Content: Users will click on something that grabs their interest and they want to know more about.  Previewing content, especially on the home page, lets people know what you have to offer.

Furthermore, make sure that when users click on something, they will get what they expect.  Tricking users into going someplace they really don’t want to go will just encourage them not to return.

Avoid Animation and Sound: There are good reasons to use animation, like when you are demonstrating a product.  However, usually it’s just distracting and annoying.  Again, when in doubt, leave Flash out.

This goes double for sounds on your web site.  There’s nothing worse than surfing around and all the sudden being jolted (or embarrassed, especially at the office) by what somebody thinks is a cool tune or sound effect.

Web Menus are for Navigation not for Branding

When you go to the airport, the first thing you do is try to find your destination.  It might seem creative to have signs that say, “Home of the Cubs” or “The Big Apple” or “Terrible weather, worse food and a cup o’ tea,” but consumers appreciate signs that say, “Chicago,” “New York” or “London.”

It’s the same with web sites.  People go to your web site to get useful information and depend on menus to find what they’re looking for.  They really don’t care how creative or brilliant marketing people think they are.

As a prime example, click on this Hermes site.  It looks like a modern art exhibit (which I’m sure is some idiot’s idea of creativity) and gives the user no idea what they are supposed to do there.  What’s the point of pleasing marketers in order to piss off customers?

Some Links Are Useful, but Too Many are a Disaster

Links are make the web so great.  Tim Berners-Lee originally concieved the web as an efficient way to organize information at CERN, a nuclear laboratory. Rather than set up a hierarchy to organize documents, he realized that hypertext links could do the job much better.

As the web evolved, links became used (and overused) for promotional purposes.  For instance, inserts often irrelevant links in between paragraphs.  Other sites have links up and down the left and right columns.  Both practices are ill-conceived.

Every link requires the user to make a decision and, as Barry Schwartz pointed out in his highly acclaimed book The Paradox of Choice, too many choices paralyzes consumers and decreases their satisfaction.

You can find a good summary of the issues surrounding links here.  However, for starters, try to limit column links to three blocks of five links and use links within texts only to provide information that’s truly valuable and do it in a way that increases readability.

Test, Retest and Test Some More

Probably the best thing that you can do to improve your web site is to conduct ongoing usability testing.  It’s a fairly straightforward process and there are a lot of good usability experts out there who can help you.

If your budget is constrained, feel free to conduct the tests yourself.  You can find a good online guide here or, even better, pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy.

There are other excellent resources out there as well, but probably the best thing you can do to make your web site more effective is simply to make usability a priority.

Your users don’t need fancy graphics or exotic animation or to see how cleverly you can “brand” yourself.  What they need is a web site that respects them enough to take their time and effort seriously.

– Greg

18 Responses leave one →
  1. September 15, 2010

    Nice write up. I just finished a redesign on my site a few months ago, and simplification was one of the major things we worked on. Killed all the drop down menus tried to make everything simpler and cleaner. Hopefully my users appreciate it.

    Was curious about this comment:

    “Preview Content: Users will click on something that grabs their interest and they want to know more about. Previewing content, especially on the home page, lets people know what you have to offer.”

    Any examples of sites that have done this well in your opinion?

  2. September 15, 2010


    Thanks, I’m glad you liked the post.

    As for previewing content, the best model is news sites (except for maybe New York Times, which needs to be much more dynamic on their home page). The worst are most marketing sites, which tend to have things like “case studies” or “data center” on their home menus but don’t preview any of the content on the home page.

    Users generally don’t like to explore web sites, but if they see something interesting they will click. So not only previewing content is important, but also to keep the home page dynamic so that when users return to the site they will see something new and worthwhile.

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  3. September 15, 2010

    Great article Greg.

    I think an important aspect to highlight is that unlike a few years ago, everyone doesn’t use Internet Explorer however the huge amount of websites (especially retail websites) that do not accomodate Google Chrome or Firefox is ridiculous. What a way to turn away potential customers!

    I personally believe that BBC News, Google and Facebook are the best websites in the world. Not just because they are popular, but they are popular due to how simple they are. Like you said, people do not wish to explore – they will be there (usually) for a reason.


  4. September 15, 2010


    I agree. Those are three of the best.

    Does anybody else have nominations?

    – Greg

  5. September 15, 2010

    Greg, I need to follow these for my own site, cut it down to size. Totally agree that less is more: for print and web design, in writing, everything. Forget the bells, whistles (hate sound, heavy flash animations, etc.). Simplicity, straight forward navigation, ease of use, clarity of function/purpose. Good list, thanks.

  6. September 15, 2010


    I’m glad to hear it was useful. Good luck!

    – Greg

  7. September 15, 2010

    Greg– Well said!

    I have been in the design business for 30 years… far longer than the web has existed… so I guess that makes me a designasaurus…

    But somehow (and I don’t know how) a “school” of web design thinking has evolved to a point where the “experience” of using a site seems completely secondary to the schtick of visual design. I’m not advocating that a solid user experience and aesthetics are mutually exclusive, I’m just saying that web designers are a tribe of folks who care more about peer acceptance than they do about how people actually engage with content.

    Sadly, the absolute worse web sites out there are those of design firms. My advice: develop your site on WordPress. It’s a platform that is simple, scalable, SEO friendly, and best of all– easy for “non developers” to manage their content over time.

    Thomson Dawson

  8. September 15, 2010


    You make a good point about WordPress (this is a WordPress site).

    It used to be that open source was a security risk (and still is to some extent), but WordPress has a large community that updates frequently and, if you don’t have a full time team maintaining the site, it’s a very good option.

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  9. September 15, 2010

    Agreed. I’m using WordPress for the blog part of my site, as well as other sites I’m developing. Via themes, plugins and widgets, it’s a nice platform for creating easy, template-based sites.

  10. September 15, 2010

    Yes it is:-)

    Anybody else use WordPress? What about Drupal or Joomla?

    – Greg

  11. September 16, 2010

    We’ve just reworked out site in WordPress and I’ve been amazed at how easily we can put together a site that does what we want without the need for a web designer.

    I’m now reviewing with your article as a guide – so thanks!


  12. September 16, 2010

    Good luck with it Simon!

    – Greg

  13. September 19, 2010

    Wonderful post Greg! Hope to see more on this topic – great learnings – so simply put!


  14. September 19, 2010

    Thanks Ajoy. Have a great week!

    – Greg

  15. October 15, 2010

    Nice article – some of these guidelines are so basic that you’d expect most webmasters would abide by them, but it is shocking to see that they don’t.

  16. October 15, 2010

    Yes, it is shocking.

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  17. Debra Robinson permalink
    October 23, 2010

    Thank you. I’m new to web design and the advice about simplicity is something I don’t want to forget. The tendency towards unnecessary bells and whistles is tempting, because the thinking might be to sell yourself as a designer. It’s certainly occurred to me.

    I must confess that I like the Hermes site without the animation and the sound. Then again that’s your point, huh?

  18. October 23, 2010

    Thanks Debra.

    A lot of people said they like the Hermes site and I understand what they mean from an Aesthetic point of view. I just don’t know how people are supposed to use it and what they are supposed to use it for.

    Thanks for your comment. Good luck!

    – Greg

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