What Your Website’s Design Says About You

Jun 3 2013 by Artem Minayev | 20 Comments

What Your Website's Design Says About You

As web designers, we know that our work speaks to our users.

It’s that reason why we go about our work so deliberately; we choose colors, fonts, the type of web layout we’re going to use, and even the way we write CSS, all in a very purposeful manner.

As we craft our designs, we also realize that the result will say something about us, the designer. And these things that our designs are saying are not always good.

So whenever you’re building a website design, ask yourself this: What is it saying about me?

Modal Window Ads = Money Matters More than UX and Content

So many sites have opted for modal window/lightbox ads, which seems to be the modern form of pop-up window ads.

And — just like their predecessor, the pop-up window ads — modal window ads are very annoying.

Modal window advertisement is a very intrusive strategy that unpleasantly interrupts and affects the user experience.

If your users have to work hard to get to the content they’ve come to your site to read, you’re doing it wrong.

Your design should say to the user that the primary priority is her experience, and also that your content is the most important aspect of your site.

By interrupting, delaying, and otherwise making your users jump through hoops to get to your content, you’re telling them that they rank below the greater priority of monetizing your site.

In the same vein, anything that forces users to sign up, log in, put in their email, etc. just so they can access your content, should be reconsidered.

Imagine that you’re in this scenario: You’re desperately looking for a new web host for your startup because your current web host isn’t scaling to your needs. It just keeps crashing-and-burning, which tells you that you’ve outgrown your current solution (congratulations on your startup’s growth, by the way).

Like most tech entrepreneurs, your initial problem-solving action is to Google search for the new web host for your startup.

You happen to come across a timely thread on Quora, a site you know is frequented by smart tech entrepreneurs like yourself.

You get very excited because, within seconds, you’re off to a good start! You ask yourself, "No way, it can’t be this easy, can it?"

You decide to check the Quora thread out.

Yep, it turns out that it’s really not that easy (even though it should be).

Sadly, you realize that the web page requires you to connect your Facebook account or else you won’t be able to see all the content that you’ve gone to the site for.

If you choose not to sign in with your Facebook or Google account, only the first answer thread is shown.

The rest of the thread is frustratingly blurred out. What a slap in the face.

If that was your first time on the site — and the first thing they do to you is purposefully obscure the content you came for — wouldn’t that leave a terrible impression on you?

Getting our users the content they ask for as quickly as possible should be our first priority as web designers. Anything that works against that goal should be cut out from our designs.

There are plenty of other less obtrusive ways to display ads. There are design strategies, for example, that give users a choice of whether they want to interact with an ad or not — or at least a choice of quickly skipping/ignoring them — such as banner ads on the sidebar.

Lack of Web Accessibility = Not All People Matter to You

Web accessibility needs to be more widely embraced by the web design industry.

We need to focus our scope of web design innovation on all users, not just the users with expensive touch-screen smartphones.

Web accessibility goes beyond just those with disabilities. People on older mobile devices or those with poor internet connectivity — the average global internet speed is only 2.9Mbps, less than half of U.S. average speed — also need to be included.

Unless you want your website’s design to give off the impression that certain users matter to you more than others, then you want to have it crafted with good web accessibility features. Most web accessibility site features are relatively easy to implement and are already a part of good web design best practices.

While there are many of us who would exclude users of a certain browser (like deliberately choosing not to support Internet Explorer 6 anymore) it’s not fair to punish users for something they aren’t able to control (such as color blindness).

Insufficient White Space = Readability of Content Doesn’t Matter

One thing that I see a lot of around the Internet (outside of web design galleries, of course) is the lack of sufficient white space around content and images.

White space is a powerful design tool. White space can spell the difference between making your content presentation pleasurable and easier to read or cramped and visually uncomfortable.

With content being king, we should take the (often very little) time to ensure that it gets the best form of delivery possible.

For the purpose of illustration, look at how hard it is to read the block of text below:

It’s hard to read because of poor letter-spacing, line-height, padding/gutters, and margin property values. These are very easy issues to fix, if your CSS typography knowledge is up to speed.

Within seconds, and with just a tad bit of padding, margin, and line-height property value adjustments, the same block of text becomes better in terms of legibility. The text is more pleasurable to read:

Your content is worth reading. Ensure that your message isn’t lost because of poor white spacing.

Here’s a list of articles and guides to read. They all discuss the strategic use of white space in web design:

Useful 404 Error Pages = You Care About Keeping Users on the Site

Mistakes in entering the correct URL are made often.

Some inbound links to your content may no longer exist, or may have been moved.

Sometimes, certain web pages on your site just stop working because of technical issues.

For events like these, we need to create and design a useful 404 error page — a page that doesn’t just restate what the user already knows (which is that they’ve lost their way).

Some basic tips for designing useful error pages:

  • Have a search form for users in case they want to try and find the web page
  • Provide a way of contacting you for help
  • Auto-suggest web pages that closely relate to the content they’re looking for
  • Link to other web pages that list your content (e.g., Archive page, sitemap, help/support pages, etc.)

This is GitHub’s 404 error page (a good example of a useful 404 error page):

What makes GitHub’s error page useful?

  • It has a search form that users can use to potentially navigate their way to the correct web page
  • It has a link that allows website visitors to get assistance
  • It has a link to a status page in case the visitor wants to see whether or not the site is just temporarily having issues

If you don’t take steps to help users find the content they seek, then you’re just telling them that they should just go to another website to find it.

Poor Background/Foreground Contrast = Aesthetics Mean More than Legibility

Not providing enough color contrast between the background and the foreground is bad news for many users with low vision. What it says to your site visitors is that you have fallen prey to form over function mentality — that you care more about how the site and design looks over the actual content of the site itself.

Here’s an example of what poor color contrast does to legibility:

With just a few minor CSS tweaks — in this case, just changing the color property values of the <h1> and <p> elements — you can make the reading experience a bit better:

While there are tools like Readability that will help your users take care of these issues for you, it’s your responsibility as a web designer to provide that easy reading experience to begin with.

Take as much care as you can in creating a comfortable, visually pleasing content presentation. This encourages site visitors to consume whatever content you’re offering.

If you’re concerned that your website’s design lacks enough color contrast, these articles are worth a read:

No Engagement Features = Not Interested in What Users Have to Say

Providing methods for your users to be able to contact you says that you care deeply about their experience on your site.

You’re saying that you value their feedback, whether it’s negative or positive.

Be it a commenting system, contact form, email, social networks, your help and support forums, a live chat widget — having these user engagement tools will show that you want to hear from them.

If you’re not providing them with opportunities of contacting you, then you’re effectively telling people that you don’t care about what they have to say.

User feedback is critical for fine-tuning and developing the UI and UX of your website, so keep your lines of communication open.

What Do You Say?

It’s your turn. What do you have to say about this article? Share it with us in the comments section below!

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About the Author

Artem Minayev is a brand manager for Web Hosting Hub, which is a web hosting service for personal and small-business websites. Follow the company on Twitter @webhostinghub and Google+.

20 Comments

Hannes Uys

June 3rd, 2013

In the end it all adds up to SEO rankings.

Angelica Costa

June 3rd, 2013

God, Artem, I f..ing hate everything you pointed. Those subscription popups are extremely annoying.

Congratulations on the article.

AndreRichards

June 3rd, 2013

“Be it a commenting system, contact form, email, social networks, your help and support forums, a live chat widget — having these user engagement tools will show that you want to hear from them.”

I disagree. That may be ostensibly what it looks like but it doesn’t say that about the designer/site owner at all. As someone who has worked in various parts of the mainstream media and done lots of web dev projects for smaller businesses, I can assure you that commenting is used more for reader metrics than for engagement purposes. Most comments go unread by the editorial staff. It’s used primarily to show off the numbers of readers. Believe me, the editors at most sites are just looking at the number of comments and emails received, not the actual content of them. It’s mostly a marketing tool. I mean, which blog do you think people are going to favor–the one with no comments on any post or the one with 300+ comments on every post? The idea that sites are looking to engage via comments or email is hugely misleading and something you’re basing on an incorrect assumption.

Jacob Gube

June 3rd, 2013

@AndreRichards:
RE:

“Believe me, the editors at most sites are just looking at the number of comments and emails received, not the actual content of them.”

I respectfully disagree. I’m not sure if it’s “most sites”, though I can see that happening on some really big, impersonal sites.

However, I — and those I know who run similar sites (like Smashing Magazine, CSS-Tricks, etc.) — read all/most of the comments and respond to them as needed.

Conversing with the readers of Six Revisions through the comments section is my favorite task as the site’s primary editor.

Since Six Revisions is a multi-author site, I also encourage all of our contributing writers to monitor their articles for comments, and respond to them as needed. And in the occasion that I see a comment that I think the author should respond to, I’ll send that author an email to check the comments section of his/her article.

The comments system has been the easiest way to engage our readers in a more personal, long-form way (unlike Twitter or Facebook). It also has the benefit of being publicly accessible so that the discussions are richer and can occur between more than 2 people (unlike email).

It also has the side benefit of enriching the articles we have, because of the addition of knowledge, expertise, and opinions of our readers. It’s also the biggest place I find feedback regarding issues with the site, content, etc.

The downside is, at the size of Six Revisions, running a commenting system takes a lot of time and hard work that happens behind the scenes. Right now I’m staring at thousands of comments that I need to manually moderate, with most of them being spam that weren’t caught by our spam-prevention plugins.

But, because of what I’ve stated above, it’s worth the time and effort just to see the handful of thoughtful comments and feedback like yours.

My $0.02.

Jacob Gube

June 3rd, 2013

Also, to me, the number of comments on a post doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the quality and conversations in the comments.

Based on my experience, the number of comments is a poor quantitative metric of a an article’s site traffic performance. I’ve seen no consistent correlation between the number of comments and it’s ability to generate site traffic.

Gerry Alvarez

June 3rd, 2013

Nice article :) This is a valuable list of nuggets and I think a good way to think about many design choices as, essentially, messages that a website communicates to its users.

Regarding accessibility, you wrote “Unless you want your website’s design to give off the impression that certain users matter to you more than others, then you want to have it crafted with good web accessibility features.” Isn’t it fair to say, however, that usually a a company really does and perhaps should care more about certain users, i.e., target user groups, in most real website projects? Surely it would be great for all users if every site were optimized for all types of users, but it seems that the company will usually really only be concerned with the needs of certain users and will therefore choose to focus mostly, if not exclusively, on them. Sometimes, it would seem, accessibility may not be such a big concern for a website.

Cheyne

June 3rd, 2013

Totally agree about the Quora comment. I hate Quora. I refuse to even sign up now because of the way they restrict the content.

Quora, you’re doing internet totally wrong

martin

June 3rd, 2013

Making it very difficult to read your article on my phone has guaranteed I’ll never visit this site again.
THAT’S what you think about your readers.

Edwin

June 3rd, 2013

Your website is for the user, not search spiders. I think that got lost somewhere in translating our job description. SEO bullsh!t is dying a long and painful death. Clients obsessed with being Google #1 via SEO please make way for clients who have something genuine to add to their industry and accidentally do well on Google without spending 1c on SEO.

Karen Walters

June 4th, 2013

Great article. People make almost instant judgments about others based on their site design, but when you’re so close to it, it’s difficult to be objective about what kind of impression you’re leaving with your visitors. So we have to design our website carefully.

Tim

June 4th, 2013

I would also disagree with AndreRichards comment. Take a site like Amazon. Shopper comments are how other shoppers buy products nowadays. The first thing you do when you go to a product on Amazon is look at the buyer comments and reviews.

“Lack of Web Accessibility = Not All People Matter to You”
I would also comment on this. This might be exactly true for many websites. If you are a fine art painter, showing a portfolio of your work will mean very little to a blind person. It’s always good to be as accessible as possible, but it is not necessary based on who your target audience is.

Jacob Gube

June 4th, 2013

@Tim: I strongly agree with you on the comment regarding Amazon. My purchase heavily depends on the content of the reviews of the product, not just the number of reviews of the product. To me, social proof is about quality, but quantity.

Regarding your second comment, I completely see your point, but your example isn’t the norm, but rather the exception.

And, even in that case, I still think regardless of your target audience, since basic web accessibility site features — features that will get you to like 90% of complying with website accessibility standards — are created automatically by default if we follow web design and usability best practices, there’s very little reason not to try and accommodate the needs of all people.

Pavel Burov

June 5th, 2013

“Be it a commenting system, contact form, email, social networks, your help and support forums, a live chat widget — having these user engagement tools will show that you want to hear from them.”

I beg to differ. Nowadays people post all kind of crap over the Internet. And more often then not (especially in comments) they do it not for some proper reason but just because they can. Because it is just one click away. And, trust me, you don’t want to hear such people. Just put all possible contacts you need (social networks, email, etc.) and if people put some effort in contacting you then it probably means that they need you. And these are the people you want to hear.

Well, it’s just my opinion, but, I think that it is also one of the issues to consider

Peter

June 5th, 2013

Good article. I agree that UX should be one of the more important things to consider. Thank you for sharing some useful articles in here as well. :)

Anthony Russo

June 5th, 2013

@Edwin: I completely agree with your statement about the site being for users and not search spiders. Anymore it seems as if most sites are being made to be found rather than to be read. I too look forward to the day that genuine content with no regard for SEO rules the SERP’s.

Kendall Sap

June 6th, 2013

Completely agree! The majority of first interactions with companies are on their website. If things pop up with an advertisement or telling me to sign up with Facebook I just close the tab. Small companies may be losing a lot of traffic purely due to poor website design. A poor website also makes SEO difficult…

tomByrer

June 10th, 2013

Thanks so much for pointing almost all the web design irritations I’ve been seeing the past year. & double-thanks for naming Quora.

One thing I’d like to add: font-size.
Very basic CSS rules, but often wrongly target only OSX/iOS, since that is what most designers seem to use. 10 years ago I can point out an Mac-authored website strictly by its tiny fonts. Now I can tell they do all their web surfing via their iPad or iPhone since the default font size is huge, even on desktops.

Nikhil Malhotra

June 13th, 2013

Usability is always more important to me than any kind of aesthetics.The article is meaningful as it indirectly talks about bad practices to avoid while building a website.I also advice people to focus on usability rather than just decorating something which is not required.Thanks.

Savas

June 30th, 2013

The design of your websites can speak for you. If they are clean, but also detail oriented for the things that matter, then this is how you are as a person. If they are colored and joyful, but also dark and sad when it’s needed, you express your personality very well through your web design. When you make a website, you have to place yourself in the feet of the users and make all the necessary optimizations for making them stay as long as possible on the pages and this means a website has to be attractive, not very contrasted in most cases, easy to read and work with, clear, etc.

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