What Makes Good Web Design
9 Guidelines & Best Practices for Exceptional Web Design and Usability
When it comes to designing or redesigning a website, it’s easy to get hung up on the aesthetics. Does that shade of blue look right? Should the logo be on the right side of the screen, or left? What if we put a giant animated GIF in the middle of the page?
However, in a world where folks have more than 1.8 billion websites they can potentially land on, you need to make sure yours is not just a pretty face. It should be designed for usability, how easy your website is to use, and user experience (UX), how enjoyable it is to interact with your website.
Now, you could spend years studying the ins and outs of these disciplines But for the sake of giving you a jumping-off point, we’ve assembled a list of the fundamental guidelines and best practices you can apply to your next website redesign or website launch. Then, we’ll review 10 features you’ll need on your site to put these recommendations into practice. Let’s dive in.
While the appearance of your website is certainly important, most people aren’t coming to your site to evaluate how slick the design is. They want to complete some action, or to find some specific piece of information.
Therefore, unnecessary design elements (i.e., those which serve no functional purpose) will only overwhelm and make it more difficult for visitors to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish.
From a usability and UX perspective, simplicity is your best friend. If you have all the necessary page elements, it’s hard to get too simple. You can employ this principle in a variety of different forms, such as:
- Colors: Basically, don’t use a lot. The Handbook of Computer-Human Interaction recommends using a maximum of five (plus or minus two) different colors in your design.
- Typefaces: The typefaces you choose should be highly legible, so nothing too artsy and very minimal script fonts, if any. For text color, again, keep it minimal and always make sure it contrasts with the background color. A common recommendation is to use a maximum of three different typefaces in a maximum of three different sizes.
- Graphics: Only use graphics if they help a user complete a task or perform a specific function (don’t just add graphics willy-nilly).
2. Visual Hierarchy
Closely tied to the principle of simplicity, visual hierarchy means arranging and organizing website elements so that visitors naturally gravitate toward the most important elements first.
Remember, when it comes to optimizing for usability and UX, the goal is to lead visitors to complete a desired action, but in a way that feels natural and enjoyable. By adjusting the position, color, or size of certain elements, you can structure your site in such a way that viewers will be drawn to those elements first.
In the example below from Spotify, you can see that the main heading “Get 3 months of Premium for free” sits atop the visual hierarchy with its size and page position. It draws your eye to their mission before anything else. This is followed by the “Get 3 Months Free” CTA, which prompts action. Users can click this CTA, or scan the menu items above for more action
Planning out intuitive navigation on your site is crucial to help visitors find what they’re looking for. Ideally, a visitor should land on your site and not have to think extensively about where to click next. Moving from point A to point B should be as frictionless as possible.
Here are a few tips for optimizing your site’s navigation:
- Keep the structure of your primary navigation simple (and near the top of your page).
- Include navigation in the footer of your site.
- Consider using breadcrumbs on every page (except your homepage) so users remember their navigation trail.
- Include a search bar near the top of your site so visitors can search by keywords.
- Don’t offer too many navigation options per page. Again, simplicity!
- Include links within your page copy, and make it clear where those links go.
- Don’t make users dig too deep. Try making a basic wireframe map of all your site pages arranged like a pyramid: Your homepage is at the top, and each linked page from the previous forms the next layer. In most cases, it’s best to keep your map no more than three levels deep. Take HubSpot’s site map, for example.
One more pointer: Once you’ve settled on what your site’s main (top) navigation will be, keep it consistent. The labels and location of your navigation should remain the same on every page.
This leads us nicely into our next principle…
In addition to keeping your navigation consistent, the overall look and feel of your site should be similar across all of your site’s pages. Backgrounds, color schemes, typefaces, and even the tone of your writing are all areas where consistency has a positive impact on usability and UX.
That’s not to say every page should follow the same layout. Instead, create different layouts for specific types of pages (e.g., landing pages, informational pages, etc.). By using those layouts consistently, you’ll make it easier for visitors to understand what type of information they’re likely to find on a given page.
In the example below, you can see that Airbnb uses the same layout for all of its “Help” pages, a common practice. Imagine what it would be like from a visitor’s perspective if every “Help” page had its own, unique layout. There would probably be a lot of shoulder shrugging.
According to Statista, 48% of page global views were from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. And according to our research, 93% of people have left a website because it didn’t display properly on their device.
The takeaway here: To provide a truly great user experience, your site has to be compatible with the many different devices that your visitors are using. In the tech world, this is known as responsive design.
Responsive design means investing in a highly flexible website structure. On a responsive site, content is automatically resized and reshuffled to fit the dimensions of whichever device a visitor happens to be using. This can be accomplished with mobile-friendly HTML templates, or by creating a special mobile site.
Ultimately, it’s more important to provide a great experience across different devices than look identical across those devices.
Alongside mobile-friendliness, it’s worth your while to test your website’s cross-cross browser compatibility. In all likelihood, you’ve only viewed your site on one web browser, be it Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or something else.
Now is the time to open your pages on each of these browsers and evaluate how your elements appear. Ideally, there won’t be much difference in presentation, but you can’t know for sure until you see for yourself.
The goal of web accessibility is to make a website that anyone can use, including people with disabilities or limitations that affect their browsing experience. As a website designer, it’s your job to think of these users in your UX plan.
Like responsiveness, accessibility applies to your entire site: structure, page format, visuals, and both written and visual content. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative and the World Wide Web Consortium, set the guidelines for web accessibility. In a broad sense, these guidelines state that websites must be:
- Perceivable: Visitors are aware of the content on your site.
- Operable: The functionality of your website should be possible in different ways.
- Understandable: All content and alerts can be easily understood.
- Robust: Your website is usable across different assistive technologies, devices, and browsers.
For a deeper dive into this topic, see our Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility.
A big challenge in web design is balancing originality with your expectations. Most of us are expert internet users, and there are specific conventions we’ve grown accustomed to over time. Such conventions include:
- Placing the main navigation at the top (or left side) of a page.
- Placing a logo at the top left (or center) of a page.
- Making the logo clickable, so it always brings a visitor back to the homepage.
- Having links and buttons that change color/appearance when you hover over them.
- Using a shopping cart icon on an ecommerce site. The icon also has a number badge signifying the number of items in the cart.
- Ensuring image sliders have buttons users can click to manually rotate slides.
While some might opt to throw these out the window for the sake of uniqueness, this is a mistake. There’s still plenty of room for creativity within the constraints of web conventionality.
Let’s briefly consider another field of design, architecture. Building codes are put in place so that folks can easily and safely inhabit spaces. An architect doesn’t complain about these codes or violate them because, aside from legal repercussions, they assure safety and comfort of guests. It doesn’t matter how dazzling the building looks — if you trip on uneven stairs or you can’t get out in a fire, you might prefer to stay outside.
In the same way, you can craft a memorable experience while meeting user expectations. If you violate what users anticipate, they may feel uncomfortable or even frustrated with your site.
Sticking to web conventions lends your site credibility. In other words, it increases the level of trust your site conveys. And if you’re striving to build a site that provides the best user experience possible, credibility goes a long way.
One of the best methods to improve your credibility is to be clear and honest about the product or service you’re selling. Don’t make visitors dig through dozens of pages to find what it is you do. Be up-front on your homepage, and dedicate some real estate to explaining the value behind what you do.
Another credibility tip: Have a pricing page, also linked on the homepage. Rather than force people to contact you to learn more about pricing, list your prices clearly on your site. This makes your business appear more trustworthy and legitimate.
At the end of the day, usability and user experience hinge on the preferences of the end-users. After all, if you’re not designing for them, who are you designing for?
So, while the principles detailed in this list are a great starting point, the final key to improving the design of your site is to conduct user testing, gather feedback, and implement changes based on what you’ve learned.
And don’t bother testing usability by yourself. You’ve already invested a lot of time into your design, which brings your own biases into the equation. Get testers who have never seen your site before, the same as any first-time visitor.
Here are a few user testing tools to get you started:
- Website Grader: Our free tool evaluates your website based on several factors: mobile, design, performance, SEO, and security. It then offers tailored suggestions for improvement. You can learn more about Website Grader in our dedicated blog post.
- Crazy Egg: Track multiple domains under one account and uncover insights about your site’s performance using four different intelligence tools — heat map, scroll map, overlay, and confetti.
- Loop11: Use this tool to easily create usability tests — even if you don’t have any HTML experience.
- The User Is Drunk: Pay Richard Littauer to get drunk and review your site. Don’t believe me? We tried it.
For even more helpful options, see our list of the best user testing tools.
Hopefully, these guidelines are useful in informing the structure of your web pages and website as a whole. But, how does one put these guidelines into practice? Let’s take a look at some actionable best practices you can follow during the design process.