Easy Does It: 5 Web Design Principles for Effortless Interaction

By Neill Harmer

Designers should want the websites they create to inspire user interaction. Whether a site sells goods or offers content, the goal is to provide a rewarding experience that encourages visitors to linger, explore, share and return on a regular basis.

Optimizing a site for user interaction is a constant balancing act, however. Too many sites try to do too much, offering all manner of content, imagery and links on pages that end up providing a cluttered and wholly uninviting experience, making it difficult for visitors to interact. An impatient visitor confused by too many choices will often make the choice to click away. That's a problem, but it doesn't stop there.

An excess of content also detracts from a site's design aesthetic, further diminishing its appeal among visitors who appreciate a visually engaging presentation. With the glut of website choices that visitors have today, it pays to follow these five fundamental and time-tested principles to designing sites for optimal interaction.

Understand What Users Want

While it is not necessary to be clairvoyant, designers do need to spend time up front baselining who the target users are, what they're looking for and what they want to do when they get to the website. Are they looking for how-to content? Do they seek entertainment, community interaction or product purchasing? It pays to collaborate with the client, design colleagues and even non-design associates in sizing up the target audience, and examining competing sites for strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, not every user will want the same thing, but understanding the prevailing characteristics of the user population helps designers prioritize approach when shaping the visitor experience. Insights into the user's persona will guide the design aesthetic, element placement, calls-to-action, navigational structures and visual hierarchies.

Don't Make People Think

Too much information detracts from website interactions. The more choices offered, the easier it becomes to choose nothing...except to click away. A clear, visual presentation of content and imagery spares the user from laboring through a plethora of choices and prompts the interactions that are desired. Minimizing distraction and offering sub-navigation menus for further exploration help to strike the Goldilocks' ideal of content volume that's "just right."

Word choice is another element in minimizing the user's mental processing time. Straightforward, familiar language is often more effective than some novel treatment. For instance, users immediately recognize "Contact Us," whereas they may be baffled by a more vague term like "Engage." Consistency is another plus. Don't put up roadblocks to user interaction, such as employing different navigation bar styles on different pages.

5 Sites Doing All the Work

Check out examples of websites that aren't making their users think at wsm.co/webwork5 Err on the Side of Simplicity

Simplicity guides every aspect of design at many of the world's best websites. Simplicity gives designers the freedom to visually emphasize what the user wants, and what they want the user to do. Today, simplicity often means utilizing images and spare text to convey ideas and invite actions in favor of text-heavy presentations. The effectiveness of simplicity has driven the adoption of flat or minimalist website designs that have become so popular in recent years.

Simplicity becomes even more important in the mobile realm. Responsive Web design that enables a site to adapt automatically to whatever device is accessing it helps ensure a simple, rewarding experience for smartphone and tablet users. At the same time, responsive Web design with the right platform simplifies the life of a designer by not having to create multiple versions of a website.

Choose Fonts, Colors and White Space Wisely

Choosing the right typefaces, colors and degree of white space has a big impact on site interaction as well. These elements reflect a site's credibility, usability and mood, so it's important to tailor them to a given audience. While the use of different fonts enables designers to showcase their creativity, too many varied fonts can have a discordantly jarring effect.

Keep the variety of fonts to two or three, and be judicious in the use of larger-size fonts and bolding (if everything is bold, then nothing is bold; if everything is big, then nothing is big). Liberal white space helps call attention to key elements, while smart color choices are critical to creating the mood demanded for interaction­-bold and daring or thoughtful and subdued, for instance, depending on the audience.

Treat Design as a Continuous Evolution

The beauty of Web design is how it can unfold and flourish over time. To cultivate the best user experience, up-front and ongoing testing and feedback is essential. Broaden your horizons beyond fellow Web designers by consulting with prospective users-senior citizens for a retirement home website, for instance, or children for a kids-oriented site.

Software tools can help identify what's working and what isn't. Heat mapping applications, for example, show designers where visitors are clicking and scrolling to help them tweak the design to improve the user experience and the site's results. Of course, it's also important to track traditional Web metrics such as conversion, time on site, page views, single-page bounce rate and more. With ongoing insights, designers can iterate a site to the peak of potential for user interaction.

Delight & Inspire

Good Web design will never be as easy as it may seem. It requires a blend of art and science, as well as insights that come with experience. By keeping these fundamental user-focused principles in mind, you'll be better equipped to create beautiful, richly functional websites that delight and inspire your visitors.

Neill Harmer is the lead designer for LightCMS (www.lightcms.com), a NetSuite company that provides a powerful yet easy-to-use cloud-based platform for creating beautiful websites and online stores.