18 Usability Guidelines and Website Design Standards

18 Usability Guidelines and Website Design Standards

Last Edited February 3, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in UX

Knowing and understanding the guidelines when it comes to usability of your business’s website is a sure way to grow your customer base. Websites that are not user-friendly are not efficient. Simply put, if your website is not friendly for the people who go to your page, visitors will go elsewhere. Making sure your website is easy to access, efficient to use, and includes helpful content are some of the important guidelines to follow. You should also consider having your website tested for usability. When you test your website, you will be able to figure out what is going right, what is going wrong, and what might need to be changed.

Why is Knowing and Understanding the Usability Guidelines Useful?

Maybe you are a business owner looking to start developing a new website, or you might be thinking about making your current one more user-friendly. Whatever your situation is in regards to your website, the usability guidelines below can help you. If you go ahead and create a website without understanding the guidelines first, you might find that your website is not as effective as you had hoped. This might mean you have to go back and figure out what is going on with your website and why it isn’t working. This could take a lot of time, money, and could cause you a lot of frustration. It could also cause you to lose potential customers. It is helpful to know about these guidelines before you spend tons of money paying someone to redo your website, too. Learning about the guidelines could save you tons of money, if you just do it right from the beginning.

Research-based Guidelines are Important

Don’t listen to just anyone about what guidelines will work for your website. As with anything, strategies that are researched are more likely to work better. It is important to follow guidelines that are research-based. Don’t feel like doing all the digging? Are you short on time, but need to understand what they are? Well, you’re in luck! Here is more information on 18 guidelines below that are research-based and proven to work.

Usability Guidelines

1. Design Process and Evaluation 

When it comes to the design process and evaluation, the research concludes that you should only have useful content on your website. Any unnecessary content may hinder it from performing well when users visit your page. During the design process, you should also consider getting to know what your users want by gathering information between exchanges with actual users. Listen to those suggestions that they have. Meeting user expectations will allow you to support their needs. Half the battle is knowing what they want when they visit a website. Involving them in this process can be a very rewarding experience for both you and the user. You should also set goals in terms of usability and define how you will reach those goals. Research has found that websites that are not within the top 30 that come up when keywords are used will very seldom be visited. You should also consider working with multiple developers instead of just taking advice from one individual person. This way, you can look at your website design from different angles to reach multiple audiences.

2. Optimizing the User Experience

There is a lot to think about when it comes to optimizing user experience. One aspect of a website that can be frustrating for users is having pop-ups or other unsolicited windows. Making your website professional can also help to make it credible to your users. If they feel as though your website is not credible, they will likely leave. Keeping a consistent sequence of processes is a great way to increase user experience. It helps users to understand and become more familiar with certain steps. Make sure your users know when they are going to have to wait by indicating their wait time if it is more than a minute or two long. If a user has to wait for a long time, they will become discouraged. Other ways you can optimize the user experience are to make pages with important information easy to print, include frequently asked questions in a very obvious place, and be very specific with terminology that might come naturally to you, but might confuse users. Make sure to support users with how to use your website, as many of them might be new or inexperienced users.

3. Accessibility

Make your site accessible to all people. In accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, websites must be accessible by everyone, even those with disabilities. You can do this by using assistive technology on your page. Also make sure to provide text for all images, animations, maps, and other media. You can do this by containing a separate website that is text-only for those with disabilities. Be aware that your webpage should not include screen flicker for those that suffer from epilepsy. Make sure the information on your page can be accessed without style sheets, which may interfere with assistive technology. Label the different areas of your page, so that it is easier to navigate. Make sure that plugins and applets are available to everyone by testing them to be sure. Your job as a web designer is to make sure everyone, no matter what their ability or disability, can easily get to everywhere on your page. You need to accomplish this not only to gain customers, but to make sure you are in compliance with Section 504.  

4. Hardware and Software

The fourth important research-based guideline has to do with the hardware and software of your website. There are many browsers out there, and designers should try to make their website compatible with the most popular ones like Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Find out what users want when it comes to fonts, text size, and other browser settings. When designing your website, try to make at least 95% of the users happy, if you can. Not only should you make your website to be compatible with browsers, but also consider the most popular operating systems that your users might have. Research shows that Windows XP is the most popular followed by Windows 2000, Windows 98, and then Mac. You should also design your website with user speeds in mind. Make sure your users do not have to wait too long for everything on your page to load. You monitor screen resolution design is also important for usability. Consider 1024x768 pixels, as this is what most people are using when it comes to their resolution.

5. The Home Page

Your home page will be one of the most important parts of your website. This is the page that your visitors see first. If they don’t like what they see, they might go somewhere else. Make sure your homepage is easy to get to—include all the most important links on it, and make them want to stay and explore more about your company. Many users will only look at the homepage to decide whether or not they would like to go deeper into the rest of the content. You should also consider what kind of and how much content you put on the homepage. If a user sees a lot of text when it loads, they will become overwhelmed. It is also important not to put too many pictures that can be overwhelming also. One of the most important things to include is your homepage is the purpose of motto of your website or company. If you are planning to change anything about your website that users have become accustomed to, you should be sure to put that on your homepage so they are aware of those changes.

6. Page Layout

When it comes to the way you lay out the pages on your website, there are some important guidelines to follow. Thinking back to one of the first guidelines, you should only include what is necessary on your site. This means that you should not make your pages cluttered with extraneous information or images. The research shows that an uncluttered page is more easily navigated than a page with lots of stuff. Important items that you want your users to see right away should be in the top center of the page. Any comparative information you display should be next to each other, so it is easy to see. Don’t make your users go back and forth between pages to compare information. Use a level of importance that goes from high to low. The most important info should be on the top and the least on the bottom. Make the items on a page aesthetically pleasing by lining everything up. In addition, use appropriate page and line lengths, do not use scroll stoppers, and be conservative with how much white space you include.

7. Navigation

One of the most used buttons on a website is the back button. Users like to explore, but they also like to know they have easy access to the information they saw previously. Make sure your back button works. In fact, consistently use the different buttons and links on your webpage. Try not to confuse your user. Make sure the labels on your tabs are easy to understand, so the reader knows where they are and where they are going. Using sitemaps is one guideline to ensure that users can get help if needed. Another easy way to make sure your users know where they are going is to use “glosses”. Those are the pop-ups when you hover over a link. It tells you where you will land if you click. Tabs should be located at the top of the page and be clearly marked. This way, if a user wants to go to another page, it will be easy to get to. Also, be aware that research shows that breadcrumb navigation is not often used.

8. Scrolling and Paging

When it comes to scrolling and paging guidelines, this can be a make or break feature of a website for users. One thing that research showed should be eliminated in web design was horizontal scrolling. This does not allow users to see all the information they need to on one page. You have control over the scroll when it comes to your website. You can help fast scrolling by highlighting or increasing the size of important items that are on your site. When there is a lot of text on the page, you should use slower scrolling, so that readers will be able to understand what they read. For images or smaller amounts of text, you can have your scrollbar operate faster. Paging is an option you should consider to help with usability of your website. Instead of scrolling to find information, they can instead use links that will take them to other pages with the important information they are looking for. Create more pages that are shorter to eliminate the need for scrolling, if you feel like you need a lot of information.

9. Headings, Titles, and Labels

In order to help your users navigate your site better, consider headings, titles and labels that are descriptive. While you don’t want to have a ton of words in your hearings, titles and labels, make sure the words you do use are meaningful. It is also important to make sure they really reflect the information your reader will find when going to that spot on your site. Making your headings or labels unique will also help users become curious about what they will find there. This will prompt them to click on them more often. Also, consider using the correct hierarchy when it comes to using headings on your page. This means you should be using appropriate heading tags where necessary. Providing clear options for your users to choose from will also help out with your usability. If you can also highlight important headings visually, this will help readers find the information they came for. Without following these necessary guidelines for headings, titles, and labels, your users may become frustrated with your website and leave.

10. Links

When it comes to the usability of links on your website, you should follow these important guidelines. Instead of using “click here” for all the links on your page, be creative. Let the user know what they are going to be learning when they click. Also, make sure the links you are using are relevant to the information on the page. Try out the links beforehand to make sure they work. If a user is looking for information, but the link doesn’t work, that can be frustrating. You can repeat important links if you need to, but don’t overdo it. Text links are more useful than image links, so avoid using too many image links. However you decide to let a user know they can click, be consistent. It can be unpleasant when users don’t know what to expect or where to go to find more information. Consider using pointing and clicking instead of the mouse over method of clicking. Other useful guidelines are labeling internal versus external links, using appropriate link lengths, and let the user know if there are parts of an image they can click on for a link. 

11. Text Appearance

Text is a very important part of your website, and there are some guidelines to go along with the types, sizes and location of texts that you decide to display. It is important, in general, to keep font formatting consistent when designing your webpage. When choosing background and text colors, keep in mind that it is easier to read when there is a greater contrast between the two. Using black text on a plain background made it easier for users to read in the research that was conducted. You should also use consistent formats with text items like times, dates, telephone numbers and addresses. This will help your reader understand and notice the information easier. Remember to use appropriate capitalization. Avoid using CAPS Lock too often, as this will make it seem like you are screaming at your visitors. When it comes to bold and italic font, use it sparingly. Its purpose is to highlight important information, and if you overuse it, then it will lose its effectiveness. When you want to attract the attention of users, use those features sparingly. When it comes to size, use 12 points or larger.

12. Lists

You might want to give your users quick information in the form of lists. Lists can be a great way to tell them what they need to know without too much text. Lists are pleasing to the eye, and the reader does not become too overwhelmed as they might when it comes to reading multiple paragraphs of information. Make sure your reader knows what the list is all about. Use a clear heading or title, so that they can easily find what they need to. The purpose of lists is for the reader to scan them quickly and answer the questions they might have as fast as possible. Place the most important items on your list at the top, so that if readers get bored of reading, they have the most important takeaways that they need. Never use 0 as a number when you are making a list. This could negate the information. Capitalize the first letter of the first word on each line. The only exception would be if you normally capitalize proper nouns within the rest of the text.

13. Screen-Based Controls (Widgets)

Some common widgets or screen-based controls that your users might come into contact with on websites are fields to enter information, drop down boxes, push buttons, and icons. There are many guidelines when it comes to properly using widgets for usability. Make sure widgets are labeled clearly, so users know what their purpose is. Use widgets sparingly. While they are great tools to help users navigate your website, you want to make sure that you don’t overdo it. This could overwhelm users and cause them to leave your site. Try to minimize how much data users need to enter. Users can become frustrated if they have to enter similar data over and over again. Use the same data entry method consistently throughout your site, so that users know what to do. Remember to place the cursor automatically in the first data field for easy use. Use at least two radio buttons to help users. Users appreciate auto tabbing because it makes it easy to go from one box to the next without having to go back and forth between the mouse and keyboard.

14. Graphics, Images, and Multimedia

When it comes to guidelines involving graphics, images and media, you should also keep consistency in mind. Having these features on your website is helpful, but you don’t want to overwhelm your user with too much. Appropriate graphics can really enhance your usability. Use your images logo on the page, so that the user can identify it. Keep in mind that multiple images may take longer to load, so don’t overwhelm your page and make your user bored while waiting. When you decide to conduct usability testing, one thing you should test for is to see if graphics, images and multimedia are conveying the right message to users. If not, then you don’t need them. Give images a descriptive label to identify their purpose. Stick to images that do not take up the whole background. This can make it difficult to display necessary text. Any images that you do decide to use should not be too similar to banner ads, as users tend to ignore them according to research.  These features are necessary for your webpage, but be sure to use them only when needed.

15. Writing Web Content

Content in itself is one of the most important aspects of creating a website. The content incorporates all the information you decide you need to give your users the information they need. Users can get bored or frustrated with too much or too little content, so it is important to make sure everything on your website serves its purpose and does not overwhelm. It is important to make sure that you use words and phrases that your visitors will be familiar with. Keep in mind the audience that you want to reach, and use words that they will understand. No matter what kind of audience you are targeting, don’t use words that are too high vocabulary because users will get bored or confused. If you do use expert words that have to do with the topic of your website, be sure to define them for your users. Define anything you think your visitors will need to understand to get your message. Make sure to use an active voice in your writing and write your instructions in the affirmative.

16. Content Organization

Organization is key to ensuring a great user experience and the usability of your website. Depending on how you organize your content—that will determine how easy it is for your users to find important information. When you create your page with headings and descriptions that are clear, this will allow your users to scan information and only focus on what they need. Make sure only your necessary information is clearly displayed. Get rid of anything that is extra. You also don’t need to repeat yourself on every page. It is okay to repeat very important information once or twice, but not much more than that. Put the most important material in the top, center of the page. This is going to be one of the first places your users look when the page loads. To ensure you are reaching multiple audiences, it is important to display it in a variety of ways. While some like to read through information, others might like visuals or audio files to understand what your website is all about.

17. Search

One very helpful feature that users appreciate is the ability to search for information throughout your website. This does come with some guidelines. When using a search toolbar on your website, it is important to remember to put the search bar on each page of your website. This will allow them to easily find what they are looking for. The more precise you set your search up to be, the better. You should also set up each search tool to look through the entire site for keywords. Be vigilant about capitalizing search terms, as users might not be aware how that affects the information provided upon searching. Make sure all the forms of a word or phrase can be found. You can figure out what kind of terminology your visitors might use and design your searches around common keywords and phrases. To make the search process easier, you can include hints that can help users find what they need. Templates can also be used to simplify the process. This feature on your site will help users easily find what they are looking for.

18. Usability Testing

Testing for the usability of your website is key to ensuring it will be efficient and successful. There are many different usability tests that you can conduct, so it is vital that you choose the type of testing that will give you the most important data about how your website is performing. One of the best ways to get testing done is to use real subjects that don’t have any ties to your company. You will want to get honest feedback. It can be beneficial to get both qualitative and quantitative data, rather than just getting one type of information. Also, remember that once your testing is completed, it is helpful to make the changes needed and then test your website again. The more times you go through this process, the more effective your website will be. You should also consider getting comments from users as part of your data. This can give you a lot more information. It can also be helpful to use programmed evaluation approaches on your website and review the data often.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.

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