When you’re in idea generation mode before actually sitting down and working on a new site, it’s easy to get a bit lost. After all, you’re faced with a million different possibilities and all of them look awesome. It’s tempting to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a site just because you can. And while there’s nothing wrong with that on your own locally-hosted site for running tests, it’s probably not a good approach for client sites.
If I’ve learned anything about web usability, it’s that less is definitely more. And if you want to keep visitors on your site, you need to think about the end-user’s experience from the very beginning. That means back when you’re coming up with the site’s concept and basic layout. The user experience is something that directly impacts how visitors interact with your site and largely determines whether or not they will stick around long enough to convert. Here are a few ways you can ensure your focus stays on the user experience during the design and development stages.
Think About Your Site Preferences
While not every client you ever get is going to think exactly as you do, it can be helpful to pull from personal preferences when thinking about site design. After all, how you feel when looking at a site plays a major role in how you receive its content. The same goes for your ideal site visitors. A few universal preferences include:
Even if you have a lot to say, it’s a bad idea to overload visitors with a ton of text. At least, not dense blocks of it. The text needs to be scannable, which is exactly what it sounds like: short paragraphs, plenty of subheadings and lists and the use of images throughout each page. This breaks up blocks of text that could otherwise cause visitors to glaze over.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: less is more. Building a user-friendly site means thinking about its overall design and that includes where you decide not to place items. A healthy amount of white space around text and images gives your visitors some breathing room. It also better allows them to process what they’re looking at and makes the content more “scannable.”
I’ll keep this one plain and simple: don’t use fonts that are hard to read. Skip the curly-cues and script. Stick to straightforward fonts that are universally recognized across all browser types. And if you want to make good and sure your visitors will have the best experience possible, integrate Google Fonts into your site. This is easily accomplished through the WP Google Fonts plugin.
Identifiable (and Working) Links
Simple enough: make sure links in the body of your posts and elsewhere are easy to spot. They should be underlined at least or a different color than the body text. Likewise, make sure all the links work. One of the most frustrating things a visitor to your site can experience is a broken link, so don’t let it happen! The Broken Link Checker plugin can help prevent this and make sure when a user clicks, she’ll get to your intended destination.
Research the Industry
Another aspect of user friendliness you need to pay attention to is industry relevance. This has every bit as much to do with design as the previous attributes but weighs much more heavily on expectation than anything else. Visitor expectations vary from industry to industry and you need to be aware of these things from the get-go.
For instance, let’s say you’re building a site for a realtor. A potential visitor to the realtor’s site would come to expect the site’s theme to look a certain way and for it to include certain functions like MLS connectivity, virtual tours, and so forth. Though you don’t always have to stay “inside the box” in terms of design aesthetic, it’s imperative you include the appropriate functions associated with a specific industry in the site. Otherwise, you stand to confuse visitors at best, and alienate them at worst.
Think of the Navigation
A user-friendly WordPress site will have easy to locate and use navigation. As such, you shouldn’t try to get overly creative with how you handle menus. Drop-downs that drop down into still more drop-downs isn’t going to make you any friends. Menus that are tucked away somewhere will make your visitors work unnecessarily hard to access your content. This isn’t something you want to do. Instead, place navigation menus in a prominent place — typically along the top of the site or on the left-hand side.
You should also make sure your site has an easily accessible search bar. Again, don’t make it any harder than it has to be for your visitors to find the content they’re looking for.
Finally, make sure your website has a sitemap. While this won’t necessarily affect the user experience, it will make the site easier to read by search engines, which helps it rank higher, and in turn encourages more traffic. The Google Sitemap plugin is a good choice because it makes it very simple to create a site map for Google Webmaster Tools.
Consider the Devices Used
A key component of user-friendliness involves recognizing that people will be accessing your site from different devices. By choosing a responsive theme, you’ll tackle this issue in one fell swoop. This way, you’ll be certain the site will look as you intended on smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers. Navigational elements will always be above the fold for easy access and buttons will be appropriately sized for the device on which it’s being viewed. Images will adjust to fit the screen at hand. Responsiveness is the way to go for making your site as friendly to users as possible.
Optimize for Speed
How quickly the pages of your site load also have impact on overall user-friendliness. For instance, if a site is slow loading but a visitor already knows exactly what he’d need to click on to get where he needs to go, that visitor would wind up being very frustrated in the meantime. So, use some common sense. Avoid images that are huge and/or compress them using a tool like TinyPNG and Smush. These tools will reduce the size of image files considerably.
To reduce load times site-wide, you can use a caching plugin like W3 Total Cache to speed things up, too.
Many of the tips outlined above are standard best practices for the web you should use regardless of the platform on which you build a site. However, the WordPress CMS makes it simple to create a more user-friendly site thanks to some of its inherent qualities and the ability to expand its features through plugins. And being able to offer up a consistently user-friendly experience is certain to net you repeat customers and referrals.
What attributes do you associate with sites you’d consider to be user-friendly? What are must-haves, in your opinion? If you think I missed anything or simply want to offer your two cents, please feel free to do so in the comments. We’re always anxious to hear what you have to say!