I don’t really think there are any “good” or “bad” websites. Every website on the Internet was created for a purpose and probably had the aesthetics or utility to appeal to someone at some point. I have gotten into heated arguments with other site designers about what is right or wrong in website design. Especially from an aesthetic point of view, I have my own design style that appeals to me, and the next designer may feel my designs are downright ugly in favor of their style. In that sense, website design is like art.

As a business owner, are you hiring a web designer to create a piece of art for use as an online portfolio? Or are you hiring a web designer to target specific marketing goals? Neither answer is right or wrong, but if the ultimate goal is to increase your business, your designer should be designing with very specific web conventions in mind.

Design conventions are a serious of unwritten rules in the design industry that have evolved over the past 20 years. Designers try different graphic styles, different navigation systems and types of images, and they see what works and what doesn’t. Larger companies hire research firms to do usability studies where they actually sit a watch users interact with their websites, and make changes to the design to drive conversion.

As a small business owner you can’t afford to do focus groups or other high level site testing and you don’t have do. Your web designer should be familiar with established conventions and be able to design sites within the framework all of those successful website that came before. Below are some important design conventions.

Your Company Name Or Logo

Company Logo and Heading

Your company logo should always be at the top of the page, either justified to the left, or centered on the page. According to Nielson Norman Group, website viewers were 89% more likely to remember a brand when they viewed a site with the logo on the top left versus the top right. I know, I know, it’s boring, everyone else is doing it that way. Remember, are you creating a piece of art to display in a museum, or are you building a marketing tool to convert visitors into customers.

Additionally, the company logo should always be a link back to your home page. Customers expect this to be the case.

Contact information displayed clearly

Generally, I like the have at least a “Contact Us” button displayed prominently near the top of the site, or better have an actual email address or phone number or both clearly displayed near the top of the page. I really don’t get websites that don’t display contact information prominently. Some of these site owners have told me they don’t want to attract sales calls, or SPAM email. My response is always that the site is for marketing to your customers and making their experience as easy as possible.

Displaying contact information at the top of the page is also important for responsive mobile sites. Users navigating to you site on a phone don’t necessarily want to scroll through and read everything on your page, they may just want to click on the phone number and have their phone dial, so you don’t want to hide this information.

Main navigation should also be in the header

top bar or side bar navigation comparison

The header of the site is either at the top of the page or down the left side. In either case, it contains the company logo and contact information, but it also contains the site’s main navigation bar. Many years ago, there was a movement to push the boundaries of graphic design by creating incredibly beautiful animated navigation systems. The problem, only the artist could figure out what to do. Regular uses had a difficult time knowing what to click on, so they moved on to competitor’s sites.

Navigation should be straight forward and simple, with the individual buttons scaled down to the minimum number of options you can get away with. Trying to fit too many button in a horizontal navigation bar is a big mistake. If you have lots of pages on your site, think about using drop down navigation, but make sure your programmer knows how to make it mobile friendly.

“You Are Here” indicators

properly design navigation system

You should never assume your site visitor will always land on your home page. I think it is natural to want to control the user experience and funnel the customer down a predetermined path. But that is not how the Internet works. Search engines such as Google index all of your site pages individually. Search results are not showing links to home pages; they are showing links to the most relevant page on your site to the customer’s search query. Therefore, when someone lands on an internal page, you should be giving them visual cues as to where they are within the hierarchy of your site

  • Make sure your main navigation has a “Home” link taking the user back to the first page.
  • Make sure your main navigation has a “you are here” indicator. In most cases, this is a simple graphic tool used to show where in the navigation a specific page resides. It could be a change in the color of a navigation button, or a change in the look of the button such as an arrow or underline.
  • While not necessary on more basic websites, I like to include breadcrumbs. You will see this method used on just about all large eCommerce sites.

The top of the home page is important

main content section

Your site may be used to promote many products and/or many services, but what is the absolute most important thing you are trying to accomplish? This goes on the home page, right under or to the right of the main header and navigation. Visitors should be able to tell within seconds of the page loading what your company does by reading the content of this section. Some common content ideas:

  • Feature your highest margin product or service, driving customers to click to a closer page.
  • Feature your newest product here.
  • Promotions or sales would be great here as well.

If you want to feature all three of these, you could use a carousel or slider where, every few seconds the view will rotate to the next item. I would be very careful about carousels though; they can end up irritating visitors who are slow readers. If you are going to use this method, make sure to include some way for the visitor to stop the rotation.

Addition page content

visual hierarchies for page content

The rest of the content on the home page should be broken up into clear visual hierarchies. For example, product category links or your list of latest news items should be visually grouped together and should be complete. Don’t just show some of the product categories and assume the user is going to magically find the rest.

While many of these suggestions may seem common sense, I think it is important to lay them out. You can get really caught up in the design process when working with the graphics of the site, and end up losing site of what the visitor’s expectations are once the land of the web page.

In my design firm, I am always trying to think through how we can meet customers’ expectations. Of course, we want to exceed their expectations, but to do this, you need to start by not confusing them by making your site so different from everyone else, that they can’t find their way around. A frustrated site visitor will simply move on to the next site.