Design Conventions on the Web

This article, written by me, was originally published and posted for the Expert Articles for the Embarc website. I am reposting on my blog because I think it is a very beneficial article.

10/02/2007

Design conventions are elements that multiple people agree upon and implement so that web users will have similar experiences across disparate websites. By using web design conventions when creating a site, you are making life easier for the typical web visitor, which in turns leads to thorough visits and higher conversion rates.

These similar experiences eventually transform into expectations. If conventions make a visitor’s user experience less complicated, then it is safe to assume that websites that do not follow web design conventions will be looked upon negatively by web visitors. Just as there are standards of practice in the business world, there are corollaries in the web design world that ensure that nobody has to reinvent the wheel over and over again. As a result, designers are allowed to concentrate on customizing specific client requests. Fortunately, web design conventions are very straightforward and effective. Most ordinary users could recognize these design elements since they are so common.

Here are just a few examples:

1. Logo is placed conspicuously in the top left or right-hand corner of the homepage

Because a user’s eye is often drawn to the top left hand corner of a web browser, most designers consciously put logos in this location. It has become a norm on most sites to place logos in this position. When a logo is situated anywhere else, it takes a little more work on behalf of the designer and user to establish its authority.

2. The links on your primary navigation bar should all be internal links

Primary navigation should be a consistent fixture. If a user clicks a main navigation link and is directed to an external site, that consistent fixture will disappear. The user will lose contextual understanding of where they are.

3. Main navigation is often designed in a vertical or horizontal format

Primary navigation must be clear, structured, and intuitive. Positioning the navigation vertically or horizontally creates this feel, does not confuse the user, and helps them quickly identify the navigation.

4. Underlining words often indicate an active link

Underlining words separate active links from paragraphs of text, and create a hierarchy showing that it is important and clickable.

5. Changing the color of visited links

Changing the color of the link after a user has visited this page helps the user identify where they are, and have been on a site.

These consistent features on a website help users effortlessly operate a site to achieve their goals, to know what to expect rather than wondering how to use a new attribute, to immediately locate essential elements on a website, and to guide them toward important components such as the navigation. These basic aspects of websites improve a user’s ability to get things done quickly, and ultimately will help reinforce a satisfactory user experience. When elements of a website always behave consistently, users don’t have to anticipate what will happen. Instead, they know what will happen based on earlier experiences.

If a user visits a site and it behaves abnormally, they will feel less in control of their experience and will be quickly turned away from wanting to search deeper into the site. Because most sites use these design conventions, users start to expect that all sites should act in this way. They do not want to relearn a new system each time they go to a new website. Designers must always keep in mind that a web design, layout, and key messaging have about five to eight seconds to convince a new user to stay at a site and dive deeper into an inner page. Don’t waste this valuable time by forcing your web visitors to understand a brand new, untested design paradigm.

Sometimes design conventions can be modified, but only if it allows a user to complete a task in an improved way. Perform user testing. If your test user visits a modified site element and appears to be confused, obviously this is not a good direction to proceed with.

It is important for designers to remember that graphics are pleasant additions to a website, but should never get in the way of users understanding of a site. The web allows a consistent interface; use these design conventions as much as possible so users will be pleased and revisit a site numerous times.

Designers are committed to working with website business owners to design websites that adhere to these design conventions. Through mutual collaboration, the implications of deviation from the conventions can and should be explored. Conventions should be followed as often as possible as they are useful guidelines that were created to help.



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