Basics of Good Web Design

Roi Agneta

What qualities define a really good website? If you are like most people, the first thing that comes to mind is “attractive design”. Putting aside the fact that “attractive” is a relative thing, the aesthetic appeal of a site is actually a very minor factor.A great case in point is Craig’s List. It is hugely popular - consistently ranked amongst the top 50 in the world - and is often cited as a major contributor to the demise of local newspapers. It is also completely without merit in terms of aesthetics. What it does very well, however, is leverage the power of hyperlinks, which is far more convenient than, say, an index in print media. Looking for a gig as a graphic artist? You can get to those listings quickly, without the need to scan through stuff you do not care about. And this brings us to one of the most important factors in good design: do not force the user to think.

Don’t Make Me Think

Web usability expert Steve Krug wrote a book with that unlikely title. Usability is a term used to describe the ease with which ordinary people can make use of man-made objects. It is a subject that has become quite a big issue in our increasingly techno-centric world. Apple provides a good case study - their products (and their website) are considered exemplars of usability. So, back to Mr Krug…in his book, he attempts to explain the factors that influence our web experiences. Amongst his many observations, he lists five things that play a critical role in ensuring good usability:

  • Create a clear visual hierarchy on each page
  • Take advantage of conventions
  • Break pages into clearly defined areas
  • Make links obvious
  • Minimize noise (distracting elements)

Most of these sound like obvious, sensible rules to abide by, but a quick search of the web will uncover countless examples of what happens when you ignore these guidelines (and common sense).

You need look no further than the truly elegant Apple website to see how good good can be. Minimalist graphics, uncluttered layout, and easy navigation. Mr. Krug could not wish for a better example in support of his theories.

Keep it Focused and Purposeful

Users visit a website for some specific purpose. Anything that gets in the way of achieving that purpose is counterproductive. One of my pet peeves is those irritating animations that take forever to download. Some of them are extraordinarily creative, and I might even forgive waiting a few seconds if it is really entertaining. But what is the value on a return trip to the site?

Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite authors, describes his writing style: “I leave out the parts people don’t read”. This brings us to another important factor in good design, which is purpose. Each element on a page has the potential to either serve the user or distract their attention. Graphic design should enhance, and be subservient to, content presentation. Text content should be terse and unambiguous - narrative should be reserved for blogs and articles.

Keep it Organized

Users are notoriously impatient, so if it takes more than a few seconds to find what they are looking for you run a real risk of losing them. Good content organization is, therefore, critically important to the success of your site. This area is so important in our modern, information-rich world that it has a whole science of its own: Information Architecture (IA).

IA is far too complex a subject to cover here, but I will review a few aspects that are particularly important in web design. These include site structure (how the pages are organized), site navigation (menus and submenus that get you to those pages), and page layout (how content is organized within a page). Each of these plays a defining role in how quickly one can find and comprehend site content. Get it all right and you will ensure repeat visits.


There is no question that aesthetics play a positive role in the success (or failure) of a website, but that role is a supporting one and tends to be more important on a first visit. Usability is the really important factor, and that is a function of graphic design, navigation, information organization, and just plain old good content. A pretty face may win you over on a first date, but it takes a lot more than that to build a lasting relationship!

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