Guidelines for Improving Websites

One of the common ways of reviewing the usability of a website is to perform a heuristic evaluation. During a heuristic evaluation, experts evaluate a website based on well-established and well-researched principles (or heuristics). Heuristics aren’t specific rules—you don’t necessarily need to follow what these heuristics say but generally, you are better off doing so. That said, there are many gray areas and room for exceptions. So, these act as rules of thumb as you decide how specifically to design, write and structure your website.

Because these aren’t laws to adhere to, a heuristic evaluation comparing your website to these rules of thumb won’t lead to specific changes to make. Instead, this type of evaluation can help you identify questions to ask or potential problem areas that can then be investigated further.  For instance, you might have an area on your website a usability expert considers inefficient and that inefficiency might reduce conversions. Upon further review and testing with actual people who visit the website, you might find very few visitors struggle to efficiently use that area and there is little to no negative impact on conversions. Or, you might people do struggle to use that area of the website, providing the heuristic review helped uncover a problem area.

At Elementive, we include this type of evaluation in our online marketing and website analysis projects because it offers a way to spot areas of a website that might be holding back conversions or traffic. It also acts as a guide for what to think about and what questions to ask when reviewing the website. Following the evaluation, we have a prioritized list of additional things to investigate more deeply—which is preferable and a better use of funds than wildly guessing at what to investigate more deeply.

What Heuristics Do You Use?

The question is what heuristics you evaluate a website against. There are many different best practices and principles listed on the web. But, the most popular list of usability heuristics comes from Jakob Nielsen. Some of Nielsen’s heuristics clearly apply to websites—like maintaining consistency, following standards, using the user’s language, avoiding errors, or making the website efficient to use. But, some are more beneficial to applications (software, web app, or mobile app)—like showing the system status or providing help and documentation. Other heuristics require a bit of a stretch to apply to websites, like adding accelerators for expert users…websites don’t typically have a lot of repeat visitors, let alone people who visit frequently enough to be considered an expert. But, to the extent there are repeat visitors, the general idea can apply of offering ways to make a return visit more satisfying. For more of how Nielsen’s heuristics can apply to websites, see this article from Keith Instone or this article from AskTOG.com.

Along with Nielsen’s heuristics, Ben Shneiderman has “8 Golden Rules Of Interface Design”. These mostly track with Nielsen’s heuristics. For instance, Shneiderman’s 8th golden rule, “Reduce short-term memory load,” tracks with Nielsen’s heuristic of favoring simpler and efficient designs. The difference is a greater emphasis on short-term memory by Shneiderman. This serves as a good reminder that most people aren’t storing how to use your website into their long-term memory system—typically people want to get in, do whatever they have to do with your website and forget your website exists.

Another group of heuristics are Lund’s “Usability Maxims”. These are a bit wittier than other heuristic lists (my favorite, “Know thy user, and YOU are not thy user.”). Probably the biggest problem is at 34 this becomes a bit hard to use a guide to evaluate a website—unlike 8 Rules or 10 Heuristics. Many of Lund’s maxims convey different aspects of the same concept. For example, Maxim 10 is “Keep It Simple,” and Maxim 24 is “Keep it neat. Keep it organized.” Both are unique concepts, but they get to the same basic idea that a usable website is simple and orderly (Nielsen and Shneiderman consolidate these concepts into one heuristic and rule). Like other heuristics, some of Lund’s Maxims apply a bit more to software and apps, but, with some stretching, you can apply most to a website as well as to software.

Five Main Themes: Guidelines for Improving Websites

My take is that all of the various heuristics discussed by Nielsen, Shneiderman, Lund, and others really come down to five main principles that apply to websites. I discussed these five in a lot of detail in my book Elements of A Successful Website. In summary, these five themes are:

Simple and efficient to use. Websites that are designed in simpler ways, presenting only the essential options in a logical and straightforward manner will be easier to use so people will be more likely to use them. Simpler websites also tend to be more efficient to use, allowing people to convert more easily. Nielsen also talks about the need for simplicity and Shneiderman discusses short term, but Lund captures it well with Maxim 27, “If it is not needed, it’s not needed.”

Provide users with maximum control and freedom. Websites are more usable when people have the ability to choose their own path through the pages. Calls to action and navigation should offer guidance, but, as Lund put it in Maxim 33, “Let people shape the system to themselves”.

Main consistency & follow standards. Your website needs to be consistent within its own pages and also needs to follow global web standards. Websites that behave consistently will better match visitor expectations, which leads to more interactions, engagements, and conversions. I do like that Shneiderman talks about this as “striving” for consistency because trying to “be” consistent is near impossible on a highly dynamic website.

Prevent errors, but allow recovery. You can prevent errors some errors from happening, but like it or not you need to accept that some errors will still occur. When errors do occur, give people an easy way to recover from those errors. Nielsen, Lund and Shneiderman all discuss the necessity of this one, and it has repeatedly shown its value in research and in application on every website I’ve ever worked on.

Match real world conventions and expectations. Websites should be designed for real people (not  robots or automated programs). As part of this, your website should use simpler language your visitors and audience uses, be organized to meet visitor expectations, and the website’s functionality should mirror the real-world (for instance, clicking a link or button triggers an action). This is also a general principle of usability: design and develop with real people in mind.

Elements of a Successful Website

If you want to read more about how those five themes apply to websites, and what kind of changes you may want to make related to those themes, please read my book Elements of a Successful Website. My book goes into greater detail about each of these five themes and how they apply to websites big and small, including how to measure each of these themes on your website.