Principles of Good Web Design

This past week I was asked to write down what makes a good website. In other words, what makes the sites I build better than the ones a non-professional could make on their own with an online service like Wix, SquareSpace, or WordPress.com. I’ve had this list of ideas in my head forever, but until now I’ve never written them down. Doing so has given them even more importance in the work I do. They guide the decisions I make. Coming up with metaphors to make some complex, and seemingly unnecessary, parts of web design more accessible has given me more confidence to explain why they are important to clients in language they can understand.

I had a tight deadline or this, so I modeled my response after Dieter Rams’s Principles of Good Design. I ended up with more than ten, and I may add more in the future, but this is at least a starting point. So in no particular order…

A good website should be:

Researched

A good website is grounded on research before it is built. Building a website is like planning a cross-country road trip. You have to know where you are headed and how you plan to get there before leaving. Who will be using this website? What should they be able to do? Answering these types of questions at the outset allows you to make informed decisions about the best way to build your website.

Purpose Built

A good website should be made to help achieve a goal for the company. A website can be as effective at persuasion as you can be in a face-to-face discussion with a potential customer. Therefore, the website must show and explain what you are selling; why it’s a smart decision to purchase it; and, make the customer feel good about buying it. Every image and every bit of text should support the goal of the site, and nothing should distract the visitor from the goal.

Instantaneous

A good website should load quickly regardless of network speed. No one likes to wait for anything these days, and speed is still king on the web. Tenths of seconds can mean the difference between a happy customer and a lost customer who leaves your site—permanently—for your competitor. Because of this, it is critical that the website is built to be as fast as possible even on slow networks and older devices.

Accessible

A good website should be accessible to people with physical disabilities. A website that is unusable to the blind of physically disabled is like a brick and mortar store without a wheelchair ramp. No one wants to exclude customers because of a disability, so the website must be developed with an eye toward making it easy for anyone to use.

Responsive

A good website should display it’s content elegantly regardless of the device. Just as we cannot control the weather, we cannot control how people will visit the website. However, we can ensure that no matter the device, the network, or the screen resolution the site will look good; be easy to use; function the same; and not prevent visitors from accomplishing a task (In this context a task is defined as something like finding information about a product, completing a form, or placing an order, etc.).

Intuitive

A good website should make it easy for visitors to accomplish a task. All cars put the brake pedal to the left and the gas pedal to the right for obvious reasons. We can’t have people changing cars and not understanding, immediately, the basic operation of the car. The same is true with websites; certain core functions of the site must be easily learned. Buttons need to look and act like buttons. Menus should function like other menus.

Unique

A good website should have a design that stands out from other websites. A website that looks too similar to competitor sites (or websites in general) is a missed opportunity to allow your company to make a memorable first impression. The tone of your text; the way the photographs are styled; and the layout of the site can all work together to leave a lasting impression of quality and professionalism on your visitors.

Content Driven

A good website should be built around good content. A website’s content should exist to provide the visitor with relevant, and distinctive content. It should be more than a repository of facts and figures though. Reading a boring website is equivalent to being stuck in a boring conversation. A good website will engage the visitor, draw them in, and perhaps even tell the story of the business in a memorable fashion.

Efficient

A good website should use just the right amount of code as possible. We’ve all microwaved a bag of popcorn too little and ended up with a bag of kernels, or left it in for too long, burned it to charcoal, and made everyone in the office hate us. Developing websites is no different. A good website has a balance of just enough code to do exactly what you want, but not so much that the site suffers.

Robust

A good website should be fault-tolerant and never have to be entirely replaced. Like a well-built house, a properly constructed website never needs to be torn down completely. By using modern design and development techniques; by keeping the content, code and styling independent of each other; you can, in essence, remodel the kitchen without having to demolish the house.

Extensible

A good website should be adaptable to future enhancements, devices and content additions. Nothing is a perfect fit forever. That’s why belts have notches. A website is no different, and no one can accurately forecast what new types of content will be added; what new devices must be accounted for; or, legislation that must be adhered to. Therefore, a good website is built as well as possible to be ready for whatever is next.

Discoverable

A good website should be built to achieve high page rank on search engines. A good website, like a good idea, is worthless if no one knows about it. The internet is vast, so it is critical that the website be developed, from the start, to make it as accessible as possible to search engines. Search engine optimization is a deep enough topic for its own separate discussion. However, it is not a conversation worth having if the basic structure of your site is so convoluted that search engines can’t understand what they are reading.