13 Simple Tips for Improving Your Web Design

How your website is laid out, what colors, fonts and images you use (or don't use) can mean the difference between success (low bounce and exit rates, high conversion) and failure (high abandonment, low sales).

Want to ensure that visitors will exit your website almost immediately after landing there? Be sure to make it difficult for them to find what it is they are looking for. Want to get people to stay on your website longer and click on or buy stuff? Follow these 13 Web design tips.

Web design

1. Have a polished, professional logo--and link it to your home page. "Your logo is an important part of your brand, so make sure it's located prominently on your site," says Tiffany Monhollon, senior content marketing manager at online marketer ReachLocal. "Use a high-resolution image and feature it in the upper left corner of each of your pages," she advises. "Also, it's a good rule of thumb to link your logo back to your home page so that visitors can easily navigate to it."

2.Use intuitive navigation. "Primary navigation options are typically deployed in a horizontal [menu] bar along the top of the site," says Brian Gatti, a partner with Inspire Business Concepts, a digital marketing company. Provide "secondary navigation options underneath the primary navigation bar, or in the [left-hand] margin of the site, known as the sidebar."

Why is intuitive navigation so important? "Confusing navigation layouts will result in people quitting a page rather than trying to figure it out," Gatti says. So instead of putting links to less important pages--that detract from your call to action or primary information--at the top of your home or landing pages, put "less important links or pieces of information at the bottom of a page in the footer."

[Related: 6 Ways to Add Social Media to Your Web Design]

3. Get rid of clutter. "It's very easy these days to be visually overloaded with images, to the point where our brains stop processing information when confronted with too many options," explains Paolo Vidali, senior digital marketing strategist, DragonSearch, a digital marketing agency.

To keep visitors on your site, "make sure pages do not have competing calls to action or visual clutter [e.g., lots of graphics, photographs or animated gifs] that would draw the visitor's eyes away from the most important part of the page." To further keep clutter down on landing pages, "consider limiting the links and options in the header and footer to narrow the focus even further," he says.

Another tip to streamlining pages: "Keep paragraphs short," says Ian Lurie, CEO of internet marketing company Portent, Inc. "On most Web sites, a single paragraph should be no more than five to six lines."

4. Give visitors breathing room. "Create enough space between your paragraphs and images so the viewer has space to breathe and is more able to absorb all of the features your site and business have to offer," says Hannah Spencer, graphic designer, Coalition Technologies, a Web design and online marketing agency.

"Controlling white space through layout will keep users focused on the content and control user flow," adds Paul Novoa, founder and CEO at Novoa Media. "With a lot of visual competition taking place on the Web and on mobile, less is more. Controlling white space will improve user experience, increasing returns from the website."

5. Use color strategically. Using "a mostly neutral color palette can help your site project an elegant, clean and modern appearance," says Mark Hoben, the head of Web design at Egencia, the business travel division of the Expedia group, who is also a believer in using color wisely. "Employing small dashes of color--for headlines or key graphics--helps guide visitors to your most important content," he explains.

It is also important to use a color palette that complements your logo and is consistent with your other marketing materials.

6. Invest in good, professional photography. "Website visitors can sniff out generic photos in a second--and they'll be left with a generic impression of your company," warns Zane Schwarzlose, community relations director, Fahrenheit Marketing. "Your company isn't generic. So show your visitors that by investing in professional photography."

"We strongly recommend that our clients invest in professional photography or purchase professional stock photos," says Gatti. Good photographs "draw the eye, providing an emotional connection to the written content." Poor quality photographs or photographs that have nothing to do with your message, on the other hand, are worse than having no photographs.

Bonus photography tip: "If you want to draw attention to a particular piece of content or a signup button, include a photo of a person looking at the content," suggests Elie Khoury, cofounder and CEO of Woopra, which provides real-time customer and visitor analytics. "We are immediately drawn to faces of other humans--and when we see that face looking' at something, our eyes are instinctively drawn there as well."

7. Choose fonts that are easy to read across devices and browsers. When choosing fonts, keep in mind that people will be looking at your website not just on a laptop but on mobile devices. "Some large-scaled fonts may read well on [a computer monitor], but not scale or render well on mobile, losing the desired look and feel," explains Novoa. So he advises using a universal font.

"Pick a typeface that can be easily read and size it no less than 11pt," says Ethan Giffin, CEO, Groove Commerce. "If you're using Web fonts, try to use no more than two font families in order to ensure fast load times," he says.

"If you're using a fixed-width design, use a font size that allows a maximum of 15 to 20 words per line," adds Lurie. "If you're using a fluid design, use a font size that allows 15 to 20 words per line at 900 to 1000 pixels wide."

8. Design every page as a landing page. "Most websites have a design that assumes a user enters through the home page and navigates into the site," says Michael Freeman, senior manager, Search & Analytics, ShoreTel, Inc., which provides hosted VoIP, cloud PBX service and business phone systems. "The reality, though, is that the majority of visits for most sites begin on a page that is not the home page," he says. Therefore, you need to design the site in such a way that whatever page a visitor lands on, key information is there.

[Related: 25 Link-Building Tips to Drive Traffic to Your Website]

9. Respect the fold. When asked for their top design tips, almost all the Web designers CIO.com queried immediately said: Put your call to action in the upper portion of your website, along with your phone number and/or email address (if you want customers to call or email you). Regarding home page images, "I recommend going against full-width sliders and encourage sliders or set images that cover two-thirds of the width allowing for a contact form to be above the fold," says Aaron Watters, director, Leadhub, a website design and SEO company.

10. Use responsive design--that automatically adapts to how the site is being viewed. "Rather than developing a site for each device, a responsive site is designed to adapt to the browser size," making for a better user experience, says Jayme Pretzloff, online marketing director, Wixon Jewelers. And a better user experience typically translates into more time spent on your site and higher conversion rates.

[Related: 7 Tools to Build Websites Using Responsive Design]

11. Forget Flash. "Thanks in part to the ongoing dispute between Adobe and Apple, the days of Flash as an Internet standard are slowly coming to a close, so why stay on the bandwagon when there are other options that are much more Web and user friendly?" asks Darrell Benatar, CEO of UserTesting.com. Instead, use HTML5, he says. "HTML5 is gaining more support on the Web, with search-engine friendly text and the ability to function on many of the popular mobile operating systems without requiring a plug-in. The same can't be said for Flash."

[Related: 6 CSS Tools to Help You Build a Better Website]

12. Don't forget about buttons "The 'Submit' or 'Send' button at the bottom of a Web form can be the ugliest part of a website," says Watters. So he encourages designers to make form submission buttons "so appealing visitors can't help themselves. They just have to click it." In addition, "when a visitor hovers over your submit button, it should change color, gradient, opacity or font treatment," he says.

13. Test your design. "Whether you are trying different placements for a call to action or even testing different shades of a color, website optimization can make a big impact to your bottom line," states Lindsey Marshall, production director, Red Clay Interactive, an Atlanta-based interactive marketing agency. "A user experience manager at Bing once remarked that Microsoft generated an additional $80 million in annual revenue just by testing and implementing a specific shade of blue!"

[Related: How to Increase Your Online Sales With A/B Testing]

"Every design decision is just a hypothesis," adds Mike Johnson, director of User Experience at The Nerdery, an interactive production company. "User testing, A/B testing and simple analytics can help you continuously improve your designs [by providing] feedback from real people."

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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