5 Timeless Usability Principles for Website Designers

There are some usability principles which change very rarely. The reason for this is because they are deeply ingrained into our human nature. Even if they change, they change very slightly, the fundamentals remain the same.

We will try to cover some most important usability principles in the following article.

1. You are designing with a target in mind

You probably spend most of your time designing websites for clients. All of those clients want to accomplish something with the website you’re building. If they are a company selling a specific product, then the target is for the customers to get to the shopping cart and buy the product.

Your clients may have multiple targets as well. The important thing is to have a ‘core’ (one or more targets) which you’ll later use to build your site upon. That ‘core target’ may be, clicking on the ‘buy now button and buying the product’.

The most obvious examples are opt-in sites, which have 1 objective…you either buy/sign up or do nothing. Just take a look at Double Your Dating…

This can be more subtle, like Intelius does it…you first search for the person and then after you click ‘View more details” then you’re sent to a payment page.

2. Design the site so it answers the 3 most basic questions

  • Where am I?

There should be enough space for the website name. The main idea is to help the user orient and gain clarity on where is he now. It’s your job as a designer to help the user answer this question. Also, you can help the visitor answer this question with the navigation by highlighting the page on which he is at the moment.


  • What can I do here?

The answer for this question depends on the website target. If the main website objective is for the visitor to buy something, then you need to make it clear that the website is selling products. If the objective is to inform the visitor about the company, then make that clear also by designing a website which gives that impression.


  • Why should I do it?

This is primarily not your job. It’s the job of the writer to persuade the user why should he buy the product or why should he should click learn more about the company. It’s your job, however, to make this job as easy as possible for the writer by leaving enough visible space so the user can clearly see the benefits of doing the thing i.e. the website objective. You can find more about your visitors and their motivations by getting some feedback from them.


3. Users scan way more than they read. They don’t want to think

There are many studies which confirm that users scan more than they read. So it’s your job to make the design so it’s easy to scan the entire page in order to get the most important information.

Also, there’s one good lesson I learned from one great book on usability by Steve Krug  “Don’t make me think.” He said that you must make things intuitive and user friendly so you’ll minimize the thinking part from the visitor’s side.

Try to put yourself into the visitor’s shoes and ask yourself which part of the design makes you think.

To illustrate, see this website by Steve Krug. Does it make you think?

Don't make me think

You see how he named the navigation menu? Instead of ‘about’ he wrote: “Who we are”. He tried to eliminate the thinking process which goes like this: “What does “About” mean? Does it mean they will tell me what the site is about?”

I see a lot of people who own personal websites make this mistake. Here’s an example I got from one random personal blog I found:

4. Who is the ideal prospect/customer?

There’s a great concept in marketing called the “customer avatar.” To make a customer avatar, you need to know many of the prospects, who visit the website, then get the common traits they have and make an imaginative person who owns only those common traits. For the ‘dating for men’ market, that is usually a single man who wants to get a date with a single woman. He tried to approach and meet women before, but without particular success.

Group of people

Your customer avatar doesn’t have to apply for all of the prospects but for the majority (80%+).

Knowing your average visitor will help look from his point of view and appropriately design a great website.

Let’s try to find the customer avatar for 1stWebDesigner…

According to Quantcast, this is the 1stwebdesigner demographic in the US (I will suppose most of 1stwebdesigner traffic comes from US, so US demographic shouldn’t be very different from the worldwide demographic):

So the customer avatar would be something like:

Erica is a 20 years old Hispanic girl who’s in college and still financially dependent upon her parents. She loves cool designs and pictures. She wants to be a web designer and is still a beginner, but loves creativity and tends to be very creative herself. That’s why styles, effects and designers inspire her a lot.

5. Focus on conventions because users love them

Title above, navigation menu above or on the left and also the color different for clicked links (these are only some of the web design conventions). Web designers love to experiment with new models and that’s the most problematic thing here. Stick to conventions because users are used to them. If you don’t, you’ll make them confused and think. And as I said above, they don’t really like that. The below screen shot from Ciplex.com is a great example.

We all love familiar things, don’t we :)

Eliminate annoying things. Flash intros, anyone? Or wait…STATIC intros:

What are your thoughts on basic usability principles? Don’t forget to share them with us.


Executive editor of FinderMind magazine, a people search engine on helping you find long-lost friends.

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  1. Paige H. Mattke says

    Hi Darren,
    Great info about usability.
    I’d like to cite this blog post in my qualifying project prospectus for my dissertation.
    Could I have your last name so I can cite properly?


  2. Mike Osborne says

    Except that “about” has become a de facto standard – so people will be looking for that word rather than “who we are”.

  3. Cardiussy says

    Thanks a lot! These tips were very useful for my site, currently I am wirking on usability.

  4. Namjies says

    Yes, it seems very accurate. I’m pretty novice in desiging. I’m more of a coder (PHP/Apache url rewrite/structuring) than a designer. But I always like to have logo top left, navigation right under as a bar or a left navigation.

    Guess I’ll have to start getting into a professional set of graphic tools if I’m to catch up with the best design firms.

  5. says

    Great post and one that I will save and remember. I completely agree with sticking to conventions . It is great to experiment with unusual layouts and user experiences, but not when good usability is the main objective for your project. But then again, going back to what Michal Kozak said above, that still depends on who your core audience is.

    Again, great job:)

  6. Bill says

    excellent post! I am just starting to build my vacation rental website using the http://pagebuzz.com site builder and your tips will help quite a bit. Us newbies need all the advice we can get.

  7. says

    Very nice post! The best tip, I think, is #4. Users scan over EVERYTHING. I personally was doing that just now with this article so I can get the gist of it.

    When I was working my portfolio, my boyfriend (who has ADHD) was the one to suggest I make everything short and easy to scan because users do not want to read long, boring text. They want short paragraphs with important information bolded, italicized or underlined. It’s easy to forget about that, but users are naturally like that, so we have to cater to it or our websites will not be successful.

    • says

      Totally agreed with You Nicole. No one will read a single paragraph of 200. Its easier to read 4 paragraphs of 50 words. This is the art of Technical writing.

  8. Codesquid says

    Good post! All websites are ultimately created for their users, so you should always have their needs and wants in mind when designing. If you don’t, you risk having an unusable site. it’s as simple as that.

  9. says

    I agree with the focus on conventions statement. Most of the web sites being developed are for target markets that would contain your average web user. These users get used to conventions in web design, the principles that are good practice, and so appreciate web sites that they don’t need to figure out how to use.

    A happy user uses your clients web sites and converts more often. This makes your client happy. Conventions become conventions for a reason, they are the best way of approaching that particular item.

    So focus on conventions is true for the most part in my view. When it is not true is when you are specifically trying to push the boundaries as Robin Cannon stated, when you can be a bit experimental and try new things. An example might be music band web sites where conventions are often ripped up and part of the user experience is trying to figure out how the navigation works.

  10. says

    Hey, nice post,

    However, I also would not agree with the last post,

    Conventions are not necessary good, everyone was using a splash page before and it was not a good convention. We can move forward experimenting with new ways of doing things, it just need to be thoroughly tested..

    I understand why you added this rules, but I think you could have summarize it in your third point

  11. says

    I think you are very right to usability amongst designers. It is also really important to listen to what your client wants due to them knowing their customers.

  12. says

    Good post!
    Though, I have to say that conventions IS good for professional websites, businesses ect. Portfolio websites I think you can stray away from going towards the norm, because it’s bringing out the creativity in the individual and making them stand out. You can still make navigation and usibility out of the normal, but still being easy to navigate. It’s just all in how you think about it, and how the website moves the eye around the page.


  13. Darren says

    Btw, Cedric Dugas, it’s a PRINCIPLE not a RULE. There’s a huge difference between a PRINCIPLE BASED and RULE BASED design.

    Principle based = yeah you can focus on other things than conventions but test them.

    Rule based = you can focus on conventions and they’re going to work for sure.

  14. Darren says

    Hi there. Conventions are essentials IMO if you’re designing a site about a client who wants CONVERSIONS and not to just leave the visitors impressed.

    Even with that in mind, in psychology, people want familiar things and are more likely to comply with requests from things that are familiar.

    • says

      Can you explain why? If we need to create user-friendly website, we need to focus on familiar things, so even first time visitor would feel like home in the website.

      • says

        I think there’s a trend for web design to become too derivative. For a relatively young discipline it’s already become too constrained by what is the “right” thing to do.

        As a result, boundaries aren’t being pushed enough. While not denying that having navigation in a certain place is user friendly, the accepted structure of a web page is too static. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pushing the envelope in design terms, and seeking new alternatives that might improve usability beyond accepted (and rarely questioned) standards.

      • says

        (Sorry for late response. )

        – Sure I can :).

        This is a good, almost key point:
        – “If we need to create user-friendly website, we need to focus on familiar things, so even first time visitor would feel like home in the website.”

        BUT it all depends on who your audience is/will be.

        For example if your trying to sell some product with your website or provide some kind of educational information – rule applies here. You don’t know who can pay you a visit, so it’s safe to design something intuitive.

        But if you’re building website for particiular kind of people, let’s say designers and developers, you freely assume these people will get what’s going on even if you decide to design something really creative and break the rules. They will manage with no problem, they’re smart and experienced web users, they’ve seen many different and odd things already.

        So basically it all boils down to knowing who your audience is/will be, who you’re targeting to. When you know that – you know how to design your website.

        Hope that’s enough of explanation :).