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.

5 Timeless Usability Principles for Website Designers

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 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.


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