The Secret Ingredient for Successful Websites: Effortlessness

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What elements do you think are critical to creating an effective web design? Selecting the right color scheme, fonts, and images? Coming up with an organized page layout? Writing killer content? No doubt all those things are important, but here's a news flash: the single most important characteristic of your website is effortlessness. And if you approach your website design with the goal of creating an effortless experience for your visitors, you'll soon see that all the other details, from your copywriting to colors and calls-to-action are easier to decide on, because each of them must play a role in creating an effortless experience for your visitors.

What happens if your site isn't effortless? According to research by Forrester, if visitors can't accomplish their goals on a website they'll either switch to a more expensive channel (the phone, for instance), switch to a competitor, or give up on the task entirely. In other words, having a frustrating website that requires too much effort on the part of the visitor can cost your company a lot of money.

If you're ready to put some effort into making your site effortless, here are three things I consider to be basic, foundational elements to good usability. Before you jump into the design phase, you need to understand the most common user flows, develop effective navigation, and create an uncluttered page layout.

Understand User Flows

I'm always surprised at how many web design teams skip this step. How can you design, or redesign, a website, without understanding your visitors and what they will be trying to accomplish on your site?

Take a look at your business goals, and compare that to traffic sources and entry pages. What are people trying to accomplish on your site, and what do you want them to accomplish? Users coming from different sources or through different entry pages will have varying levels of interest and desire, and be at different stages of readiness to take action (making a purchase, filling out a form, and so on). In order to create an effortless website you've got to identify the key segments of visitors, understand their motivations, awareness, intent, and readiness, and map a user flow that logically brings each segment into the right conversion funnel.

Once you've created your user flows, you'll need to prioritize them so you can focus your effort on the few that will impact the most users and represent the greatest gains for your business. Remember that not all web visitors will have equal value to your company. For example, you might see a high volume of traffic looking at your "careers" section, but that doesn't mean you should build your site around the task of looking for a job (unless you're a recruitment company, of course!).

Develop Effective Navigation

Effortless websites have one thing in common - a crystal clear, intuitive navigation. Some usability experts even say that effective navigation is 80 percent of usability. I don't know where that statistic comes from, but I'm sure it's not far off.

Visitors don't all come in through your home page. Even the most robust SEO initiative can't predict what page every visitor will enter on given a specific key phrase from a given search engine. So your job is to ensure that visitors not only know where they are at all times, but also how to get to what they want. An effective navigation structure is easy to understand (for your user, not for you) and focuses on essential visitor tasks (shopping, researching, requesting a quote). It organizes your content into logical categories and then labels it with natural language words that are not too clever, overly technical, or full of jargon.

You might find yourself being pressured by a branding team or C-level exec to design one of those fancy, cool navigation structures. Hold your ground on keeping your site effortless. After all, if your visitors can't figure out how to use your navigation, they're not going to find your content. Here are some basic tips you can use as a starting point for your navigation:

  • Keep your global and secondary navigation consistent - it should be on every page and always in the same place.
  • If you are using horizontal navigation, limit it to one row.
  • Give the user a clear "you are here" indicator by visually distinguishing the current page and section (change the color of the text or background, etc.).

Create Uncluttered Page Layouts

Nearly every website suffers from TMI - too much information. And for good reason - the website is expected to take the place of what used to be a human-to-human interaction. It's very difficult to create a site that is prepared to address every visitor concern, every stage of interest, every level of web sophistication. As a result, pages get bogged down with images, product/service descriptions, promotions, navigation, testimonials/reviews, buttons, trust badges, and so on. They can quickly become overwhelming and visually paralyzing for your visitors. In other words, when there's too much to focus on, it's hard to focus on anything.

You probably have different types of pages on your site (category pages, content pages, product pages, etc.), but the basic structure of each page should reflect a clear visual hierarchy of importance. Here are some basic principles that can help keep your pages simple and easy to use, even if you have a lot of information to present:

  • Base your pages on a clear grid structure.
  • Group related items together, making key information easy to find.
  • Be clear about what task the user is trying to accomplish, and resist the urge to distract her with secondary goals that take her off the path. Your graphics should be clear and simple, supporting and drawing attention to your call-to-action.
  • Visually emphasize the page elements that need the most attention. Make it super simple for the visitor to know what to do and how to do it.

Creating an effortless web experience for your visitors is the single most important thing you can do to improve your conversion rate. Testing is great, but if your site has fundamental flaws in its navigation and page layout, or if it doesn't support key visitor flows, then it makes little sense to improve one small element at a time when what your site needs is a major overhaul. Go to your favorite search engine and see how many competitor sites come up with your keywords. Then think about the Forrester research. If your site doesn't make it effortless for your visitors to accomplish what they want, switching to one of your competitors' sites is as easy as hitting the back button. Make it easy for your visitors, new and repeat, to find what they want and act on it. That's your foundation. Once you've done that, you can start testing and tuning the finer details for more incremental gains.


This article originally appeared in Tim's ClickZ column May 14, 2013