Thanks to a concerted education effort by key Web designers, as well as a few prominent accessibility and usability experts, the Web development industry has begun to form its own best practices. These are built on top of of Web standards, are informed by human-centered design, and honed through nearly a decade of trial and error. While the routines of those best practices vary depending on the site and team focus, but at their core they all share the same philosophy.
Some may call it usability, others visitor loyalty, others rich content, but the goal of the vast majority of Web sites is to become a routine for its visitors, and to do that, the users needs are primal; no matter what the papers say, you don’t own your site, your users do.
This is an overview of these notable best practices — future installments will delve deeper into specific topics an areas of interest.
- People want your advice, show them what you can offer
- Know both your users and the purpose of the site, and provide two or three clear paths that enable visitors to easily achieve their goals (which, in turn, should map to the purpose of the site itself). Imagine a concierge.
- Inspire curiosity to encourage exploration and discovery
- With rare exceptions (i.e., a task requiring the completion of a fixed goal) each path should provide branches for visitors to take, thereby exposing them to parts of the site they are interested in, but didn’t necessarily come for. Think “serendipity”
- Without wayfinding, you’re telling visitors to get lost
- On every single page of the site, the visitor should be able to see where they are, where that item is within the site, and where they can go to. This can be explicit, like breadcrumbs; implicit like friendly Web addresses and design hints; or both. This is the “Wikipedia Effect”
- Technology shouldn’t be a limiting experience
- There should be no such thing as an “unsupported browser” in the sense that any visitor should be able to access the content you offer, even if its not optimally presented. The site should embrace the three pillars of open Web standards, accessibility, and device-independence.
- Welcome the outside in and let the inside out
- The Internet is built on the exchange of information, and sites are rewarded the more they reach out beyond their domain. Encouraging visitor participation builds both loyalty; enabling others to easily access the site’s contents helps market its services; and pointing to other sites, even competitors, enhance the site’s own authority. This is the “Yahoo Effect”
- Being nimble means being adaptable
- In everything from business strategy to technology choices, being able to quickly bring to market a new feature allows the site to adjust to changing conditions, saving money while maintaining the current audience. If the feature doesn’t work after a reasonable period, quickly admit to it, remove it, and continue forward. Think “fail faster”
- Even in anarchy, there are rules
- After nearly a decade-and-a-half of Web-based development, combined with its profound integration with mainstream society, there are unspoken conventions that nearly every user understands. Ignoring them creates a sense of discomfort amongst visitors; relying on them creates a solid foundation to explore from. Think: “green means go”
- The tea leaves reveal what you want them to
- The online world offers a universe of metrics to quickly draw upon: visitor surveys, site analytics, revenue patterns, and market analysis. But their easy availability obscures their unreliable nature; use them a background source to inform, not to define, plans and goals. Think “Deepthroat”
- Technology will fail you in proportion to the faith you put into it
- As a means to an end, choosing the right technology for the purpose at hand requires careful forethought, but there is no perfect solution. Understand the limitations, but know that the what is developed is only as good as the process and people that developed it. This is the “Messenger Effect”