10 Important Web Design Best Practices and Tips for Small Business Websites Ross Kimbarovsky | January 4th, 2016
If you don’t have a dedicated website for your startup or small business, you’re in danger to fall further behind your competition.
You might think that you’re building a fan base on Facebook (if you’re buying fans on Facebook by advertising, you’re very likely wasting your money), sharing small bits of content on Twitter and posting images to Pinterest. But without a central digital home, you’re scattering your efforts and missing an incredible opportunity to engage and connect with your customers and potential customers through a dedicated site. After all, your customers ultimately will want to learn more about your company’s products and services, and a dedicated website will help them do so.
Today, we’ll cover web design best practices and tips. We’ll point you to great resources and examples and highlight recent changes in web design. And if you already have a website but are considering a website redesign, it’s a good idea to start with your homepage.
Here are our top 10 tips to help you create an awesome website design in 2016:
Your website reflects your brand. It is the first impression a visitor will form when they visit your site for the first time. If you use an off-the-shelf template and your website looks like thousands of other sites on the Internet, you’ll miss an opportunity to create a unique impression. Why would a potential customer remember your site when she has seen dozens of other sites that look just like your site.
In the past few months, we’ve been hearing form numerous business owners who initially created their website using one of the existing template sites. As their businesses have grown, those business owners realize that they need to stand out from their competition. The template sites no longer meet their needs.
This is not surprising. The homepage is typically the most important page in a business website – your potential customers will likely see that page first when they visit your site. Moreover, because most small business and startup sites have fewer than a dozen pages total, the homepage is an important anchor for your overall site. It must answer several important questions – including who you are and what you do. Template sites simply can’t do this properly. Some of the templates look visually pretty, but functionally, they lack many elements that make a website useful and informative for potential customers.
Consider the impression you want to make and the message that you want to communicate to your customers and potential customers.
As you consider your site design, be sure you have a professional logo design. A logo created from clip-art or a template won’t be unique and will create a poor impression. Even worse, it may expose you to substantial legal risk. Some business owners invest in a new website design but forget to create an original logo (or to update their old clip-art based logo). This is a missed opportunity.
When you consider the content to include on your homepage, keep one very important fact in mind: users typically read only 28% of the words during an average visit. Don’t overload your homepage with a lot of text and images. Consider the most important content and images you want your users to see and get rid of everything else. Many people mistakenly try to include too much content on a homepage – and this creates confusion and a poor user experience. Add less, not more.
Consider too that your visitors might be visiting from laptops and mobile phones, so try to avoid designing pages for a large monitor size or pages that use more complex features such as flash animation (you should NOT be using flash in 2016) or complex navigation.
Tip: You can implement modern design trends to make your site look current. For example, flat design has become popular. If you’ve used iOS 7 and later versions of iOS on an iPhone or iPad, or Windows 8, you’ve seen flat design first-hand. Flat design eliminates gradients and shadowing, making images and fonts smaller and easier to read. Other 2016 design trends include simple animations (including cinemagraphs – live animated images/video), bigger images, illustrations, more scrolling, and bigger fonts. For even more about 2016 design trends, I recommend you read Top web design trends for 2016.
For a more sophisticated look, consider illustrations. Although images have dominated web design, more sites are incorporating creative illustration in their homepages. Illustrations can often engage the user in more personal ways. For example, take a look at how Basecamp uses illustrations to show their support team members. Basecamp could have easily included photos of each person, but illustrations are more fun, unique, and reflect some personality.
Advanced Tip 1: Once you design your homepage, you can run very simple tests to figure out which buttons, colors, and pieces of content earn the most clicks. After all, marketing is as much a science as it is an art. For more about A/B testing, I recommend you read 7 Dead-Simple A/B Tests You Should Run on Your Homepage.
Advanced Tip 2: Particularly on your homepage – but also on any pages where you’re trying to persuade the user to take some action – think about what action you want the user to take and create a prominent “call to action” button. For tips on creative effective calls to action, I suggest you review 10 Techniques For An Effective ‘Call To Action’. You should incorporate minimal textures and subtle gradients, where appropriate, to highlight different areas of the site.
The call to action (CTA) on your homepage is an important element to draw visitors deeper into your site. You should consider a few important factors when you design your CTA, including: (a) location (above the fold – visible on the monitor when the page first loads is typically ideal), (b) make sure the CTA stands out from the other content on your site (notice how the crowdSPRING “START A PROJECT” CTA is pink?), (c) create a link to another page so that your call to action will draw the visitor deeper into your site, (d) create a less-emphasized alternative variation (notice the “How it works” link below crowdSPRING’s primary CTA, (e) and test design, content, and placement.
It’s important not to overload your hompage (or any page, for that matter), with CTAs. Pick one or two and focus on those. If you have too many, you’ll create a tremendous amount of noise for users and that will lead to much confusion.
For some good examples of landing page designs, I recommend you read 15 of the Best Landing Page Design Examples You Need To See and 15 of the Best Website Homepage Design Examples.
2. Showcase your products and services.
You’re selling a product or service. Make sure that you clearly showcase that product or service on your homepage. I’ve seen many small business web designs that failed to effectively show their products or services and many others that tried to showcase far too many products or services on one page.
You have only a few seconds to make a first impression and you should make sure that the impression you make is professional.
If you’re selling products and your customers will buy the products online, you need to make sure that the product photos – or graphical images and descriptions – are clean, crisp and appropriate. You can have a great site design, but if your product photos look terrible, your prospective customers will think twice about buying your products. Look at how well-known online stores present products (Amazon, Apple, Zappos are all good examples).
If your product or service is web-based, consider using images of phones or computers and embed your showcase images within those images. That will help people anticipate how they’ll engage with your product or service. For example, take a look at how Quickly Legal (Smart, Simple Business Contracts – helps entrepreneurs, small businesses and freelancers create, sign and manage legal agreements on any device) shows their product on their homepage being used on a laptop screen.
The examples continue lower on the page, showing examples of the product in use.
For good examples of startup websites that showcase a single product or service, I recommend you read Showcasing The Design of Startup Websites.
Tip: Don’t overload your site with photos or graphics. Although it’s been said that a picture can say a thousand words, pictures can also confuse and diffuse attention. Pick a few good product shots and feature those products on the homepage. You can feature your other products on interior pages.
3. Pay Attention To Site Load Times.
People are impatient when browsing websites and slow load times impact conversions (getting people to buy your products or services). If your site design is graphically intense, you need to make sure you’ll have the hardware infrastructure and bandwidth to support the designs. This is especially critical if you’re serving a large customer base and expect substantial traffic to your site. You can improve your site load times by picking good hosts.
The cheapest monthly hosting option does not typically offer the best value. It might be cheap, but is also likely to be slow and unreliable.
Tip: want to compare how quick two sites load in comparison to each other? Here’s a free tool you can use: whichloadsfaster.com
4. Make your site easily accessible.
Consider how people with certain disabilities – such as color blindness) can learn about your products and services if they visit your site. Also consider how people with slower internet connections will view your site. This is especially important for small businesses, including rural small businesses, catering to local clients – accessibility is one of the best ways to endear your business to such clients.
Tip: Keep the web design and navigation consistent throughout the site. Don’t create unrelated designs for different pages on your site. All the pages should have a similar overall layout and design. This is one of the most common reasons business owners will consider a site redesign for 2016.
5. Organize your site to provide a better user experience.
Search engines prefer websites that are properly organized. People also prefer good organization. Keep in mind that when your prospective customers visit your site, they’re typically looking for specific information. They’re rarely going to read entire pages – they’ll skim headlines and small portions of text and look at photos or graphics (but not all of them on the same page). A properly structured site that presents information in an orderly and organized way will be much more successful than one that appears chaotic.
Tip: Use bold, easy to read fonts and bullets to present key information or to stress things you want the readers to notice.
Add text color to stress the most important information, but try to keep your use of text color and fonts to a minimum. You want to emphasize, not confuse.
Keep in mind that most people will ignore content if the headline above the content doesn’t interest them – so don’t ignore good headlines (more on that in tip 6 below).
Advanced Tip: action buttons/links should be clear and unambiguous. For example, “Save” is not the same as “Submit.” Consider a user’s expectation when they click a button or link and make sure that your labels properly set those expectations. Whenever possible, make sure your copy reflects complete sentences and not isolated words or phrases. For more about effective CTAs, I recommend you read 17 Best Practices for Crazy-Effective Call-To-Action Buttons.
6. Content is important.
You probably already know that search engines index sites based on the quality of content (and links). The more content on your site, the more attractive your site becomes for search engines (more about search engine optimization in tip 9 below).
People also like content. In fact, poor content can quickly cause a visitor to leave your site. Don’t ignore headlines – they can be very powerful and can mean the difference between a visitor reading the rest of the content and leaving your site.
Keep the content fresh and current. If your 2016 website has content dated from 2013, your visitors may quickly leave your site.
Tip: Study your successful competitors – especially those that have been in business longer than you. Look at their websites and study how they present their products and services to their customers and potential customers. Study their site colors, voice, use of graphics, illustrations and photos, and the overall site organization. Don’t be afraid to use bolder colors. In the past, people have used muted colors, but we’re expecting to see more saturated and vibrant colors in 2016. For more information and tips for evaluating your competitors, I recommend you read Start-up tips: 10 Tips for Evaluating Your Competitors.
Advanced Tip: Consider using larger, more readable font sizes for your content. As screen resolution has improved, many displays show smaller fonts in a too tiny to read size. Take a look at some of your favorite websites and consider which font sizes you prefer for viewing/reading. With few exceptions, you probably prefer sites that use larger fonts.
7. Understand the difference between design and development.
To build a website, you’ll need both design for the site and development of the site. Although some freelancers can do both, the skills for design and development are typically different and you may want to leverage different people for each part of the job. Freelance web developers tend to specialize in frontend or backend work.
Frontend developers tend to focus on the client side – what your users see when they visit your website. Backend developers usually focus on the interaction between the server and databases.
Backend developers often work on a number of things, which include scripting to permit your users to interact with the site, web server configuration, and developing e-commerce features, such as a payment system. Good freelance web developers are skilled in multiple areas, including web design, information architecture, usability engineering, web content management systems, web server administration, database administration, software engineering, project management, network security, and search engine optimization.
Tip: If you decide to hire a freelance web site designer and/or developer, you should look for at least three people (or shops) and ask them for detailed quotes. You should also remember to ask for a few examples of their prior work so that you can evaluate their style and experience. crowdSPRING has some of the most talented web designers in the world – we’d love to help if you want to consider us as one of your options.
8. Consider the domain but don’t obsess about it.
Your domain will communicate important information to your visitors. It might tell them what your business does. Or it might simply be an effective way for people to easily reach your site. If you’re unable to find a URL that matches your business name, you can consider changing the name or finding an alternative URL that includes the name – or or one that complements the name.
I’ve been through the company naming process many times and it can be a very frustrating experience. Try to find a domain that’s easy to remember, but don’t obsess about it. If you need help, consider leveraging the 182,000 creatives on crowdSPRING to help you find a great new company name (including a domain).
Tip: Consider how the URLs on your site will look to search engines and people. Where you can (this is not difficult to do when you use content management systems – such as a WordPress blog), use natural sounding names for your URLs and titles. For example, the How It Works page on the crowdSPRING site has the following easy to read ULR: http://www.crowdspring.com/how-it-works/
9. Don’t forget search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).
For a small businesses, efforts spent on one marketing initiative typically take away from other marketing initiatives. Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are highly specialized fields and require a substantial investment of time to learn. But SEO and/or SEM campaigns can provide great leverage to small businesses and as a result, should not be ignored. For a useful primer about small business search engine optimization and search engine marketing, you can read 10 Practical Small Business SEO and SEM Marketing Tips. For additional tips, I recommend PPC Tips for Small Business Owner and How To Leverage Rich Media SEO for Small Businesses. If you’re new to SEO, this is a terrific guide from Moz: The Beginners Guide to SEO.
10. Use a responsive design.
Mobile devices are accounting for an increasing percentage of web traffic. In fact, some businesses, like Facebook, have more people accessing their sites via a mobile device than a desktop computer. This trend has been going up for years and will continue in 2016. There’s no turning back. To learn more about responsive web design (and see examples how sites implement responsive design), I recommend you read The Pros and Cons of Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile Website vs. Native App. For some interesting stats on why responsive design is important and more background on responsive design, I recommend you read The Web in 2016: Long live responsive design.
Can you suggest other tips and best practices for small business web design in 2016? If you have a question about web design best practices, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.