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Six Ways to Immediately Improve your Website: Performance & Usability

Well, here we are, already more than a month into 2014. We’ve all spent a lot of time over the past months coming up with big dreams, new goals, and countless lists of what we can accomplish throughout the year. And now it’s time to take action.

There are a lot of trends in web design and digital marketing that are going to have a huge impact on your organization’s strategy and tactics. But, many of those conversations are going to take a lot of planning and resources to execute. So, instead of adding to your list of [anxiety-inducing] priorities for 2014, I’d like to provide you with a list of what I believe to be 6 things that you can do immediately to improve your website’s performance and usability.

1. Customize Your Analytics
The first step in increasing the performance of your site is fully understanding the current performance of your site. And I’m not talking about page visits, time on site, and bounce rates. You need to get down to actions. What are people doing on your site, beyond the pages they’re visiting? Are they watching a video? Did they sign up for your email list? Did they share your content on Facebook? Customizing your analytics to be able to track these “conversions” will enable you to better understand if your site is meeting the needs of your users.

For those using Google Analytics, Google offers great resources to learn more about the capabilities of their tools, and how to track conversions.

2. Ensure Mobile Support
Whether or not your site is specifically built for multi-device usage, it is important to ensure that your entire website is functional and readable across devices.

“We just hit a tipping point where over 50% of all emails are now read on a mobile device, and you know that website usage isn’t far behind.”
- Kraig Larson, Chief Creative, Ciceron

Although updating your website to a fully responsive design would be best, I also know that it can be a big undertaking. So, let’s start with some basic updates you can make to your existing site to improve the mobile experience.

  • Remove any features that require Flash or plugins. And if you are using video players that use either, replace them with HTML5 or simply embed a YouTube video.
  • Use “fluid” or “relative” development techniques, opposed to “fixed”. Use percentages and “em” to define content and font sizes. When using fluid layouts, be sure to set a “max-width” to ensure that your line length doesn’t exceed 50-75 characters on large screens, another usability best practice.
  • Configure the viewport, and size content accordingly. You’ll be surprised with how many issues this can help fix. Apple and Mozilla offer detailed information on how to configure the viewport.
  • Make small optimizations by utilizing media queries. By using a couple of simple media queries in your CSS, you can deliver better mobile experiences to your users. Learn how to implement media queries from W3C or Mozilla.

And if you’re still unsure of where to start, tackle high-traffic mobile pages first. Use your analytics to determine what those pages are.

Google wrote a very helpful whitepaper about designing for Multi-Screen Consumers, that can help you determine what’s best for your organization.

3. Review Page Speed
Page speed can have a big impact on your website’s performance and usability. Forty percent of consumers will abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load, and a 1 second delay in page response can result in a 7% reduction in conversions (via KISSmetrics). But additionally, it is a factor in your site’s SEO, too.

There are a lot ways to optimize your website’s page speed. But I recommend using the Google PageSpeed Insights tool to get started. Once you enter your website URL, the tool will give you a score out of 100, as well as a list of ways that you can increase your page speed.

“I’m obsessing about page speed these days — for both mobile and desktop. Yeah, it’s about being smart when designing to deliver the right amount of content at the right time, but it’s also geeking out about about web server optimizations like caching database queries, minifying CSS and gzipping web pages.”
- Kraig Larson, Chief Creative Officer, Ciceron

4. Simplify Forms
I think we’ve all come across an online form that we’ve been frustrated with. To me, a form represents a small step towards trust between you and your user. They are offering you information, in return for something from you. So, it’s important that their experience here is clean and simple. A few things to improve the usability of your forms:

  • Don’t collect any more information than you need. The user should be able to understand why you need each piece of information you’re collecting. If you ask more than they’re expecting, you may lose their trust. Think of it this way; if you were introducing yourself to someone at a bar, wouldn’t it catch you off guard if they immediately asked you what your middle name was?
  • Don’t require fields that aren’t required. For example, if you’re asking for a birthday so that you can email your customers a special offer, you shouldn’t require that they provide it. And just like I noted above, if you do this, make sure you tell them why you’re asking for their birthday in the first place.
  • If a long form is needed, group related information. And provide a visual break between field groups.
  • Place field labels above the field, rather than to the left or right. Based on a 2006 study of eye-tracking, having a single-column form with top-aligned field labels cuts the visual focus points of a user in half, greatly reducing the amount of mental effort to complete a form.
  • Replace the default “Submit” text with something that’s relevant. Instead, use wording like “Send My Message” or “Create My Account”.
  • Properly assign “tabindex” in your HTML. This allows users to quickly tab between fields in the most efficient order.

For more about improving your forms, read An Extensive Guide to Web Form Usability by Justin Mifsud.

5. Reevaluate Your Navigation
Research by User Interface Engineering, Inc., shows that people cannot find the information they seek on a Web site about 60 percent of the time. And studies by Forrester Research estimate that approximately 50 percent of potential sales are lost because users can’t find information. So, how can we help our users get to what they need?

First, limit the number of items in your navigation. The fewer items in your navigation, the more prominence each of them will have.

Second, look at your navigation and determine if the words you’re using clearly represent the content that the user is being linked to. Your site navigation isn’t the right time to try and be clever. Try to use words that are common to the user, but as descriptive as possible. When in doubt, stick to the basics, like “Contact Us”,“Products”, or “Our Blog”. At least your users will quickly know where to go to get more information.

6. Add Site Search
Even with the very best navigation, there will still be a percentage of users who aren’t able to find what they’re looking for. Adding site search is a great way to allow users to quickly find the content they want. There are many tools that can be used for site search, but Google Site Search is a great option, especially for those utilizing Google Analytics. Not only does site search improve the usability of your website, but it can offer incredibly important insight into your users’ needs. By looking at what keywords your users are searching for, you’ll be able to better understand what content should be added to the site, or what content is hard to find on the site.

For WordPress sites, the Relevanssi plugin is a great option for a site search engine, as well.

Don’t Forget Who the Site is For
Remember to make decisions on behalf of your users. Think of what it is that they want, and how you can help them accomplish it. If you keep that in mind, and start checking things off of this list, you’ll be well on your way to a higher performing and more user-friendly website.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing a list of things you can do this year to improve and update the content and design of your website. In the mean time, let me know what “quick fix” updates you’ll be making in 2014.

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