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Welcome

There are a number of essential elements that make up every quality web site. This guide sets out the main features that go to produce an unmissable Internet destination.

Creating Great Web Sites (also available in our Library as an Article)

Contributor: Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable®

Contents  
Purpose Content
Ten Principles Contact
Navigation Terms and Conditions
Dynamic Sites Privacy Statement
The Homepage Help
Feedback Conclusion
About  


Purpose

There are many different kinds of websites. Some sites act as on-line brochures to advertise services and/or products (this category includes the creative professional's site offering a portfolio with examples of their work). Larger e-commerce sites enable the on-line payment for products and services (often driven by a database server and generally with little informational content). Add to these, web sites that range from offering search facilities, Internet gaming and broadcasting, and informational sites such as AbleStable®, and it becomes clear that constructing an effective web site is defined by its' purpose.

The more complex a web site, the more challenging the task is of maintaining quality, consistency, and ease of use, three overriding aims in creating a premium web site experience.

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Ten principles that deliver great web sites

After thinking long and hard we've come up with ten general principles that encapsulate all great web sites. Great websites:

• maintain an on-line presence with at least a 99.5% uptime record
• are focussed about their purpose
• spend time and effort developing solutions that ensure general accessibility
• respond within 24 hours in person (non-automated) to email support requests
• are easily navigable with consistent navigational aids
• provide easily read, high quality text
• are well maintained (web page code and links)
• include contact and biographical information that is accurate and easily found
• offer an accessible feedback mechanism
• are visually attractive

In addition to these points, larger sites wishing users to return on a regular basis must provide a continually growing resource of original, high quality content. You'll note from the general principles we've provided above, web sites can accomplish a great web presence without spending sack loads of cash. It's about ensuring care and attention is given to the quality and detail of a site that sets a fabulous web location apart. We'll now turn our attention to the essential elements that make up web sites.

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Navigation

Effective navigation is a web designer's greatest challenge and inevitably results in compromise solutions. Many web designers favour style over function and usability. When developing a web site it is always advisable to keep the target audience and their on-line habits in mind. It may be tempting to choose drop-down menus, Flash intros, and database driven elements, but beware the pitfalls.

Let's take the drop-down menu as an example that warrants careful consideration. Time and again usability studies have shown people make judgements about web sites as the page opens. Before the buttons have been cached and the text rushes to the bottom of the page, users have made up their mind about whether a web site is worthy of their valuable on-line time. They won't get to the drop-down menu to see what's on offer, and they'll be long since gone before your impressive Flash animation is complete. A book is very much judged by the state of its' cover. Ask yourself why Google, Amazon, The BBC, and other great sites avoid drop-downs and you'll soon realise the importance the big players place on the 'immediate message'.

It's important to remember delivering an effective web site navigational system is as much to do with effective window naming, page content, and site structure, as the links and buttons that appear as menu systems. The most important principle in ensuring effective web site navigation is to view web sites as a whole and provide as much assistance to the user to know where they are, where they've been, and how to get to where they want to go.

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Dynamic Sites

Web sites are increasingly delivered with the aid of database servers. Sites where the URL ends in .asp, .php, or .cfm etc are often called 'dynamic' as web pages are delivered according to the specific requests users make of them. These requests may differ from user to user dependant on the user's purpose. Although many so-called 'dynamic' sites have database functionality and appear to benefit the user by individualising their web experience, the creation of new content by real people in database sites is often very thin on the ground.

Premium web sites view the constant development and delivery of new resources and high quality content together with user interaction (how much users participate and contribute towards the site) as what truly defines a dynamic site rather than the technologies that deliver it.

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The Homepage

Effective homepages state their purpose in clear unambiguous language and functionality. The most well known of these is Google. The user must be clear about the site's general purpose above the fold ('the fold' is a term used in web design to mean the visible screen area of an average sized monitor that can be viewed without the need to scroll).

All elements on the homepage should encourage users to explore as much as the site as possible as many users will use the homepage as an anchor when they are disoriented. It's also wise to remember great web sites view every page as a potential first stop as most visitors to sites arrive as a result of search engine queries. Users must be able to easily navigate their way to their objective no matter where they arrive on a site. At AbleStable® we adopt a principle that users reach their destination within three clicks no matter where they are.

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Feedback

There are many instances when users wish to request further information, make suggestions, or comment upon how a web site is performing. The provision of feedback forms that can be easily found is essential in ensuring user satisfaction and the smooth running of a web site.

The processing of feedback forms is of equal importance as the provision of them. When a feedback form arrives in a support email box it is important that a real person responds within 24 hours, and not an auto-responder. Users quickly recognise and appreciate the effort made when their request for information or answers, observations of problems, and suggestions for improvements are taken seriously by a member of the human race.

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About

The 'About' page on a web site is a frequent port of call and provides a vital link as it attempts to connect with the user in personal terms and to encourage trust. It is astonishing how many web sites continue to provide poor or inadequate information about the team or individual that is behind a web site. Internet users are highly suspicious, and rightly so, of web sites that contain no 'About' section at all.

Great sites provide clear biographical, historical, and qualificational information about their services, products, and persons. They do not let their egos get the better of them or simply use the page to deliver a marketing message. Great sites ensure their reason for being is communicated effectively, and their ethos, clearly stated.

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Content

Whether content consists of a portfolio, descriptions of products and services, informational or presentational material, content should always be presented with an eye for detail and accuracy. Internet users will be less than impressed with spelling or grammatical errors that undermine the professionalism of an individual or company. Of equal importance is the quality of web page construction. The code that delivers pages should function without error, and all links should work. In the event of server failure or the input of an incorrect web address by a user, customised error pages should assist users in locating the page they seek.

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Contact

The Contact page is a vital component, not only in connecting with users and clients, but also in encouraging a sense of trust in the services and/or products associated with the web site. The Contact page may be organised together with the 'About' page and must always contain up to date and accurate information.

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Terms and Conditions

Many web sites ignore the development of a Terms and Conditions statement, however it is always mutually advantages to develop one if the focus of a web site is to deliver services and/or products. Terms and Conditions make plain the contract between two parties and helps solidify a professional relationship at the outset between the client and service (and/or product) provider.

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Privacy Statement

Web sites often require users to provide information of one kind or another. Whenever information of this type is requested there must be an accessible Privacy Statement that details what information is gathered and why, the way information is kept, who has access to it, and whether the process is transparent. In the case of AbleStable® we are signatories to the Data Protection Act in the UK and abide by their rules and regulations.

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Help

Sites larger than fifty pages should provide on-line help documents and a Frequently Asked Questions section to ensure users are not left waiting for an email should they have a question about the services or products on offer.

Help and FAQs significantly reduce the burden on support staff who may then concentrate their efforts on the more critical and problematic demands on their time. Sites exceeding fifty pages should also provide an effective dedicated search facility.

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Conclusion

Web sites are notoriously complex entities. Many still believe developing a web site is simply a matter of lifting a software title off the shelf and making a few mouse clicks but nothing could be further from the truth. Delivering a great web site takes a great deal of time and energy and the work is never over: always remember that maintaining a site is as important as developing one.

Web sites require a lot of effort to migrate from the ranks of the mundane to the extraordinary. Only a few in a thousand make the grade. Aspire to be the best and aim for your site to count among the chosen few.

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