The Golden Rules Of Commercial Website Design

An e-commerce website is all about encouraging people to complete that journey from homepage to checkout. Online shoppers can be fickle and sometimes the most minor reasons can make them ‘drop out’ of your site and go to one of your competitors. So here’s a checklist of things to do and things best avoided to help keep customers on your website.

There’s no better way to drive visitors away than insisting they sign up, log in, or give personal information before they shop.  Always give them an option to shop as a guest. If you want people to sign up, do it at the end of the process.  Make sure it’s worth their while with benefits and special offers and don’t ask for too many details.

Here are just a few pointers for creating a good shopping experience: It really helps if you’ve got a good search function, an easy-to-see shopping cart logo on each page and you ensure it takes as few steps as possible to get from the product page to the actual purchase.

On the other hand things like asking visitors to update their Flash player, having music playing in the background and including pop-ups on your site are generally nothing but a hindrance.

There are many more things that can help you close sales or lose them. But there’s one simple rule to bear in mind: think back to your own online experiences – what annoys you will annoy most of your customers.

Customers aren’t necessarily interested in flashy video intros that take time to load, time to watch and tell them nothing. All they need is a few short words about who you are and what you do. If you want to have a lengthy mission statement keep it off the homepage.

A site only hides its prices if they’re too high. And if visitors can’t see what you’re charging they’ll simply go elsewhere.  So, show your prices when the visitor sees your product, offer or service for the first time – and ideally try to make sure that what you’re selling and the prices are at most one click from your homepage.

Remember to be upfront about any extras, delivery costs or timings – because the shock of only seeing them once you get to the checkout is one of the top reasons for customers to abandon their shopping baskets.

Customers need to know you’re a legitimate business who it’s safe to shop with.  Trust marks like a Verisign certificate will inspire confidence.  So will offering a variety of well-known payment options – like PayPal – and showing the logos throughout your site to prove it.

Customers are looking for reassurance.  Answering their questions before they ask them is a good way to give them this.  So clearly show your privacy policy, returns policy, terms & conditions and have well thought out FAQs.

Make sure useful info is easy to find.  In addition to an email address, a phone number gives your site the personal touch by showing customers there are real people behind the business who they can turn to for help. However, you also need to make sure there’s someone there to answer customer queries within a reasonable time frame!

These are some of the most powerful tools you can use to show you’re trustworthy.  Don’t be shy about including bad reviews – it shows you’re honest and adds credibility to other, more positive reviews. But if something is getting consistently low reviews you should address the issue to show you take feedback seriously.

There’s nothing like bad grammar and spelling to make a site look at best amateurish and at worst untrustworthy. That’s what spell-checkers and fresh pairs of eyes are for – to double-check everything!

If customers point out mistakes be sure to correct them quickly – it will make you look more responsive and efficient.

Poor layout and low quality images will also make you look unprofessional, so take a look at our design tips (below) for some hints on how to give your site a final polish.

Visitors can always do with a little prompting. So, for example, point users in the direction of products that complement the ones they’re looking at.

Also, given that people browse a number of online stores when looking for a product, it’s a good idea to keep a record of what users have been looking at on your site – and highlighting those products again when they come back, to show you remember them.

Functionality is a key feature in building an e-commerce website, but it doesn’t mean that design should take a back seat.

The design and layout of your website play a vital role in driving your sales up – or down. So, to make sure your site’s design is doing all it can, put yourself in the customer’s position and ask:

Where do I start and where do I go next?
Is that a link/button?
Where am I on the site?
Where’s the thing I’m looking for?
Would I buy from this website?

With that in mind, here is a list of 10 helpful hints for designing your website.

Innovation is all very well, but there are some established design conventions that visitors will expect and it’s therefore best to follow:

Keep your logo in the top left of the screen with a link back to the homepage
Make your navigation bars easy to read and keep them in the same place
Make sure your page width avoids the need for a horizontal scrolling bar
Keep links underlined in blue
Provide contact details on every page, usually in the top right of the screen – a phone number is especially helpful to visitors

It’s also worth considering how your pages would look for ‘mobile’ viewers.

When it comes to your website repetition is reassuring, not boring. A consistent look and feel on every page means users know where they stand and will remember your site more easily. The same goes for the styles and sizes of fonts, look and feel of graphics and images, and navigation tabs.

The visual design of your site should lend itself to smooth navigation. Make it an intuitive 3-click process from (1) selecting a product, to (2) viewing the details, to (3) purchasing, and your customers will be happier to buy. A ‘breadcrumb’ trail (e.g. home>women’s>shoes) also helps users keep their bearings.

The right colours for your website will depend on what you’re selling and to whom. If you want a calm, harmonious site then subdued natural colours are the thing.  But if you want buttons that stand out and get noticed you’ll want a bold primary colour.

…and your contrast too

Getting the right contrast is essential for universal usability. Making your text legible depends on picking out words from the background. And don’t forget, different screens will display your site slightly differently.

The more white space around your design elements, the more prominence each one has and the easier it is to see and act on.

If you’re using a fixed width layout try ‘floating’ the page in the centre of the window, then even if your page is crowded it will still have a sense of space.

The single most important parts of your website are the ones that lead to a sale. So, the shopping cart and buy buttons should be the most prominently placed buttons on the part of the page the eye is most drawn to.  And try to keep them ‘above the fold’ – in the area you can see without scrolling down.

One of the main reasons for lost sales is not being able to see the price of the product. So, if your prices are competitive, put them alongside the relevant product as soon as you can. Remember, if your prices are high, hiding them isn’t going to make people buy.

It may sound obvious but place text next to the image it refers to along with key info like price and calls to action.  But make sure each item stays separate so the visitor knows what they’re looking at and what to do.

It can also help to highlight related or similar products at the point the customer purchases to encourage extra sales.

You may have great imagery, products and a unique offering.  But poor spelling and grammar, bad spacing and inconsistent fonts will still make your site look cheap, unprofessional and, worst of all, untrustworthy.  And that can lose you sales.

That’s what spell checkers – and fresh sets of eyes – are for. Use both to make sure you iron out any mistakes on your site.

With all of these tips in mind, it would be easy to lose sight of the most important one of all. As well as speedier page load times, simplicity will normally increase usability. The image below shows perhaps the greatest case study of them all…

Don’t forget to give your website regular health checks, such as by checking your site works on multiple browsers – see our guide for more. And for a little help getting customers to buy, look at our tips for improving the online shopping experience.

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