Why all websites should look the same

Paul Boag

Web designers are constantly striving to create something unique. However, is that really the right approach? I would argue that many websites should conform rather than attempt to be unique.

One of the things I love about my job is the fact that I get to work with all sorts of companies and organisations. Headscape (the company I work for) has just launched www.smallpoxbiosecurity.org which provides information on the threat of an outbreak following the deliberate release of smallpox. Not the average run of the mill web site! Although I have to say that isn’t the most unusual web site I have ever worked on. That accolade would have to go to the chicken incinerator site, but that is a whole different story.

Do different sectors mean totally different approaches to design?

When we launched the small pox site it started me thinking about the variety of sites I get to work on. I have worked on heritage sites, financial sites, IT and tech sites, tourism sites, education sites… you name it I have worked on it. You would expect that all of these different sectors would result in completely different websites. To some degree that is true. Certainly the different target audiences result in different approaches. The branding of the individual organisations need to be taken into account. The content is obviously another major factor. However underlying all of this there are a number of common rules that seem to govern all websites.

The underlying rules of web design

A lot of the rules that under pin most web sites are related to convesions. Users have come to expect websites to work in a certain way and if you choose to ignore those conventions you do so at your own peril. Some of the most obvious are:

The position of navigation

Users have come to expect navigation to appear either on a top menu bar or down the left hand side. To be honest I am not sure how this happened as we are used to tabs on a book appears on the right hand side. Nevertheless this is where users look for it so generally speaking this is the best place to put it.

The position of the sites branding

Users want to instantly know that they are at the right site (or in some cases what site they have arrived at). In either case the logical place to find the branding is in the top left corner. In western culture we read from left to right and from top to bottom. As a result the branding should be in the first place people look… the top left.

The clearly communicated purpose

Users can often be unsure exactly what a site is about and so it is also important to clearly communicate on the homepage what the site covers. This can sometimes be done with a tag line while sometimes a paragraph of text is required. Whatever the approach this is key information the user will expect to find.

Copy conventions

Web users are an impatient lot and never read copy properly. It has therefore become the convention to keep your text short and to the point (unlike this article). Also include lots of bullet points, headings and highlighted text to allow easy scanning.

Section conventions

Obviously each site will have its unique sections depending on the content, however there are some universal sections people expect to find and expect to have certain names. Sections like “about us”, “contact us” and “news” all appear on most sites. Neglect to put them there or call them something unusual and your users probably won’t go hunting for them.

Tools conventions

People expect to find a search box. In fact 50% of people instinctively look for a search box when they first arrive at a web site. Also users will seek out a site map if they can’t find what they are looking for and they use breadcrumbs to identify where they are if they get really lost. As a result all of these elements need to appear in a good design.

The challenge

The list could go on a lot longer but I am sure you get the idea. Visit the www.smallpoxbiosecurity.org and see if Headscape have really put our money where our mouth is and then go and look at some of the big name websites and see how many of them follow the conventions I have outlined above. Finally take a long hard look at your own website and ask yourself if your site makes life easy for your users or if you are more concerned with being different.