Almost as soon as the Internet was invented, ecommerce gurus and excited journalists started proclaiming that “your website is your shop window to the world”. But as the years have passed, and particularly after the accelerant effect of the pandemic, this old metaphor has become outdated. These days, with many businesses operating mostly or entirely online, your website isn’t your shop window – it’s your whole shop.

Which is why it’s puzzling that so many websites are still built so carelessly. Imagine if you heard about a new supermarket in your neighbourhood, but when you entered it you found that the lights were dimmed so low you could barely see, all the products were piled haphazardly on top of each other, there were no prices displayed and no staff or check out areas in sight. How long would you spend in the supermarket, and – more importantly – how much money would you spend? The answer, for most people, would be very little, and it would all be down to a poorly designed user experience.

The nightmare supermarket might sound far-fetched, but the nightmare website really isn’t, even after nearly three decades of living and working with the Internet. Too many websites are blighted by poor navigation, pop-ups blocking the customer’s way, unreadable menus, horribly organised displays, or invisible or inaccessible check-out processes – sometimes all of the above. As Business Insider pithily writes– “the web is full of horrendous sites, and we’re not just talking about bad design.”

Fortunately, user experience design – sometimes called interaction design – is neither quantum physics nor brain surgery. You don’t need to have an eagle eye for design or have amassed years of experience in website building in order to lead improvements to the online experience you are offering. You just need to understand some common principles and have the imagination to think like your customers. The impact can be nothing less than transformative. As Forbes wrote in a brilliant headline two years ago: “User Experience Is Now Your Business Strategy.”

In this article, we won’t discuss payment gateways and check-out options, which would require a full article to themselves, but rather the journey that will take your customer to that check-out. Here are five rules to improving your user experience.

Rule 1 – pick up the pace

There is almost nothing you could do to improve the experience of your users which is more effective than making your pages load faster. As smartphones become ubiquitous and people access content all over the world on many different platforms, they expect to get what they want rapidly. And if they don’t, they bounce. Google conducted extensive research into this in 2017 and 2018 and found that if page load time rises from 1 to 3 seconds, your bounce rate goes up 37%. Add 2 more seconds and it goes up by 90%. If it rises as high as 10 seconds, your bounce rate rises by 123%. Bad news update: people haven’t got more patient since 2018. If your pages are loading slowly, fix this before you do anything else. Google offers a free service where you can get information on your page speed, and also offers suggestions for improving your load time. Take them up on these offers!

Rule 2 – show the way

Unless you are operating a virtual escape room, you probably don’t want your customers to feel trapped inside your website, frantic to find a way to get out, pay and get home. That’s why you need clear navigation and signage to guide your customers through their journey in the quickest and simplest way. Online navigation has a direct impact on your bounce and conversion rates. Provide your visitors with clear pathways through your site and you will help to push them further through the conversion funnel, hopefully towards a sale.

Rule 3 – display your visual smarts

Any veterans of the early Internet will remember a time when websites seemed to be all text or a nightmare assault of images that took months to load up. Now, the best website experiences are visually beautiful but uncluttered and quick to load. Invest in creating your own photography: either consumers have developed an uncanny sixth sense for what is a stock photograph of the kind Wix provides, or the stock photograph producers have an uncanny ability to make people and scenes look strange and unreal. As Hubspot puts it, “using stock photography can decrease trust and also stand out as generic and non-unique. Unfortunately, these associations carry over to your business as well.” All of this impacts the user experience: in a case study conducted by Spectrum on a moving company in New York, they found that simply replacing a stock image of movers with a real image yielded much better website results, including the Holy Grail of increased conversion.

Rule 4 – mobile first, not mobile add-on

2017 was the first year that, globally speaking, more users accessed the Internet through their mobiles than their PCS – now, in 2021, mobile is the entry point for 55% of online journeys. That means something very simple for the user experience design: you simply have to build your website so that it is mobile-friendly and easy to navigate no matter what type of device people use to access it. Indeed, Google now penalizes websites that aren’t optimized for mobile devices, making this even more business-critical. Fortunately, while our Google Overlords may take with one hand, they give with another. Try this valuable Google tool to see whether your website is mobile-friendly and, if it isn’t, get to work fixing it.

Rule 5 – seal the deal

All of the above may be entirely pointless if it doesn’t lead your website visitors to taking the action you are looking for, whether that be a sale, a subscription, or adding their email to your mailing list. Most visitors are at least open to this possibility – they wouldn’t have wandered into your website if they didn’t have some interest in what you do – but you have to take them there with an intelligent and well-designed use of calls to action (CTAs). Where to locate your CTA requires some thought, since if it is too early and too prominent it may deter first-time visitors, but you do want it to be clear and visible, and in a consistent location for repeat visitors. The colour and the words you choose for your CTA may be the cherry on the top of the entire user experience, and require careful consideration so they can provide the perfect final nudge to push your visitor into glorious action.