In more than a decade of making websites, first as a freelance designer/developer for small businesses and individuals, and later as a principal of a design firm, I’ve reviewed a lot of sites. The truth is, that even when they come from professional designers and cutting-edge developers, many sites share the same basic user experience issues. This post will teach you how to avoid the most common mistakes on your author website so that you can outperform the competition.
[Full disclosure: Tyler, the author, is the founder and CEO of Featherlight, which provides custom-built websites on a subscription basis. Featherlight is mentioned in the following article.]
What Is User Experience (UX)?
Simply put, it is what a visitor to your website experiences during their time there. Was the site easy to use? Could they find what they were looking for? Did they make a purchase, or sign up for a mailing list? All of these are part of, and affected by, user experience.
Professional web firms optimize for user experience through extensive testing of prototypes with real and prospective users of the site or application being developed.
But you don’t have the time (or the budget) for that. (Readers who are authors of NYT bestsellers excluded, of course.)
That’s why below you’ll find six of the best, most effective user experience lessons I’ve learned in my long career as a professional website creator. Make sure that you’re golden on each of these points, and you’ll be better than not just 90% of authors on the web, but just 90% of sites.
Mistake #1: Forget to Check Mobile FIRST
In recent years, user experience designers have begun talking a LOT about “mobile-first” design. This is essentially just a fancy way of saying that when they create a new website, they start by designing the mobile experience first.
Because mobile traffic for all sites is up exponentially over the last 5 years (duh). But more importantly, because traditionally website designers were stuck in the desktop paradigm—they were designed primarily for large, wide screens—not small vertically-oriented viewports.
This means that most website experiences are suboptimal on mobile—and then some.
Thinking “mobile-first” means that you are doing the following, at least:
Choosing a service or template that is mobile-responsive out of the box (Site changes to match different sized viewports)
Most DIY and custom website providers (such as Squarespace, Wix, and [shameless plug] Featherlight) will feature responsive templates. Any web agency you hire worth its salt will be looking at the site through this lens as well.
Focusing on creating quick, simple interactions
You’re creating big, bright buttons; short, simple forms; and content that is easy to scan and scroll. Don’t create a site that is all text and requires a user to SLOG through just to get to what they’re looking for. Even a motivated user can be put off to the purchase path—don’t give them an excuse to leave.
Load time is key
People on mobile devices have even less patience than those on desktop or laptop computers. (See Mistake #4 for more info on this one.) For a site to be truly mobile friendly, it has to load as fast the user can browse. Prioritizing load time can be one of the highest payoff activities on your site.
To see if your site meets the basic technical definition of mobile-friendly, run it through the Google analyzer. If you don’t have a site, enter “http://bookworks.com” to see a sample report.
Remember, however, the best mobile friendliness test is YOU! Don’t take the tool’s word for it — test your site on as many devices as you can get your hands on. Does it work well on all of them? What areas can be improved on what devices? Cross-device testing and being honest with yourself is the best way to keep
And finally, don’t forget: neglecting your mobile friendliness now hurts you in search! With one of their recent updates, Google has begun penalizing sites that don’t meet mobile friendliness standards when users are searching from their mobile device. This means that if you don’t get up-to-date and make your site work on mobile, it may be a very lonely place indeed.
Mistake #2: Your Website Forms Are Not Dead Simple
Forms are going to be a key part of your site. When someone needs to interact with you, purchase something or make a request, they will do it through a form.
Forms are a traditionally overlooked part of website user experience. But recently, the best designers are beginning to focus on users’ interactions with website forms more closely. This is doubly true for forms in mobile experiences.
For me, bad forms have three unforgivable sins that you must overcome:
Forms with too many fields
Before you put your contact form live, ask yourself: does it need all of the fields you added? Do you really need to know where someone found your site at this point in your relationship with the user? Are you trying to be cute and cheeky and asking them who their favorite author is before they can submit?
Forms are about getting business handled—and anything that diverts the user from the business at hand is a chance to lose them.
Forms that lack a clear confirmation
Once the user does submit, sin #2 comes into play—bad confirmations. A confirmation is the message or page that a user is directed to or presented with when the form is completed. Most commonly this is a “thank you” and a note about how long it takes to get back to them. The point here is, if you don’t give the user what they need—first; did the form submit and second; what do I do now?—they are not going to care what you write back to them.
Forms without easy validation
If I miss a form field, does the form make it clear and easy to correct my error? Or does it reload the whole form and remove the data I just entered? Poor validation can be a killer for form completions. Test your validation by leaving fields blank and submitting the web form.
Forms don’t have to be over-designed or over-styled—they just have to work exactly as the user expects them to.
Mistake #3: Content That Is Too Complex & Wordy
In the spirit of this particular mistake, I’ll keep this simple: your content MUST be easy to read and scan. Modern users want to scan text, see big pictures, view video and hear audio—the rest is just noise.
Be sure that your content is easy to move through for the user by starting with what you specialize in: the writing!
Put your page through the Flesch Kinkaid Reading Test at Readable. This will tell you the grade level at which your post or page reads, and will help you understand how to improve the readability of your content.
Even the most readable content in the world won’t change users preference, however—they want multimedia. This is the time where video and audio are really coming into their own in web content. Don’t get left behind. You still have time to beat most of your competitors to the multimedia area.
Mistake #4: Ignoring Load Time’s Impact
Slow websites suck—everybody knows it. You wouldn’t put up with one, so why should your visitors? Luckily even the slowest site can find improvements relatively easily.
To start, run your site through a speed tester, such as the tool at Pingdom. It’s free and it will give you a very useful read on your site’s load:
It will show you what areas and resources on your site are causing the most drag so that you can work to minimize or eliminate them. For most sites, the drag comes from images first, then included or required files, then hosting quality.
Which leads us to the tip of the article: DON’T SKIMP ON HOSTING. Use the best hosting that you can afford, and get every drop of speed from it. I love A2 Hosting personally, but Bluehost, Godaddy, and Flywheel are also solid and simple options and can start as low as $3.95 per month (at the time of writing), though the really speedy packages will cost more.
And remember, while you do this tedious, technical work: website conversions (purchase, form submissions, mailing list signups) decrease drastically as page load time increases. Don’t lose customers to bad load times.
Mistake #5: Never Updating Your Site Content
Your website should always be in motion—new blog posts, new reviews, maybe even new books (hint, hint). Unfortunately, many authors treat their website like a Ronco Roaster: they "set it and forget it.”
That’s a rookie mistake. Bestselling author and social media guru Guy Kawasaki says that for every one hour you spend writing, you should be spending two hours marketing. Guess what? Updating your website with exciting new content is some of the most basic—and yet most effective—marketing you can do.
The areas you should update on your site regularly:
Don’t let two weeks go by without a new post. Make each post high-value for your audience and they will reward you.
Shift blocks around, try new content and new lead-ins—then use your analytics system to see what is most effective for your goals.
Add new reviews or recognition, or just fiddle with the description to see if you can improve conversions
Finally, and crucially, updating will engage users, yes—but it will also engage search engines. Sites that are updated regularly search better than those that don’t.
Mistake #6: Skipping Your Analytics
This is so important—and is often tied in with Mistake #5 above. You must learn to use and analyze your website metrics. Knowing the difference between visits and page views can help you make decisions that result in website success instead of website failure. It is that important.
For the basic setup, Google Analytics is the gold standard of FREE analytics tools. It installs in minutes and gives you a massively deep analytics suite to use on your site. Analyze users paths through the site, track commerce data, and much, much more.
You should also be using a free Hotjar account to see how users are interacting on your site. This is one of my all-time favorite tools for improving a website. Hotjar creates heat maps that show you where users are clicking, scrolling and mousing on your site. This data is incredibly important to understanding and improving your site.
Hotjar even gives you the ability to record user sessions as they navigate the website, which gives you incredible insight into how individual users are experiencing the site. Nothing else I’ve used even comes close to giving me this level of insight.
BONUS MISTAKE! Being Afraid to Bring in a Pro
You are an author. You are likely not a website designer and developer. Do not be afraid to invest in this area—your website is going to be one of your key marketing touchpoints.
Any of these mistakes can be fixed by a seasoned web pro, and hiring a pro, even just for consulting or review, can be the difference between success and failure for your author website. Don’t let your site languish if you can’t get it done—get someone who can finish the job now, not later.
Conclusion: It's All About User Experience
Like I said at the beginning—master these common UX mistakes, and you’ll be one of the smartest, most usable sites on the web. You can do this!
One final piece of advice: don’t let overwhelm get in the way. I know it’s a lot to take in, but just doing 20% of what you see here will send your user experience soaring. Do what you can with what skill you have (or can learn) — and for everything else, call in a pro!
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