It's a no-brainer that good design is key for your author website. But good website design means more than just making something pretty. Plus, here's a reality check: you're probably not a very good designer. You're a writer, after all! And no amount of blog reading is going to make you a brilliant website designer. I've been at this for nearly 20 years, and I've come to believe that design skill is something that can't be taught, only recognized, nurtured and developed.
So what is an overwhelmed, DIY'ing, non-designer supposed to do?
First, start with a professional theme. They are designed by real designers, so they've done a lot of the hard (impossible for a non-designer) work for you. I covered a lot about how to select a great theme in my previous post, as well as shared my favorite professionally-designed themes (each for under $60!).
But even a professionally-designed and created theme is just a foundation. I've seen many, many websites based on professional themes that are just awful. No, the only way for a non-designer to get around being, well, a non-designer is to understand the core principles and process of design. If you understand what makes good website design good and how good designers arrive there, then you can use the pre-set styles in a professional theme to create a site that is great to look at—but more importantly, great to use.
1. Hierarchy Is the First Consideration in Any Design
If you learn one thing from this article it's should be this—good website design is, first and foremost, organized. This goes for any type of design—graphic, web, interior— but most of all for the web. You have such a short period to help a user understand what is going on and how they can achieve their goal for visiting. Don't waste it by putting things where people can't find them.
The basic tenet of organization in a website is HIERARCHY. This is a seemingly simple idea: the things that are the most important should be noticed and understood first. A headline of large, bold text will be visible before the body text. A photo will be seen before text and moving video before a photo. Items in white space will be emphasized over those items that are cluttered.
If this visual hierarchy is accepted, then the logical next step is to understand what you want users to know—and emphasize those things using key visual hierarchy cues.
You're an outdoor or adventure writer? Show don't tell—a photo of you in outdoor gear or paddling a wild river is worth a whole page of text telling users about your adventure credentials.
So you write steamy romance novels featuring aliens and time-traveling 1920s gangsters? (I'm pretty sure this is a thing in the romance world.) Don't bury that in the body text—make it the headline and make it stand out with contrast and size!
If this all seems kind of simple, that's because it is. Once you understand the laws of visual hierarchy (see above), organizing content accordingly is pretty straightforward. There's nuance in there, certainly, but you can go a long way with just the basics.
2. Start Your Website Design on Paper
Professional designers rarely, if ever, start a website design by cracking open a theme and throwing around elements until they get it right. They start, nearly every time, with a sketch, whether digital or on paper. In our shop, we start with a paper sketch (we call it "paper prototyping" because we're fancy like that). I love to use long paper, like legal or tabloid size because they resemble the length of a website page.
However you approach it, the point is to organize the information that you want to get out there before you start putting pixels to page. You'll save time, certainly, but more importantly, you'll have an intuitive way to test ideas. If you're battling the learning curve of the DIY website builder you're using, you don't have the headspace to also think about what you're putting on the page—you're just trying to put anything on it.
3. Don't Make Them Think—Findability is King
When I was starting out in website design and development in the early 2000s, my first boss gave me a great book called Don't Make Me Think! This web design classic encouraged early web 2.0 designers to think deeply about how to move their users through a site most efficiently and intuitively. In fact, author Steve Krug even had a section titled "Usability as Common Courtesy." What an idea! That you should extend courtesy to the people who are visiting the site, helping them in the same way you'd help a stranger looking for directions to something in your hometown.
I've always loved the book, and the advice is as relevant as it was in 2003 when I read it. Don't make them think. Your users want a simple, direct path to what they're looking for—and that's not just to buy your book. This bit will become even more relevant when you get to point 5—testing. As a guiding principle, it can't be beat, and you'll lose far fewer people if you make the information and actions that users want to find easy to access.
Additional Resource - User Experience: 6 Author Website Mistakes to Avoid
4. Text is for Scanning—Mostly
I can hear you grinding your teeth already. "But I'm a writer. I write. Shouldn't my website feature my unique style of writing?"
In a word, NO. No, it shouldn't.
Your website is a showcase for your writing, yes, but in the context of your books, stories, etc. The text that is on the digital page, however? This should be clean, crisp, and concise. Bullets and numbered lists are your friends. You are not writing prose—you are conveying information.
And if you have writing to share, do NOT put it on the digital page. Skip the blogs with a short story in them. It's uncomfortable to read, and very few people will. Give them an eBook file to download instead—they'll be much more likely to read the next one if you do.
5. TEST, TEST, TEST, TEST
Website design isn't magic—it's hard work. Designers don't get it right because they are holy, blameless creatures. They test. And test. And test again.
User testing is something anyone can do. Grab a friend, put your website or (or fancy paper prototype) in front of them, and ask them to show you how they would perform an action or task.
"I recently wrote a new blog introducing a short story about the parents of the characters in my bestselling books, and how they met 30 years before the book. Can you show me how you'd find it?"
"If you wanted to buy the special edition of my book, how would you do that?"
"You came to the site looking to find out when and where my next book signing is—can you show me how you'd find that information?"
When key, important and demanded user actions cause your tester to look at you like, "duh," and they lazily click something and get right to their goal, you're probably in good shape.
So, those are my 5 top tips for non-designers. Time for yours. Non-designers, what have you learned that has most helped you with your website? Let us know in the comments!
Prefer not to go the DIY route? Tyler's Featherlight service offers affordable custom author websites starting at $79.00 per month (special discounted rate for BW members). Details here.