3 Qualities of Successful Websites

Useful. Usable. Desirable. There it is. These 3 qualities can help us understand both what’s needed (deliverables) to succeed and the order (process map) in which to approach design and development. At a deeper level they can help draw focus to the “why” or “purpose” of a website. In fact, understanding “why” we’re creating a website will help us to define what is useful, usable and desirable.

3 Qualities of Successful Websites Infographic
How the 3 qualities, useful, asable and desirable, align with Maslow’s and Design Hierarchy of Needs pyramids.

Why do we create websites?

From a business it’s usually as simple as, “We have products or services we’d like to sell to customers.” For others it might be that they have information to share and to others it may be about offering entertainment. There are as many reasons as there are websites. And as of the time of this writing there are over 6.4 million websites on the internet. That’s a lot of reasons.

Our reasons for creating a website and the users reasons for visiting our site are almost never the identical. Like I found out with my first marriage, the subtle differences within the goals and how you handle them will ultimately determine success or failure.


Why do people visit websites?

People visit websites to accomplish goals. It’s that simple, really. We visit sites because we have goals that need to accomplish like finding a recipe for a special dinner, buying a present for a loved one, killing time while we wait at DMV to renew our driver’s license and so many more. In the end though, it’s all about the goals.

Finding the synergies between the goals of the website owner, to sell, inform, entertain, etc., and the visitor, to buy, be informed, be entertained, etc., is where success is found. It’s up to the site owner to identify the users real goals in order to craft a useful, usable, desirable experience that builds a lasting relationship with the user. Building sites that help users accomplish their goals stand the best chance of success on a web inundated with sites that seem only to serve the site owner.

“Websites that don’t serve users, don’t serve business” – Jeffry Zeldman

Useful, usable and desirable as deliverable.

When we talk about useful, we’re talking a site that provides the content that help visitors achieve their goals. Too often though content is only thought of as text. This is an easy assumption to jump to considering some sources that site text accounting for more than 80% of all content on the web. But content goes much deeper than that.

Consider someone visiting a site for a brick and mortar business with multiple locations. Sure, the address (as text in the page) to each store is content, but so is an embedded, interactive map. Videos, images, links, forms, navigation and almost anything else is content. All these different types of content are what user look for to accomplish their goals.

The value of good content can not be overstated enough. Relevant, timely, concise content that solves problems for users is hard. It’s easy to repurpose content from an existing source to expedite web development, but it takes a great deal of work to create content that takes into account account the context in which the user is accessing it. The pay off for such efforts can be seen in improved conversion rates, fewer support calls, user loyalty and positive brand recognition.

Usable sites make it easy to access all that relevant, timely and concise content. Clear, easy to understand navigation, a strong scent of information, visual cues and effective structure all have an impact on how usable a site is. Our goal here is to get out of peoples way as they try to complete their goals.

It’s important to keep in mind that their are 2 types usabilities at play. Real and perceived. Real usability is easy to spot – it takes the form buttons that are easy to find and sized for easy clicking or tapping. It’s an element place in a commonly expected place so users aren’t looking all over for it, like a search box in the upper right side of a page.

Then there is perceived usability which tends to draw us in with shiny objects. As Don Norman says in, The Design of Everyday Things, “beautiful things just work better.” At least that’s how our minds perceive it. In his book he points to the Cooper Mini and Car & Drivers review which says in effect – sure the car has flaws but it just so fun to drive. This perceived usability comes when we sufficiently desire the product or service in question.

Those pretty shiny bobbles that grab our attention are more then just window dressing, they generate desirability. In fact, long before we ever get to the actual substance of the site (content) we see what’s on the surface (visual design). It’s our first impression of a site that hopefully creates the desire to look deeper but can have huge impact on the perceived trustworthiness of a site.

Visual design should be used enhances the content and the usability of a site. It must accurately reflect the content and not get in the way of usability. It’s easy to try to set a site apart from others with a lot glitz and glam and slick interaction but if they don’t serve the content well, it may all be for not. Clever design for the sake of being clever can be detrimental to a sites success.

“Design without content is decoration.” – Jeffery Zeldman

Useful, usable and desirable as process map.

The idea of useful, usable and desirable also drives how we approach the design and development from a process perspective. A content out​, mobile first, progressive enhancement approach will prioritize our objectives not from an importance perspective but from a strategic perspective.

Content is arguably the least expensive point to make changes since there’s no time or money invested in code or design at this point. The content can provide a great deal of direction for design by setting the tone and voice of a sites. Having content upfront will provide a clear picture how large the site will be, what features may be needed and how to organize it for accessibility.

When we consider mobile first it forces us to focus on user context and whether the needs of the mobile visitor (mobile in this case being phones, smart or otherwise) are the same as those viewing on other devices like tablets or desktops. This can have a great deal of impact on the content and design of a site.

For example, a visitor that has purchased a product that requires consumables like a printer likely has primary need to replace inks. If user research shows that most mobile visits resulted in the purchase of ink rather then new printers it’s reasonable to conclude that a focused mobile product that facilitates ink purchases is best for both business and consumer. In such a situation 2 separate experiences is a viable option to a single multi-device experience (responsive design).

There are many things that contribute to what is deemed desirable, not the least of which is how easy is it to use a site. When we add progressive enhancement to our process we build from the bottom up, layering on benefits for users as their devices allow.

Progressive enhancement is something we’re already familiar with. Think about a car. A dealer will have several models of the same vehicle on his lot, from the most basic base model to the totally loaded leather seats, alloy wheels, navigation system, power windows and so on. When we think about developing our sites this concept will help ensure we are building the best experience for users regardless of their device.

This means optimizing graphics starting from the smallest screen and working up. Truncating copy when it’s found that users won’t have time to read everything. Accounting for the various ways that the user will interact with the site, touch, mouse, voice or some other method.
Source of original pyramids on smashingmagazine.com​

Finding Balance

To achieve a successful website a delicate balance of these 3 qualities is essential. No one quality is more important than the others. Put too much effort into content and not the other 2 people may never read. Spend all your time on the visual aids and neglect content and the site quickly gets a reputations for not delivering the goods.

This also carries through to our process. Balancing the time and resources needed to build our site is a tricky endeavor fraught with political challenges. Each element of a sites design will be screaming for more of everything.

Final Thought

Visitors to a website make a pretty quick decision about it based solely on its aesthetic qualities and this can cause us to focus on the visual presentation to the detriment of the other 2 qualities. It takes discipline and shift in how we think about designing websites to work the process from the bottom up but the payoff is a site that users will engage with.

Final Final Thought

As I finished this article I stumbled upon an article of a similar nature from the folks at Zurb. It offers similar and additional info worth reading.


Update Aug. 30, 2013: Found some typos and grammar errors. I changed the headings that were simple p tags bolded to h2 and h3 tags and I updated the Meta Description.

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Mike Donahue

Just a guy that's passionate about creating useful, usable and desirable experiences for all humans. I love nature and wildlife photography, it's my source of artistic expression and inner peace. I live and play in South Florida with my wife Nikki and our girls (dogs) Layla and Cassidy.

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