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Designing Beginner Friendly Websites

This toolkit offers best practices for designing websites with Internet beginners in mind. The section "Why Design for Internet Beginners?" provides more details on the types of websites experiencing beginner traffic and the benefits of beginner friendly design.

We start with the assumption that websites already follow Basic Usability & Accessibility Guidelines

Many beginner friendly websites will also need to pay particular attention to usability for seniors. The Health Literacy Online guide addresses the needs of seniors. The National Institutes of Health also offer a facts sheet for senior-friendly web design here.

There are some additional considerations for visitors who are inexperienced with navigating websites. Many of these ideas are very simple ways to improve a site's effectiveness: 

You may also be interested in these related e-Vermont toolkits:

Why Design for Internet Beginners?

As the Internet becomes more important in everyday life, more beginners are finding their way online. However, the websites where these beginners start are often not designed with this audience in mind. Not every website is likely to receive beginner visitors, but many are.

In 2011 the U.S. Department of Commerce released a report exploring the demographic profiles of Americans who are not yet online (here).The Federal Communications Commission also reports on patterns of Internet usage (see their 2012 report here). If your website targets people in demographics with historically low Internet usage, it will likely be attracting beginner users.

Another way to predict where Internet beginners will get online is to look at services that are changing to online-only formats. For example, applying for jobs at many employers, timesheets and payroll, applying for unemployment benefits, or coursework for some schools - the GED for example will be all online in 2014.

Some sites draw beginners online simply because they are useful and inspire beginners to start to learn digital skills. Looking at the types of sites used by digital literacy programs is a good indication of what engages beginners. Photo sharing, reading local news, banking and bill paying, searching for recipes, connecting with family, are all popular.

Designers can incorporate beginner friendly principles just as they would any other usability standards. Paying attention to beginners' particular needs has many benefits:

  • Online platforms won't succeed in improving organizations' efficiency or reach if a significant part of their audience is unable to use them. Although there will always be people who need computer assistance, designers can minimize this need by creating sites that are easy for beginners to figure out on their own (or with minor prompting). 
  • Some sites receive Internet beginners who are pushed online during an already stressful time -  applying for unemployment benefits after losing a job, applying for food assistance for the first time, etc. When these beginners hit the barrier of a difficult to understand website, some simply give up. It becomes the last straw at the end of a series of difficult situations instead of part of the solution.
  • As more activities and information go online many people have the positive experience of finally becoming comfortable with the Interent. e-Vermont's iConnect digital literacy program is one way to capture these oppportunities. Website designers can help make the learning process successful by making sites easy to learn on.
  • Technology will always be evolving. Hopefully, it's evolving in a way that becomes more intuitive so that we can all easily adapt to new tools. Designing websites today that are intuitive for beginners to use is good practice for making the next generation of communications tools intuitive as well.

See also these opinion pieces Is the Internet Relevant? (Burlington Free Press) and A Beginner Friendly Web (Vermont Public Radio)

Basic Usability & Accessibility Guides

Basic usability concepts are true for any website visitor, not only beginners. Some good examples of resources on this topic are:

Some organizations have their own guidelines. For example:

There are also protocols for how to ensure your website is accessible for particular audiences, especially for Americans with disabilities.Sometimes you will hear these referred to as 508 Usability Standards, which corresponds to their section in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Our tips for beginner friendly websites are designed to build off of these usability resources with the Internet beginner in mind.

10 Best Practices - Creating Beginner Friendly Websites

Most websites are designed with the assumption that people visiting them are familiar with the web. That's not always a good assumption. Building from basic good usability practices, we suggest 10 steps towards making a website beginner friendly: 

  1. Every website begins with understanding good usability and accessibility practices. As a foundation for the 10 tips listed here, check out 50 tips on building a usable website from Vermont's Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Murphy. It's also important to check usability for a particular demographic, such as people without a lot of computer experience. Examples of simple ways to set up these evaluations are offered from Health Literacy Online.
  2. Do not assume that the mouse is easy to use. Avoid links that don’t look like links until you mouse over them (see #3), drop down menus that require you to hover over links, and similar features that require a level of dexterity with the mouse.
  3. Make sure that your links look like links. If your user is accustomed only to reading paper documents, they will not be tuned into looking for links in the web text. Underline or highlight links in a different color that contrasts strongly with the rest of the text.
  4. Make a clear distinction between the website and the browser. For example, often, the “search” box at the top of a webpage can look a lot like the browser's address bar or the search box in some browsers' tool bars, even though they serve different functions and search different places. Another navigation example is the forward and backward (< or >) commands. These icons can appear at the top of the browser and at the top of a webpage, and they don't always perform the same navigation. Don't expect a new user to intuitively separate what is the tool for a browser and what is the tool for a website.  
  5. Avoid requiring someone to create a password or account. New web users who face a barrier like creating an account may give up early. A common example of this barrier is in posting to community news sites. If an account or password is necessary, make as much information available as possible before that barrier is introduced. For example, providing lists of documents that will be needed for an application (see also #10).
  6. Design in a way that's friendly to all different Internet connections and devices. Some primary considerations are whether your site is compatible with older computers or with slower connections. Sites should also work on mobile devices - new computer users are starting to come to the Internet by way of their smart phones, not traditional computers. 
  7. Avoid applications that require special downloads, plug-ins or require your user to turn off their pop-up blocker or enable cookies. Some of these requirements may not be avoidable. Like the account and password, though, they offer one more barrier. This barrier may be particularly discouraging if the user is not on their own computer and so is being asked to change somebody else's machine.  
  8. Make it easy for visitors to understand how content was generated. Clearly distinguish between text written for your site, content linked from other sites, advertisements and user-generated content & interactive forums. Dating material will also help orient beginners in whether the site is active.
  9. Make it easy to get help. Clearly display all contact information for your organization (including phone number and address) on the home page. Have a clear link to get back to home from anywhere within the structure of the website. Be sure that functions that might be confusing have a "help" page written in very clear language. 
  10. Think about the context for your beginner audience. Frustration is a big barrier to learning digital literacy. Following these design principles can make the site less frustrating, but so can additional considerations for how and where your particular beginner audience will be using the site. Do you anticipate these beginner visitors to have many interruptions? Are they are getting online in places with a time limit, like a library? A simple, prominent way to save information may be important. Will some of your visitors have a low level of reading literacy? Incorporating icons and appropriately pitching the reading level of text will be important. And so on. You know your audience; you can help reduce their frustration level. Everyone will be happier.

Additional Ideas for Beginner Friendly Sites

In November, 2012, e-Vermont sponsored a contest to generate new ideas for beginner friendly website design. Here are some of the top ideas generated during that contest to complement the 10 basic beginner friendly tips

  • Make Sites Easy to Find: Many beginners will find their way to websites from printed or verbal instructions instead of online links or search engines. Website addresses should be short and easy to share through offline means.
  • Provide Multiple Navigation Cues: Beginners are developing a framework for understanding websites, so provide multiple cues to figure out where you are going - e.g. buttons, links, and information that remain uniform in look and location across pages - and to figure out where you've been -  e.g. tabs, menus that map the site with "you are here" bolding, etc.
  • Provide for Multiple Learning Styles: Learners process information differently. Sites that embed help for beginners will often include text and video or text with clear visual images and so on.
  • Make Help Easy to Find (Part 2): The original 10 tips include making it easy for visitors to find offline contact information and to find their way back to home if they get lost. Some other creative ideas for providing help for beginners within the site itself:
    • Offer a guided tutorial version of the site that beginners can choose, where help boxes, page overlays, additional text or other guides take them step by step through each page.
    • Embed video tutorials for complicated sections, with a transcript option for slow connections.
    • Provide an introductory page that explains to beginners what they will find on the site.
    • Build a "panic button" that brings up live customer service if a visitor gets hopelessly lost.
  • Track Where Beginners Have Problems: If your site does offer a way for visitors to request a beginner version of the information or visit a beginner introductory section, build in a way to track where these beginners run into trouble to make future improvements.
  • Reduce Information on the Page . . . and it's not only beginners who get confused by lengthy text and busy pages. Some ideas proposed for streamlining information include:
    • A homepage with audience options - for example, on a goverment site choosing "member of the public" removes all information that's targeted to employees. Or, even more specifically, choosing "Public Assistance" strips away all information not related to public assistance programs.  
    • External, introductory sites - simple sites targeted to particular audiences can provide "on-ramps" to more complicated sites by explaining what will be found there and linking the relevant pages.
    • Expandable information boxes - add information without losing a visitor's place on the page or detouring them through new pages.
  • Pay Attention to Design of Other Popular Websites: Local digital literacy programs can give a list of sites most commonly used by the beginners they serve. For some website designers, following the conventions of these sites can help reduce confusion for beginners. 
  • "Beginner Friendly" Does Not Mean Old Technology: Some of the newest innovations in website design can help beginners, for example introducing game elements or doing more with popular social media (see previous point). 
  • Be Aware of Privacy and Security Concerns: Many Internet users are concerned about the privacy or the security of the information they share online; people just entering the online world are especially nervous about these issues. Explain in plain language why someone needs to create an account or share personal information and how that information is kept secure.

Click here to see the winning entry from the Beginner Friendly Website Design contest, submitted by Lars Hasselblad Torres a freelance web designer and founder of Montpelier's Local 64 co-working space. We also thank Christine LaBarre (Microbiologist at VT Department of Health), Dave Dec (Lead Technical Trainer at MyWebGrocer), Al Ramirez (Software Engineer at MyWebGrocer), the Action Circles team, and all contest participants who contributed their ideas.