Commonsense Web Design for Affiliates

I love books. Fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, even technical training books. Not e-books, but real paper books you can smell and feel. I spend enough time staring at my computer screen.

Recently, I’ve scuttled past the best-seller aisle at my local bookstore and cozied up to the literature section to read some of the classics. J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and George Orwell’s “1984” were the first two I read. Both instantly made my top 10 list of books I should have read 10 years ago. Of course, now I’m full of angst and paranoid about Big Brother, but that’s another story.

During all my reading, I realized “classic” isn’t relative to time. Anything can be an instant classic if it’s extremely good. As a Web designer by trade, I have my own professional list of classics. Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability” tops my list.

If you’re an affiliate Web master, you’re responsible for everything: design, copy, programming, search engine optimization, and more. Usability is the defining principal tying all these functions into place. It helps you build a successful and profitable referral machine.

“Don’t Make Me Think” forever changed the way I build and design Web pages. I read this book with several years of large corporate Web design under my belt. I had successfully launched 100 or more sites. I thought I knew it all. Wrong.

Before I read Krug’s book, I suffered from the “make it pretty, they’ll figure it out” syndrome most young Web designers and affiliate marketers operate by. That attitude only works for dot-com busts and those hip skateboard Web sites from back in the day.

Krug’s vision is logical: Use common sense when building Web sites, and you’ll be more successful. Affiliate marketers are not exempt from these rules. Here are a few tidbits from the book:

  1. “Four Reasons I Love Tabs.” Krug points out specific reasons why tabs work. One is, “They’re self-evident — I’ve never seen anyone look at a tabbed interface and say, ‘Hmmm, I wonder what those do?'” As a Web designer, I used to hate tabs because they were overused. The revelation: They are used so frequently because they work!

  2. “Happy Talk Must Die.” Krug defines happy talk as introductory text that is supposed to welcome us to the site and tell us how great it is but really only wastes our time. “If you’re not sure that something is happy talk,” Krug writes, “there’s one sure-fire test: if you listen very closely while you’re reading it, you can actually hear a tiny voice in the back of your head saying, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…'” Very true.
  3. “Make It Obvious What’s Clickable.” Web users are looking to click. Why make it difficult for them? “When you force users to think about something that should be mindless like what’s clickable,” according to Krug, “you’re squandering the limited reservoir of patience and goodwill that each user brings to a new site.” Therein lies the point of commonsense usability: If there is any chance what you’ve done is confusing — don’t do it!

These are only a few of the gems in a book every affiliate Web master should read if she wants to build a better Web site. “Don’t Make Me Think” should be required reading.

Also on my classics list are Shawn Collins’s “Successful Affiliate Marketing for Merchants” and my ClickZ cohort Declan Dunn’s “Winning the Affiliate Game.” Both are strong books for those serious about getting into affiliate marketing or improving current affiliate business.

What are your classics? What have you read that made you change the way you do business? Share them with me if you would. I’m always looking for a good read.

In future columns, I’ll apply simple usability rules to merchant and affiliate network Web sites to see how they stack up. If you have specific examples of sites or network functionality you feel needs improvement, let me know. I’ve already got a long list, so look out!

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