So I launched a WordPress blog a couple of years ago. I threw everything into it for a few months. I wrote article after article, focusing on high-quality content; all the while dreaming of the success it would become.
Then, as the same old story goes, I became distracted by other commitments, and the blog declined into a state of disuse. As of this writing, I haven’t published an article on the site in over 15 months. At the time of its abandonment, it was attracting fewer than 2,000 visitors per month.
Fast-forward to a few days ago, and I decided to check the site’s statistics on Google Analytics, for the first time in well over a year. And guess what? The blog had attracted over 10,000 visitors in the previous month – without me having done a thing.
Happy days for me, you might say, but there was a big problem: metrics. More specifically, we’re talking about a bounce rate in excess of 90%, just 1.18 pages per session, and an average session duration of just 46 seconds.
So what’s the moral of the story? Simple: It doesn’t matter how much traffic you attract, if your site isn’t optimized for usability it’ll count for next to nothing.
Getting people to your site is only half of the challenge – getting them to engage is what truly matters. And yet usability, in my experience, is often the most neglected aspect of a blog or business’ web strategy.
Fortunately, WordPress (and its myriad of themes and plugins) gives us all of the tools we need to build highly usable websites. With that in mind, in this post we are going to explore five key ways in which you can make your WordPress website a pleasure to browse, and furnish you with those aforementioned tools.
Why “User Experience Optimization” Is So Vitally Important to Your WordPress Website’s Success
I probably don’t need to tell you what User Experience (UX) is all about, but if you’d like to learn more, Nielsen Norman Group is a fantastic place to start.
As you might reasonably expect, User Experience Optimization (UXO) involves optimizing your website to improve usability.
Note that we are not talking about design here, per se. A poorly designed site (by one’s subjective judgment) may still offer a superb user experience for its target audience.
We’re talking, quite literally, about the “usability” of your site – its fitness for purpose. This is invariably intrinsically linked to the design of your site but isn’t necessarily dependent upon the aesthetic “quality” of your site’s design.
We’re not going to explore how to make your site look pretty today; we’re going to focus on making your site highly usable. And that, at the end of the day, is arguably what matters most.
Let’s get cracking!
1. Responsive Design
You almost certainly already know how important responsive design is, so it almost feels redundant to mention it here. However, there is a difference betweenrecognizing the importance of responsive design, and actually having a highly usable responsive design for your WordPress website.
My advice here is simple: If your site isn’t highly usable across the majority of devices that your audience uses, it’s not responsive “enough.” Because that’s the thing about responsiveness – it exists on a spectrum. It’s not a case of your site being ‘responsive’ or ‘unresponsive’ – it’s about how conscientiously designed your theme is for its purpose.
You can find out which devices your audience mainly uses in Google Analytics, under Audience > Mobile > Devices:
I’m not going to delve into the minutiae of thorough usability testing for mobile devices. Instead, we’ll focus on the intuitive: Does your site feel easy to browse on your chosen mobile devices? If you can rope a friend or family member into this (especially if they haven’t seen your site before), all the better.
If you own the devices most commonly used on your site, then you can of course navigate to the site and test it yourself. However, if you don’t, I recommend MobileTest.me and StudioPress’ responsive testing tool. This is pretty badass too.
One final thing: If you don’t have the resources to pursue a fully responsive design for your WordPress website, you may want to consider Jetpack’s Mobile Theme. It’s not an ideal solution, but it is free and instantly implementable.
2. Fixed Navigation
This usability feature does exactly what it says on the tin: Instead of the top navigation bar disappearing when you scroll, it remains ‘fixed’ at the top of your screen.
Fixed navigation can be wonderful for usability, because it ensures that visitors have instant access at all times to (what should be) the most important links on your site.
From a mobile perspective, if you do use fixed navigation, you must make absolutely sure that it does not ‘take over’ the screen on smaller devices. Refer to the responsive design section above for tools to test your site’s design on mobile devices to ensure that this isn’t the case.
So how do you implement a fixed navigation bar on your site? It depends. Many WordPress themes offer fixed navigation as standard, but to limit your theme choices to this alone is not really practical.
Fortunately, as is so often the case, free WordPress plugins come to the rescue. We’re spoilt for choice here, with three highly-rated options available for download from WordPress.org: Sticky Header by ThematoSoup, myStickymenu, and Sticky Menu (or Anything!) on Scroll.
Although I’ve listed the plugins in broad order of my preference, each of them has its own idiosyncracies and variations in functionality, so take the time to consider them carefully.
3. Fixed Sidebar (Elements)
Given the previous item, you can no doubt guess what a fixed sidebar does. In my opinion, it has perhaps less impact in terms of web usability than a fixed navigation bar, but can still be highly useful if you want to (for example) draw attention to a particularly important element on your website.
Please note that I include the word “Elements” above with good reason – it can often be more effective to freeze a specific element of your sidebar, rather than the entire thing.
Finding a solution that works for your particular theme may be a challenge, but my two recommendations are the aforementioned Sticky Menu plugin, along with the (not so) excitingly named Q2W3 Fixed Widget (Sticky Widget):
4. Floating Social Share Buttons
You’ve almost certainly seen floating social share buttons. In fact, we have them built into our fixed navigation bar here on our site:
Floating social sharing buttons can also often appear alongside the content, although that implementation isn’t as popular as it once was. Part of me wants to say that it’s so 2014, but I’m English, and we’re far too stiff-upper-lip to talk like that. Each to their own, and personally speaking, I still think there’s a place for floating social share buttons.
One stumbling block to be aware of with floating social share buttons is their appearance on mobile devices. Do they disappear altogether, and if so, how can the user easily alternatively share from their device? From a usability perspective, these are questions you must answer. If floating social share buttons do disappear, you need to incorporate an easy-to-use replacement for mobile users.
So how can you implement floating social share buttons on your WordPress website? WPMU's Floating Social plugin will do the trick, naturally. Alternatives are a little thin on the ground, but the following plugins (albeit not updated in some time) may work for you: Flare, Digg Digg.
A potential alternative to all of the above plugins would be to incorporate your social sharing buttons into your fixed navigation bar (as we do), or fixed sidebar.
And We’re Just Scratching the Surface…
I was a bit torn when outlining this article because I knew that I could go on forever. However, you need to draw a line somewhere, so I drew it at four.
That said, there are plenty more ways than the above that you can sink your teeth into when it comes to optimizing your WordPress website for usability. In this article, we’ve focused on some of the “flashier” things you can do, but in reality it’s often the imperceptible changes that make the biggest difference.
For example, a huge part of web usability is loading speed. Put simply, if your site takes so long to load that most visitors have clicked away impatiently by the time it deigns to make an appearance, all other aspects of your website are irrelevant. With that in mind, you can work on everything from image optimization, to caching, to Content Delivery Network solutions; and don’t forget those pesky page speed tools.
That should keep you busy for a while!
I’ve already said that we’ve just scratched the surface in this article, and with that in mind, I would like your help in expanding upon what we’ve already covered.
In other words, I’d love to know what your “Number 5” on this list would be. You may well think that I’ve missed something important off, and I’d love to read your thoughts.
What else is vitally important to website usability, and what WordPress tips and tools can we utilize to make a positive impact? Let us know in the comments section below!