When you're ready to launch your website, you'll want to give visitors the best user experience possible. Learning to evaluate a website effectively is part art and part science, but it's a skill that can be learned. To develop an eye for what works on a website and what doesn't, there are few simple techniques that help you critique your website in 30 seconds or less.
Note where your eyes go first - Type in your URL, then close your eyes before the page loads. What's the first thing you see when you open your eyes? Does it explain the page instantly, or do you have to look around a few more seconds before grasping its meaning?
Squint your eyes - By closing your eyes almost completely as you look at the screen, its content will become blurry. Note the path your eyes travel and what your brain is trying to reason out from the limited information it's getting. Can you make out what's happening on the various section of the page? You're looking for good contrast among the various sections, and your eye will naturally go to the areas that create the most contrast.
Scan the page diagonally from top left to bottom right - This is the direction the eye is automatically trained to read (of course, it's the opposite in some cultures). Since the human brain is already prepared to receive information in this order, make sure your content is presented in clear and logical order from the top left of the screen to the bottom right.
The "Five Things" trick - Jump to your homepage, scan it for five seconds, then list five things you remember. Limiting your viewing to only five seconds forces your brain to remember only things it deems relevant. Hopefully, the five things you recall align with the top five things you want your customer to know. The human brain is only able to hold so much in short term memory, and most people aren't patient enough to continue reading, so they'll click to learn more. That action marks the beginning of the user experience, so make those five most memorable things count.
Find the intersections - Take a look at where the major lines of the page force the eye to focus. Does the eye naturally travel to the most important elements on the screen? A good web design subtly draws the eye to the places where the maximum amount of information can be assimilated in the minimum amount of time, often just seconds.
Learning to view websites critically is an important skill to hone. It trains your brain to think like a user and the more adept you become, the better you're able to provide an enriching user experience.
Too many companies spend needless time arguing over details of a website before the larger picture is fully developed. This puts users, and ultimately your business, at a disadvantage because the "big picture" is what creates the users perception of your service or website.
Take a look at your website and use these tips to critique it in 30 seconds or less. After all, that's what a majority of potential customers do after typing in your URL -- whether they realize it or not.
Update: Due to enormous popularity of this post we have created a webapp which helps you employ these techniques above by capturing a screenshot of any website and applying different effects to gain a new perspective on your design. Check it out at http://spurapp.com