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Using Visual Hierarchy to Build User‑Friendly Websites

Master visual hierarchy design principles to build user‑friendly websites people want to visit.

When you read a newspaper, you know exactly where to start. The big headline grabs your attention first. Then, you scan the smaller headlines and glance at the photos. Finally, you dive into whatever stories pique your interest.

You don’t even have to think about it, either. It just happens naturally, thanks to visual hierarchy. This design concept organizes content to make it easy for readers to follow. When done right, it can make the difference between a confusing website design and one that’s easy to understand.

That’s why visual hierarchy matters when building user-friendly websites. It helps users quickly find what they’re looking for and navigate your site with ease. To master this concept, explore this guide on creating a visual hierarchy for more engaging websites.

What is visual hierarchy in web design?

In web design, visual hierarchy is about how graphic elements are placed on a web page. It’s how designers make the most important elements stand out so users can easily understand and navigate the content.

Adjusting size, color, and text position guides the user’s eye through the page to ensure a smooth and intuitive website experience. For example, headings often have larger fonts than the body text to attract users’ attention. Similarly, bright colors make call to action (CTA) buttons stand out, especially against dramatically contrasting colors.    

Visual hierarchy matters for all web page types, including landing pages, e-commerce product pages, and blogs. So, mastering visual hierarchy principles is a top priority if you want your content to engage and delight your audience.

Key insights on visual hierarchy principles for website design

People see and understand things in different ways. Some are automatically drawn to big, bold elements, while others respond better to colors or placement. Visual hierarchy uses various principles to cater to these diverse preferences. Here’s what you need to know about using these design principles in order to build user-friendly websites.

Consistent elements unify website designs  

Keeping things consistent on your website is a must when creating a neat and organized design. That means using the same styles for fonts, colors, spacing, and layout on every page. Otherwise, your website risks leaving users puzzled and unsure where to go or what to do next.

For instance, think about a clothing store website. If the Add to Cart button is green on one page but red on another, and the font changes from page to page, it can be confusing. Visitors might hesitate or leave because they’re unsure if they’re still on the same site.

A unified design consistently uses your brand colors, fonts, and design elements across all pages. It also maintains a logical layout that guides users through the content and ensures they always know what to expect. This uniformity makes it simpler for visitors to browse and trust your website.   

Grids and creative layouts effectively organize content

Effective content organization starts with a thoughtful strategy. Conventionally, this strategy involves creating a layout using a grid made of vertical and horizontal lines. Users appreciate the predictability and ease of navigation that result when text, images, and other elements align along those planes.   

One popular approach when working in a grid layout is the rule of thirds. This involves dividing your design into 9 equal parts using 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines. There are 4 points where the lines intersect; these are the perfect spots for your content’s core elements.

While grids work well, sometimes creative layouts have a stronger impact. For example, you might consider asymmetrical arrangements, where elements are deliberately placed off-center to create visual interest. Or you could experiment with arranging text along a curve and layering images to add depth and intrigue to your design. Just be sure to keep it consistent on every page.

Proper alignment creates visual harmony on the page

When building a website, properly aligning related elements on each page makes a cohesive design. From the navigation buttons to blocks of text, each important visual element must align with the next to create an orderly layout.

To see this in action, think of your favorite online store. The alignment of product images, prices, and descriptions allows you to scan and compare items effortlessly. If all pages have the same alignment, it helps you understand the store’s layout, locate helpful product info, and make informed buying decisions.

Alignment goes beyond visuals when applying to a website’s functionality, too. Logically aligning buttons and interactive features improves user navigation. For instance, placing a Sign Up button in the top right corner of all pages makes it easy for users to register for your services.  

Vertical and horizontal lines are essential design elements  

Horizontal and vertical lines guide users on where to look and how to feel about what they see on each web page. You can mix these line types to create a dynamic composition or use them separately to convey specific moods.

With their upright stance, vertical lines often symbolize strength, stability, and growth. They guide attention upward, instilling a feeling of aspiration or progress. This works great for websites on personal development, business growth, or any platform aiming to inspire its users.

Horizontal lines guide the human eye from left to right, breaking up content, emphasizing elements, and guiding users smoothly across the page. These lines offer feelings of calmness and balance by providing a steady visual rhythm. They’re perfect for websites like blogs, online magazines, and wellness platforms that aim to relax, inform, or tell a story.

Content prioritization improves users’ understanding  

Most people on the internet want quick answers. They don’t like searching through lots of text or images to find what they need. If they can’t find it quickly, they’re likely to leave the page, often within seconds of arriving.

Content prioritization helps with this. It means putting essential info where users can see it immediately. For example, in an online news article, the big idea is in the headline to create emphasis. Then, the introduction summarizes the story highlights within the first paragraph.  

When building a website, you can prioritize content using a simple layout with eye-catching headings and subheadings. Also, you can adopt the inverted pyramid writing style by presenting info from most to least important. Use bullet points and pull quotes to emphasize the central message further. 

Common reading patterns allow for easy scanning

When browsing the web, people rarely read every word. Instead, they scan the pages to pick out key points using a variety of reading patterns. The F-pattern is one of the most well-known scanning styles, but it’s not ideal for businesses trying to connect with and engage their audience. That’s because it can lead to users missing key info and leaving the page quickly.

To prevent this, use design practices that support other common patterns, like the layer cake pattern. This pattern happens when users fixate on headings and subheadings to find the information they seek. If the body copy aligns with the selected headers, visitors will typically stick around to read more.

Another useful scanning style is the lawnmower pattern. Imagine how a lawnmower moves back and forth across the yard, eventually going over the entire space. Similarly, users scan left to right, then drop down and scan back the opposite way. Encouraging people to fall into that pattern is simple. All you have to do is organize your content in distinctive blocks with uniform spaces in between.

Different text styles and sizes enhance readability

The strategic use of different text styles and sizes improves readability, but there’s an art to it. You can only use a limited number of font variations, or the resulting page design can distract the reader. The goal is to guide the reader’s eye and make content easily digestible without creating visual chaos.

Achieve balance with these best practices:

  • Limit your website to 3 different font types, assigning one to headers, another to body copy, and the last to navigation elements.
  • Use a bigger font size to highlight main points, regular-sized text for body content, and smaller lettering for captions.
  • Apply bold and italics for emphasis but use them sparingly to avoid obscuring what’s truly important.  

Following these guidelines will create a visually appealing site that optimizes readability. This will help ensure your visitors can easily navigate and absorb the info on each page.

Size and proximity can create strong focal points

Harnessing the power of size and proximity is essential in building an effective visual hierarchy. You can use size to command attention and add visual weight. Whether they’re images, headlines, or icons, larger elements on the page naturally draw the eye. The bigger elements signify their importance by creating a focal point that tells the visitor, “Pay attention to this.”

Proximity, on the other hand, is about the relationship between visual elements. Placing items together makes them seem related or connected in some way. Conversely, items spaced farther apart appear as distinct entities. For example, a caption placed just below an image signals their connection. However, the viewer might feel confused about its relevance if the caption appears several lines down.

Color and contrast amplify clarity and focus

Color and contrast are powerful tools in a web designer’s tool kit. With the right approach, they not only make the content look good but also clear and easy to understand.

Color adds depth and emotion to the design while reflecting your unique brand identity. Different colors evoke various feelings and responses from website visitors. A well-chosen color palette can guide how users perceive your content and create a lasting connection with your brand. For instance, cool blues evoke a sense of calm and trustworthiness, while vibrant reds can convey passion and energy.

Contrasting colors can highlight certain elements or areas of the page, ensuring they capture the reader’s attention. This helps make your most important information highly noticeable and easy to access.

Balanced positive and negative space guides the eye  

Positive and negative space play a significant role in creating an excellent visual hierarchy. Positive space consists of all the main design elements, like text, images, and graphics. Negative space, often called white space, is the empty areas around and between these elements.

A balanced design ensures that both these spaces work in harmony. Too much positive space can make the web page feel crowded and overwhelming. Conversely, excessive white space might leave the design feeling incomplete.

When used effectively, positive space is where the action takes place. It delivers the content and brand messaging while keeping visitors delighted with the browsing experience. If thoughtfully placed, negative space can also become an active part of the design. It guides the user’s gaze through each focal point, highlights key elements, and improves the page’s look.

Top ways to evaluate your website’s visual hierarchy

Improving your website’s visual hierarchy can dramatically improve the user experience. But how can you tell if it’s working well? Use the following testing methods to evaluate your design and determine if it’s just how you want it.  

Run a blur test to review how your most important elements look

While it’s not all that scientific, a blur test is an excellent way to assess your website’s visual hierarchy. It can quickly reveal whether your typography choices, color contrasts, and element placement guide the eye as intended.

You have two main choices in how to perform this test. The basic method involves staring at the page until your eyes go out of focus. Then, assess what shapes and colors stand out the most while paying attention to how your gaze moves across the page.

Alternatively, you can use technology to apply the blur effect and build a collection of blur test images for comparison purposes. It’s pretty easy to do. Screenshot your web design and apply blur effects and filters with a photo editor. This will allow you to evaluate your visual hierarchy without eye strain.

Employ eye-tracking heat maps to see what graphic elements stand out

If you’d like to take a more scientific approach, use eye-tracking heat maps to assess your visual hierarchy. This test provides a more detailed understanding of which specific elements attract your website visitors’ gaze and for how long.

To perform this test, you must invest in specialized eye-tracking hardware and software or opt for web-based tools. You will also need real users to interact with your website while your chosen system tracks their eye movements. If you don’t have those resources, you can hire a company to perform eye-tracking tests for you.

Once you have the heat maps from each test, it’s time to analyze the data. Pay close attention to the heat spot patterns and the areas frequently skipped over. Use the insights from each eye-tracking heat map to adjust your visual hierarchy for a more user-friendly web design.

Use customer surveys to evaluate your ability to create a visual hierarchy

Customer surveys provide a straightforward way to collect feedback on your website’s design. These surveys allow you to ask visitors about their thoughts and impressions directly. That way, you can learn how well your visual hierarchy works.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of customer surveys for visual hierarchy evaluation:

  • Carefully craft specific questions: Create survey questions about design aspects like layout, typography, and color choices. Ask respondents about their ease of navigation and whether they find the website visually appealing. Avoid leading questions to get unbiased feedback.
  • Invite open-ended responses: Encourage participants to provide detailed feedback by including open-ended questions. This allows them to share specific examples and suggestions that you can use to improve your website’s visual hierarchy.
  • Analyze, act, and track: Carefully analyze all survey data to identify common themes or issues. Address areas needing improvement and then run another survey to see if the same problems arise again. Use objective metrics to track key performance indicators (KPIs) like user engagement to assess your progress.

Also, consider offering incentives like discounts or small rewards to boost survey participation. This can motivate more visitors to share honest opinions and feedback on improving your site.  

Create a clear visual hierarchy for web design success  

Establishing a clear visual hierarchy is the secret to creating user-friendly web designs. With the proper layout and design elements, your websites become inviting digital spaces people want to visit. This approach enhances the user experience and increases the chance of achieving the goals set for each website. So, don’t underestimate the power of a well-structured visual hierarchy—it’s your pathway to web design success.

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