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A Literature Review: Website Design and User Engagement

Renee garett.

1 ElevateU, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Sean D. Young

2 University of California Institute for Prediction Technology, Department of Family Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA

3 UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Department of Family Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Proper design has become a critical element needed to engage website and mobile application users. However, little research has been conducted to define the specific elements used in effective website and mobile application design. We attempt to review and consolidate research on effective design and to define a short list of elements frequently used in research. The design elements mentioned most frequently in the reviewed literature were navigation, graphical representation, organization, content utility, purpose, simplicity, and readability. We discuss how previous studies define and evaluate these seven elements. This review and the resulting short list of design elements may be used to help designers and researchers to operationalize best practices for facilitating and predicting user engagement.

1. INTRODUCTION

Internet usage has increased tremendously and rapidly in the past decade ( “Internet Use Over Time,” 2014 ). Websites have become the most important public communication portal for most, if not all, businesses and organizations. As of 2014, 87% of American adults aged 18 or older are Internet users ( “Internet User Demographics,” 2013 ). Because business-to-consumer interactions mainly occur online, website design is critical in engaging users ( Flavián, Guinalíu, & Gurrea, 2006 ; Lee & Kozar, 2012 ; Petre, Minocha, & Roberts, 2006 ). Poorly designed websites may frustrate users and result in a high “bounce rate”, or people visiting the entrance page without exploring other pages within the site ( Google.com, 2015 ). On the other hand, a well-designed website with high usability has been found to positively influence visitor retention (revisit rates) and purchasing behavior ( Avouris, Tselios, Fidas, & Papachristos, 2003 ; Flavián et al., 2006 ; Lee & Kozar, 2012 ).

Little research, however, has been conducted to define the specific elements that constitute effective website design. One of the key design measures is usability ( International Standardization Organization, 1998 ). The International Standardized Organization (ISO) defines usability as the extent to which users can achieve desired tasks (e.g., access desired information or place a purchase) with effectiveness (completeness and accuracy of the task), efficiency (time spent on the task), and satisfaction (user experience) within a system. However, there is currently no consensus on how to properly operationalize and assess website usability ( Lee & Kozar, 2012 ). For example, Nielson associates usability with learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction ( Nielsen, 2012 ). Yet, Palmer (2002) postulates that usability is determined by download time, navigation, content, interactivity, and responsiveness. Similar to usability, many other key design elements, such as scannability, readability, and visual aesthetics, have not yet been clearly defined ( Bevan, 1997 ; Brady & Phillips, 2003 ; Kim, Lee, Han, & Lee, 2002 ), and there are no clear guidelines that individuals can follow when designing websites to increase engagement.

This review sought to address that question by identifying and consolidating the key website design elements that influence user engagement according to prior research studies. This review aimed to determine the website design elements that are most commonly shown or suggested to increase user engagement. Based on these findings, we listed and defined a short list of website design elements that best facilitate and predict user engagement. The work is thus an exploratory research providing definitions for these elements of website design and a starting point for future research to reference.

2. MATERIALS AND METHODS

2.1. selection criteria and data extraction.

We searched for articles relating to website design on Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) because Google Scholar consolidates papers across research databases (e.g., Pubmed) and research on design is listed in multiple databases. We used the following combination of keywords: design, usability, and websites. Google Scholar yielded 115,000 total hits. However, due to the large list of studies generated, we decided to only review the top 100 listed research studies for this exploratory study. Our inclusion criteria for the studies was: (1) publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal, (2) publication in English, and (3) publication in or after 2000. Year of publication was chosen as a limiting factor so that we would have enough years of research to identify relevant studies but also have results that relate to similar styles of websites after the year 2000. We included studies that were experimental or theoretical (review papers and commentaries) in nature. Resulting studies represented a diverse range of disciplines, including human-computer interaction, marketing, e-commerce, interface design, cognitive science, and library science. Based on these selection criteria, thirty-five unique studies remained and were included in this review.

2.2. Final Search Term

(design) and (usability) and (websites).

The search terms were kept simple to capture the higher level design/usability papers and allow Google scholar’s ranking method to filter out the most popular studies. This method also allowed studies from a large range of fields to be searched.

2.3. Analysis

The literature review uncovered 20 distinct design elements commonly discussed in research that affect user engagement. They were (1) organization – is the website logically organized, (2) content utility – is the information provided useful or interesting, (3) navigation – is the website easy to navigate, (4) graphical representation – does the website utilize icons, contrasting colors, and multimedia content, (5) purpose – does the website clearly state its purpose (i.e. personal, commercial, or educational), (6) memorable elements – does the website facilitate returning users to navigate the site effectively (e.g., through layout or graphics), (7) valid links – does the website provide valid links, (8) simplicity – is the design of the website simple, (9) impartiality – is the information provided fair and objective, (10) credibility – is the information provided credible, (11) consistency/reliability – is the website consistently designed (i.e., no changes in page layout throughout the site), (12) accuracy – is the information accurate, (13) loading speed – does the website take a long time to load, (14) security/privacy – does the website securely transmit, store, and display personal information/data, (15) interactive – can the user interact with the website (e.g., post comments or receive recommendations for similar purchases), (16) strong user control capabilities– does the website allow individuals to customize their experiences (such as the order of information they access and speed at which they browse the website), (17) readability – is the website easy to read and understand (e.g., no grammatical/spelling errors), (18) efficiency – is the information presented in a way that users can find the information they need quickly, (19) scannability – can users pick out relevant information quickly, and (20) learnability – how steep is the learning curve for using the website. For each of the above, we calculated the proportion of studies mentioning the element. In this review, we provide a threshold value of 30%. We identified elements that were used in at least 30% of the studies and include these elements that are above the threshold on a short list of elements used in research on proper website design. The 30% value was an arbitrary threshold picked that would provide researchers and designers with a guideline list of elements described in research on effective web design. To provide further information on how to apply this list, we present specific details on how each of these elements was discussed in research so that it can be defined and operationalized.

3.1. Popular website design elements ( Table 1 )

Frequency of website design elements used in research (2000–2014)

Seven of the website design elements met our threshold requirement for review. Navigation was the most frequently discussed element, mentioned in 22 articles (62.86%). Twenty-one studies (60%) highlighted the importance of graphics. Fifteen studies (42.86%) emphasized good organization. Four other elements also exceeded the threshold level, and they were content utility (n=13, 37.14%), purpose (n=11, 31.43%), simplicity (n=11, 31.43%), and readability (n=11, 31.43%).

Elements below our minimum requirement for review include memorable features (n=5, 14.29%), links (n=10, 28.57%), impartiality (n=1, 2.86%), credibility (n=7, 20%), consistency/reliability (n=8. 22.86%), accuracy (n=5, 14.29%), loading speed (n=10, 28.57%), security/privacy (n=2, 5.71%), interactive features (n=9, 25.71%), strong user control capabilities (n=8, 22.86%), efficiency (n=6, 17.14%), scannability (n=1, 2.86%), and learnability (n=2, 5.71%).

3.2. Defining key design elements for user engagement ( Table 2 )

Definitions of Key Design Elements

In defining and operationalizing each of these elements, the research studies suggested that effective navigation is the presence of salient and consistent menu/navigation bars, aids for navigation (e.g., visible links), search features, and easy access to pages (multiple pathways and limited clicks/backtracking). Engaging graphical presentation entails 1) inclusion of images, 2) proper size and resolution of images, 3) multimedia content, 4) proper color, font, and size of text, 5) use of logos and icons, 6) attractive visual layout, 7) color schemes, and 8) effective use of white space. Optimal organization includes 1) cognitive architecture, 2) logical, understandable, and hierarchical structure, 3) information arrangement and categorization, 4) meaningful labels/headings/titles, and 5) use of keywords. Content utility is determined by 1) sufficient amount of information to attract repeat visitors, 2) arousal/motivation (keeps visitors interested and motivates users to continue exploring the site), 3) content quality, 4) information relevant to the purpose of the site, and 5) perceived utility based on user needs/requirements. The purpose of a website is clear when it 1) establishes a unique and visible brand/identity, 2) addresses visitors’ intended purpose and expectations for visiting the site, and 3) provides information about the organization and/or services. Simplicity is achieved by using 1) simple subject headings, 2) transparency of information (reduce search time), 3) website design optimized for computer screens, 4) uncluttered layout, 5) consistency in design throughout website, 6) ease of using (including first-time users), 7) minimize redundant features, and 8) easily understandable functions. Readability is optimized by content that is 1) easy to read, 2) well-written, 3) grammatically correct, 4) understandable, 5) presented in readable blocks, and 6) reading level appropriate.

4. DISCUSSION

The seven website design elements most often discussed in relation to user engagement in the reviewed studies were navigation (62.86%), graphical representation (60%), organization (42.86%), content utility (37.14%), purpose (31.43%), simplicity (31.43%), and readability (31.43%). These seven elements exceeded our threshold level of 30% representation in the literature and were included into a short list of website design elements to operationalize effective website design. For further analysis, we reviewed how studies defined and evaluated these seven elements. This may allow designers and researchers to determine and follow best practices for facilitating or predicting user engagement.

A remaining challenge is that the definitions of website design elements often overlap. For example, several studies evaluated organization by how well a website incorporates cognitive architecture, logical and hierarchical structure, systematic information arrangement and categorization, meaningful headings and labels, and keywords. However, these features are also crucial in navigation design. Also, the implications of using distinct logos and icons go beyond graphical representation. Logos and icons also establish unique brand/identity for the organization (purpose) and can serve as visual aids for navigation. Future studies are needed to develop distinct and objective measures to assess these elements and how they affect user engagement ( Lee & Kozar, 2012 ).

Given the rapid increase in both mobile technology and social media use, it is surprising that no studies mentioned cross-platform compatibility and social media integration. In 2013, 34% of cellphone owners primarily use their cellphones to access the Internet, and this number continues to grow ( “Mobile Technology Factsheet,” 2013 ). With the rise of different mobile devices, users are also diversifying their web browser use. Internet Explorer (IE) was once the leading web browser. However, in recent years, FireFox, Safari, and Chrome have gained significant traction ( W3schools.com, 2015 ). Website designers and researchers must be mindful of different platforms and browsers to minimize the risk of losing users due to compatibility issues. In addition, roughly 74% of American Internet users use some form of social media ( Duggan, Ellison, Lampe, Lenhart, & Smith, 2015 ), and social media has emerged as an effective platform for organizations to target and interact with users. Integrating social media into website design may increase user engagement by facilitating participation and interactivity.

There are several limitations to the current review. First, due to the large number of studies published in this area and due to this study being exploratory, we selected from the first 100 research publications on Google Scholar search results. Future studies may benefit from defining design to a specific topic, set of years, or other area to limit the number of search results. Second, we did not quantitatively evaluate the effectiveness of these website design elements. Additional research can help to better quantify these elements.

It should also be noted that different disciplines and industries have different objectives in designing websites and should thus prioritize different website design elements. For example, online businesses and marketers seek to design websites that optimize brand loyalty, purchase, and profit ( Petre et al., 2006 ). Others, such as academic researchers or healthcare providers, are more likely to prioritize privacy/confidentiality, and content accuracy in building websites ( Horvath, Ecklund, Hunt, Nelson, & Toomey, 2015 ). Ultimately, we advise website designers and researchers to consider the design elements delineated in this review, along with their unique needs, when developing user engagement strategies.

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What is Web Design?

Web design refers to the design of websites. It usually refers to the user experience aspects of website development rather than software development. Web design used to be focused on designing websites for desktop browsers; however, since the mid-2010s, design for mobile and tablet browsers has become ever-increasingly important.

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A web designer works on a website's appearance, layout, and, in some cases, content .

Appearance relates to the colors, typography, and images used.

Layout refers to how information is structured and categorized. A good web design is easy to use, aesthetically pleasing, and suits the user group and brand of the website.

A well-designed website is simple and communicates clearly to avoid confusing users. It wins and fosters the target audience's trust, removing as many potential points of user frustration as possible.

Responsive and adaptive design are two common ways to design websites that work well on both desktop and mobile.

What is Responsive Web Design?

research on web design

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Responsive Web Design (a.k.a. "Responsive" or "Responsive Design") is an approach to designing web content that appears regardless of the resolution governed by the device. It’s typically accomplished with viewport breakpoints (resolution cut-offs for when content scales to that view). The viewports should adjust logically on tablets, phones, and desktops of any resolution.

In responsive design, you can define rules for how the content flows and how the layout changes based on the size range of the screen.

Responsive designs respond to changes in browser width by adjusting the placement of design elements to fit in the available space. If you open a responsive site on the desktop and change the browser window's size, the content will dynamically rearrange itself to fit the browser window. The site checks for the available space on mobile phones and then presents itself in the ideal arrangement.

Best Practices and Considerations for Responsive Design

With responsive design, you design for flexibility in every aspect—images, text and layouts. So, you should:

Take the mobile-first approach —start the product design process for mobile devices first instead of desktop devices.

Create fluid grids and images .

Prioritize the use of Scalable Vector Graphics (SVGs). These are an XML-based file format for 2D graphics, which supports interactivity and animations.

Include three or more breakpoints (layouts for three or more devices).

Prioritize and hide content to suit users’ contexts . Check your visual hierarchy and use progressive disclosure and navigation drawers to give users needed items first. Keep nonessential items (nice-to-haves) secondary.

Aim for minimalism .

Apply design patterns to maximize ease of use for users in their contexts and quicken their familiarity: e.g., the column drop pattern fits content to many screen types.

Aim for accessibility .

What is Adaptive Web Design?

research on web design

Adaptive design is similar to responsive design—both are approaches for designing across a diverse range of devices; the difference lies in how the tailoring of the content takes place.

In the case of responsive design, all content and functionality are the same for every device. Therefore, a large-screen desktop and smartphone browser displays the same content. The only difference is in the layout of the content. 

In this video, CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers, explains the advantages of adaptive design through a real-life scenario.

Adaptive design takes responsiveness up a notch. While responsive design focuses on just the device, adaptive design considers both the device and the user’s context. This means that you can design context-aware experiences —a web application's content and functionality can look and behave very differently from the version served on the desktop.

For example, if an adaptive design detects low bandwidth or the user is on a mobile device instead of a desktop device, it might not load a large image (e.g., an infographic). Instead, it might show a smaller summary version of the infographic.

Another example could be to detect if the device is an older phone with a smaller screen. The website can show larger call-to-action buttons than usual.

Accessibility for Web Design

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” —Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Web accessibility means making websites and technology usable for people with varying abilities and disabilities. An accessible website ensures that all users, regardless of their abilities, can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web.

In this video, William Hudson, CEO of Syntagm, discusses the importance of accessibility and provides tips on how to make websites more accessible.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) lists a few basic considerations for web accessibility:

Provide sufficient contrast between foreground and background . For example, black or dark gray text on white is easier to read than gray text on a lighter shade of gray. Use color contrast checkers to test the contrast ratio between your text and background colors to ensure people can easily see your content.

Don’t use color alone to convey information . For example, use underlines for hyperlinked text in addition to color so that people with colorblindness can still recognize a link, even if they can’t differentiate between the hyperlink and regular text.

Ensure that interactive elements are easy to identify . For example, show different styles for links when the user hovers over them or focuses using the keyboard.

Provide clear and consistent navigation options . Use consistent layouts and naming conventions for menu items to prevent confusion. For example, if you use breadcrumbs, ensure they are consistently in the same position across different web pages.

Ensure that form elements include clearly associated labels . For example, place form labels to the left of a form field (for left-to-right languages) instead of above or inside the input field to reduce errors.

Provide easily identifiable feedback . If feedback (such as error messages) is in fine print or a specific color, people with lower vision or colorblindness will find it harder to use the website. Make sure such feedback is clear and easy to identify. For example, you can offer options to navigate to different errors.

Use headings and spacing to group related content. Good visual hierarchy (through typography, whitespace and grid layouts) makes it easy to scan content.

Create designs for different viewport sizes . Ensure your content scales up (to larger devices) and down (to fit smaller screens). Design responsive websites and test them thoroughly. 

Include image and media alternatives in your design . Provide transcripts for audio and video content and text alternatives for images. Ensure the alternative text on images conveys meaning and doesn’t simply describe the image. If you use PDFs, make sure they, too, are accessible.

Provide controls for content that starts automatically . Allow users to pause animations or video content that plays automatically.

These practices not only make a website easier to access for people with disabilities but also for usability in general for everyone.

Learn More about Web Design

Learn how to apply the principles of user-centered design in the course Web Design for Usability . 

For more on adaptive and responsive design, take the Mobile UX Design: The Beginner's Guide course. 

See W3C’s Designing for Web Accessibility for practical tips on implementing accessibility.

Questions related to Web Design

Designing a web page involves creating a visual layout and aesthetic.

Start by defining the purpose and target audience of your page.

Understand the type of content and what actions the user will perform on the web page.

Sketch ideas and create wireframes or mockups of the layout.

Select a color scheme, typography, and imagery that align with your brand identity.

Use design software like Figma or Sketch to create the design.

Finally, gather feedback and make necessary revisions before handing off the development design.

In each step, remember to keep the user experience and accessibility considerations foremost. Here’s why Accessibility Matters: 

The salary of web designers varies widely based on experience, location, and skill set. As of our last update, the average salary for a Web Designer in the United States is reported to be approximately $52,691 per year, according to Glassdoor. However, this figure can range from around $37,000 for entry-level positions to over $73,000 for experienced designers. It is crucial to mention that salaries may differ significantly by region, company size, and individual qualifications. For the most up-to-date and region-specific salary information, visit Glassdoor .

To become a web designer, you should start by understanding design principles, usability best practices, color theory, and typography. Next, learn the essential tools like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch. Familiarize yourself with web design languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It's important to create a portfolio of your top work to impress potential employers. Additionally, consider taking online courses to enhance your knowledge and skills. 

Interaction Design Foundation offers a comprehensive UI Designer Learning Path that can help you become proficient in user interface design, a key component of web design. Lastly, continuously practice web design, seek feedback, and stay up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies.

The role of a web designer entails the task of designing a website's visual design and layout of a website, which includes the site's appearance, structure, navigation, and accessibility. They select color palettes, create graphics, choose fonts, and layout content to create an aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly, and accessible design. Web designers also work closely with web developers to verify that the design is technically feasible and implemented correctly. They may be involved in user experience design, ensuring the website is intuitive, accessible, and easy to use. Additionally, web designers must be aware of designer bias, as discussed in this video. 

Ultimately, a web designer's goal is to create a visually appealing, functional, accessible, and positive user experience.

Web design and coding are closely related, but they are not the same. Web design involves creating the visual elements and layout of a website, while coding involves translating these designs into a functional website using programming languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Typically, dedicated web developers translate the designs to code. Several design tools can also export code directly.

Although some web designers also have coding skills, it is not a requirement for all web design roles. However, having a basic understanding of coding can be beneficial for a web designer as it helps in creating designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and technically feasible.

Responsive web design guarantees that a website adapts its format to fit any screen size across different devices and screen sizes, from desktops to tablets to mobile phones. It includes the site to the device's resolution, supports device switching and increases accessibility and SEO-friendliness.

As Frank Spillers, CEO of Experience Dynamics mentions in this video, responsive design is a default, and not an optional feature because everyone expects mobile optimization. This approach is vital for Google's algorithm, which prioritizes responsive sites.

To learn web design, start by understanding its fundamental principles, such as color theory, typography, and layout. Practice designing websites, get feedback, and iterate on your designs. Enhance your skills by taking online courses, attending workshops, and reading articles. 

Consider the Interaction Design Foundation's comprehensive UI Designer learning path for essential skills and knowledge. If you're interested in expanding your skill set, consider exploring UX design as an alternative. The article " How to Change Your Career from Web Design to UX Design " on the IxDF Blog offers insightful guidance. Start your journey today!

Absolutely, web design is a rewarding career choice. It offers creative freedom, a chance to solve real-world problems, and a growing demand for skilled professionals. With the digital world expanding, businesses seek qualified web designers to create user-friendly and visually appealing websites. Additionally, web design offers diverse job opportunities, competitive salaries, and the option to work freelance or in-house. Continuously evolving technology ensures that web design remains a dynamic and future-proof career.

Web design and front-end development are related but distinct disciplines. Web design involves creating the visual layout and aesthetics of a website, focusing on user experience, graphics, and overall look. Front-end development, on the other hand, involves implementing the design into a functional website using coding languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. While there is overlap, and many professionals have skills in both areas, web design is more creative, and front-end development is more technical.

In this Master Class webinar, Szymon Adamiak of Hype4 shares his top tips for smooth designer-developer relationships, based on years of working as a front-end developer with teams of designers on various projects.

Yes and no! A web page is a type of user interface—it is the touchpoint between a business and the user. People interact with web pages. They may fill out a form, or simply navigate from one page to another. A web designer must also be familiar with UI design best practices to ensure the website is usable.

That said, in practice, the term UI is most often associated with applications. Unlike web pages, which tend to be more static and are closely related to branding and communication, applications (on both web and mobile) allow users to manipulate data and perform tasks.. 

UI design, as explained in this video above, involves visualizing and creating the interface of an application, focusing on aesthetics, user experience, and overall look. To learn more, check our UI Design Learning Path .

A modal in web design is a secondary window that appears above the primary webpage, focusing on specific content and pausing interaction with the main page. It's a common user interface design pattern used to solve interface problems by showing contextual information when they matter. 

The video above explains the importance of designing good UI patterns to enhance user experience and reduce usability issues. Modals are crucial for successful user-centered design and product development like other UI patterns.

In web design, CMS refers to a Content Management System. It is software used to create and manage digital content. 

The video above implies that the content, including those managed by a CMS, is crucial in every stage of the user experience, from setup to engagement. The top 10 CMS in 2023 are the following:

Magento (more focused on e-commerce)

Squarespace

Shopify (more focused on e-commerce)

The popularity and usage of CMS platforms can vary over time, and there may be new players in the market since our last update. 

Literature on Web Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Web Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Web Design

Take a deep dive into Web Design with our course Mobile UX Design: The Beginner's Guide .

In the “ Build Your Portfolio” project, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience with the methods we cover. You will build on your project in each lesson so once you have completed the course you will have a thorough case study for your portfolio.

Mobile User Experience Design: Introduction , has been built on evidence-based research and practice. It is taught by the CEO of ExperienceDynamics.com, Frank Spillers, author, speaker and internationally respected Senior Usability practitioner.

All open-source articles on Web Design

Repetition, pattern, and rhythm.

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Adaptive vs. Responsive Design

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How to Change Your Career from Web Design to UX Design

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Emphasis: Setting up the focal point of your design

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Accessibility: Usability for all

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Emotion and website design

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Video and Web Design

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The Best UX Portfolio Website Builders in 2023

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Web Design: 15 Important Research Findings You Should Know

A small selection of research findings related to web design, usability, and accessibility, most of them obtained from Human Factors International . With some of them being known, others may add to the understanding of our profession:

Design is a key determinant to building online trust with consumers. For motivated users of an information site, bad design (busy layout, small print, too much text) hurts more than good design helps .

—Sillence, Briggs, et al. (2004).

For online trust and credibility, also see Stanford University’s Guidelines for Web Credibility .

Layout on a web page (whitespace and advanced layout of headers, indentation, and figures) may not measurably influence performance, but it does influence satisfaction .

—Chaperro, Shaikh, and Baker (2005).

Experience matters: Blue links are easier to click than black ones , even though black ones have higher visual contrast and are easier to see.

—Van Schaik and Ling (2003).

It’s important to consider the users when you have a choice of icons, links, or both. Initial performance is best with the link alone. Frequent users can use either equally effectively. Icons are not faster, relative to text links alone.

—Wiedenbeck (1999).

Rules of thumb for icons: Make them as large as feasible , place frequently used icons in a persistent task bar, and arrange them either in a square (first choice) or in a horizontal layout.

—Grobelny, Karwowski, and Drury (2005).

The acceptance and impact of animation is enhanced when users are warned to expect it and allowed to start it when they want.

—Weiss, Knowlton, and Morrison (2002).

Use of whitespace between paragraphs and in the left and right margins increases comprehension by almost 20% .

—Lin (2004).

A format of 95 characters per line is read significantly faster than shorter line lengths; however, there are no significant differences in comprehension, preference, or overall satisfaction , regardless of line length.

—Shaikh (2005).

Applications vs. websites: In general, visual layout guidelines for GUIs also apply to the web, but there are differences to be aware of. For example, dense pages with lots of links take longer to scan for both GUI and web; however, alignment may not be as critical for web pages as previously thought.

—Parush, Shwarts, et al. (2005).

Narrative presentation enhances comprehension and memory. Narrative advertisements produce more positive attitude about the brand and a higher incidence of intent to purchase.

—Escalas (2004).

On sites with clear labels and prominent navigation options, users tend to browse rather than search. Searching is no faster than browsing in this context.

—Katz and Byrne (2003).

Users will wait longer for better content. Users will wait between 8-10 seconds for information on the web, depending on the quality of the information.

—Ryan and Valverde (2003).

Consumer purchase behavior is driven by perceived security, privacy, quality of content and design , in that order.

—Ranganathan and Ganapathy (2002).

In 2001, Bernard found that prior user experience with websites dictated where they expected common web page elements to appear on a page. The same still holds true today: Users have clear expectations about where to find the things they want (search and back-to-home links) as well as the things they want to avoid (advertising).

—Shaihk and Lenz (2006).

When assessing web accessibility under four conditions (expert review, screenreader using JAWS, automated testing via “Bobby,” and remote testing by blind users) those using screenreaders find the most issues , while automated testing finds the least number of accessibility issues.

—Mankoff, Fait, and Tran (2005).

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

Comments (Closed)

Too few people believe in the power of usable web design… And in a professional environment, it is unfortunately usually not the first thing considered for investment…

Very nice post! May I forward it to my colleagues and put it on my blog?

Grüsse aus München

Nathan, of course! And indeed, sensitization is an important aspect of our work.

I am one of the usability and accessibility advocates too, so you can imagine I love this entry you have put up. It sums up what we know, and in the manner we can just flick to those who are still not yet convinced!

We don’t need to sacrifice design for accessibility all the time! The judgement call is always on who your target audience and purpose of the project. Gee!

Alicia, thank you, and no, we don’t need to sacrifice design for accessibility.

Wow, this was really nice. Every webdesigner should be aware of these.

Fantastic post! thanks!

i figured out the following:

compared to grey background color #555555 to #cccccc white background really hurts the eyes. it is derived from book paper color, however monitors are active light sources! background color provides no information, and thus can be reduced to #555555 / #777777 easily.

web designers should stop to see hypertext screen space as ordinary paper.

Alex, I guess you refer to Meares-Irlen Syndrome, or Scotopic Sensitivity, respectively?

Hello, I work as a web coordinator at a higher education institution. Although I really like your entry, there are a few things that I would not leave uncontested:

Point 8: This would be a very new revelation. The last time I read about this (I think it was Jakob Nielsen), it said that optimal line lengths were between 55 and 75 characters… who to believe now? The tricky bit with 95 characters is that on some monitors, and also depending on your own distance to the screen, you can start to experience difficulties to get to the correct start of the next line. And that really hinders easy comprehension.

Point 10: Are they refering to the writing style? Because that would significantly decrease scanability of the text. Or does it relate to product presentation in general, ie with images and all?

Point 12: I very much doubt that! This would only be the case if users already knew in advance that something good was to come up on their screens. But how should they know in advance? If a web site needs 10 seconds to build, I am long gone… and especially with the high level of substitution on the web, people would flock to the competitor who can offer a similar degree of content without that click-and-wait stress.

Point 14: I like this point. It would mean that if we found out where on the web our users spend most of our time (like MySpace among students) we could determine quite accurately where they would expect certain things to come up on our site. I will look into that.

Sardionerak:

Regarding line length—there are different numbers, indeed. Performance and comprehension differ between people, some prefer less, some prefer more characters per line. (There are similar results when it comes to preferred fonts, so assertions in both areas are not “universally valid.”)

Regarding latency acceptance—there also are several studies that confirm the mentioned effect. The load time of trusted sites appears to be perceived differently than that of unknown or untrusted sites. I wanted to include a link to a recent study, but ***, I cannot find it yet.—There’s no doubt that you should nonetheless focus on fast load time!

Last but not least, regarding user expectations—at the end of the day it’s probably all about fulfilling user expectations.

Are many of those papers available online? It would be really useful to have links to them.

Simon—you caught me being lazy 😉 Some studies have been published over at the ACM (not at no charge), but I’ll try to collect and add links. Thanks for raising this.

Thanks for this clear and effective post! I’ll talk about it on my French blog…

Thak you for the clues.

There is a very interesting book about it: www.usability.gov/…

Salutation de Geneva (Switzerland)

“Use of whitespace between paragraphs and in the left and right margins increases comprehension by almost 20 %.”

I like this one… Very nice article, thanks.

wonderful post. Amazing research on webdesign usability. i supposed to agree to this point “Users will wait longer for better content. Users will wait between 8-10 seconds for information on the web, depending on the quality of the information” exactly in your post.

every web designer should aware of this 15 important valuable points while developing a professional website.

so here seems to be a contradiction. In one post you advise against Conditional Commenting, while it seems to help for achieving better accessibility, as Dive Into Accessibility book shows in chapter on font sizes .

Do you know any more elegant way of achieving this relative size effect?

Lazar, what do you mean with “contradiction,” and how may I help concerning relative font sizes?

In his book Mark uses conditional comment type of ‘trick’ to hide certain properties from Netscape, and he does that to achieve consistent accessibility regardless of the browser. I am trying for some time to figure out the best and most elegant (without tricks) way to do this with CSS. I try to avoid using Javascript to solve this font size issue. Any suggestion will be appreciated!

Sometimes I don’t express my thoughts well. Let me clarify it.

Every site that has option for changing font sizes that I have seen so far achieves it with Javascript. Another option is to use php sessions or cookies. Is there a way to do it with only CSS without reloading the page?

Follow-up: Web Design: 10 Additional Research Findings You Should Know .

I am undergraduate BA student in Mogadishu - Somalia; I am currently under the preparation of the diploma thesis. Therefore, your support is highly needed by Mohamed. For instance, free samples of early written thesis etc.

Hello, I’m starting a classifieds website on my city(Jaraguá do Sul - Brazil) and this post was of definitely great help to me! Would it be possible, if not asking much, for you to give me 1 or 2 tips on my website? Thanks in advance!

You know, this is a very good article but may I suggest you take a leaf from your own book here and redesign your site! Your information is all white space and layed out and rendered to the left! Why? Don’t kid yourselves that users will wait for better content. Users do not want not wait longer for anything let alone better content. They want information a nd quick! Where on Earth does that derive? Our experience tells us that users do not want to wait and if they are made to will go elsewhere. Good design is a little like obscenity, you can’t describe it but you know it when you see it.

“Layout on a web page (whitespace and advanced layout of headers, indentation, and figures) may not measurably influence performance, but it does influence satisfaction. – Chaperro, Shaikh, and Baker, 2005.” Other than that nice article. Thank you.

To only pick a few: Point 1. To much text? You arrive on your site and what do you see? Point 12. Are you serious? To make my comment short. The rules to apply depend on your indent and audience.

Layout is important but it has also to navigate very easy, also for older people, which is often the problem. More and more older people are going online and often are fighting with websites they do not understand.

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27 Research-Backed Web Design Tips: How to Design a Website That Works

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Total visitors. It’s easy to see. Every marketer knows how much traffic they’re getting because it’s right there in your Analytics. But what happens next isn’t as obvious.

That’s why giving advice for driving traffic is easy, but web design tips are hard. There are so many factors. Even after 1000+ successful web design projects, it’s difficult for us to know what will work best.

This article has 27 web design tips for getting more value from every single visitor. Most of these tips are supported by research. These are for beginner designers and advanced UX pros, for small business and big enterprise.

Here is our best advice, ideas and inspiration on how to design a website that gets results. A site that looks beautiful, converts visitors and gets more value from every one of those hard-earned visits.

The two most important studies cited here are at the very end. If you’re impatient, skip down!

The Structural Layout of the Website

Websites are two things: containers and content. The container is two things: structure and style. Let’s start with the first. These tips are about the structure and layout of the pages.

1. Leverage a visual hierarchy

Every page has a visual hierarchy. If you’re not familiar with that concept, here’s our definition:

Visual hierarchy refers to the arrangement, size, color and contrast of visual elements. It determines their relative prominence and the order in which they are seen by the human eye.

Web designers use visual hierarchy to guide visitors attention to important elements first. The website layout includes the position (high or low on the page), sizes (big or small), visuals (video, images, icons) and contrast (color and white space).

research on web design

Combining aspects multiplies their effect. Everyone will see a large video, high on the page. Few people will see low contrast text surrounded by images.

Visual hierarchy is why your eyes follow a certain path on every page you visit on the internet. When used deliberately, it guides the visitor’s attention through a series of messages, toward a call to action.

2. Use a descriptive, keyphrase-focused headline high on the homepage

The headline on the top of the homepage (and every page) is either descriptive or not. If not, the visitor may not be able to answer their first question: “Am I in the right place?”

It’s also an opportunity to use a target keyphrase and indicate relevance. But a lot of marketers write something clever or vague instead. But clear is better than clever.

Rather than write a fancy, but vague headline, write something descriptive. Make sure that you explain what the company does high up on the page, above the fold.

research on web design

Wait, the fold is still a thing?

Yes, there is a fold. For every visit on every screen, there is a viewable area. At the bottom is the famous fold. To see anything below this line, that visitor must scroll.

Why and if this matters in web design is a hotly debated topic. Here are two of the best arguments: “ There is no fold! “ vs “ The fold still matters .”

Of course, there are thousands of screen sizes, ranging from tiny to huge. This website was viewed on 958 different sized screens in the last month. So some designers say the fold is no longer relevant.

research on web design

But here’s the bottom line (get it?) There is still a fold for every visit and still an average fold for all visits. Tools like Hotjar show it clearly as a line in the scroll heatmap, for desktop/laptop, mobile and tablet.

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So yes, there’s a fold and it matters what you put above and below it. One study showed that visitors spend 80% of their time above the fold.

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So put your value proposition, that 8-word version of what you do, high on the page, above the fold.

3. But don’t put all of your calls to action at the top

Visitors may be spending more time there, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ready to take action. A lot of persuasion happens farther down the page.

When Chartbeat analyzed 25 million visits they found that most engagement happens below the fold. Content at the top may be visible, it’s not necessarily going to be the most effective place to put your calls to action.

research on web design

One caveat about this frequently-cited study: Chartbeat is used mostly by news websites , which are very different from marketing websites. No one does much above the fold on a news website! Normal web design tips don’t apply.

Make sure to put calls to action farther down the page, in any place where interest is likely to be high.

4. Make it a tall page. Answer all your visitors’ questions.

More pixels means more space to answer questions, address objections and add supportive evidence. If the visitor doesn’t find an answer to an important question, they can simply keep moving down the page. Once they are satisfied, they’ll simply stop reading.

The most effective sales pages emulate sales conversations.

You would never cut someone off during a sales meeting and stop answering their questions, would you? That’s all a short page does; it stops answering questions.

Here’s where the famous study from Crazy Egg comes in. They surveyed their audience, discovered their top questions and concerns, and built a tall page that addresses everything.

The page was 20x longer. The conversion rate went up by 30%.

5. Show one thing at a time

“I like clean, modern designs.” That’s what most of our clients tell us when we begin web design projects. They often refer to Apple’s website as an example.

Visitors don’t like clutter. We like whitespace. In other words, we like low visual complexity.

In 2012, Google set out to discover what types of websites are seen as beautiful to visitors. It’s a study about simplicity with a very complicated name: The role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites: Working towards understanding aesthetic judgments.

They learned that more complex designs are less likely to be perceived as beautiful.

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This explains the trend toward single column layouts and tall pages. Designs with multiple columns (left side navigation, content area, right rail) are more complex, with more visual elements within the visitors field of vision.

So cut the clutter. Make one of two elements the focus at each scroll depth.

6. Stick to standard layouts

That same study by Google found that “high prototypicality” also correlates with perceived beauty. In other words, weird isn’t usually pretty. A website that follows web design standards is more likely to be loved.

The sites considered the most beautiful have both high prototypicality and low visual complexity. They are both simple and clean.

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Think of it this way, it’s good to differentiate your brand, but the layout isn’t the place to do it. Be different in WHAT you say. But be typical in HOW your site is used.

Some cars look amazing. They’re different. They’re beautiful. But they still have doors on the sides, wheels on the bottom and headlights in front.

But what’s standard? According to our own research , these are the standard elements for a website:

research on web design

The “standard” website with high prototypicality includes the following:

  • Logo in the top left
  • Horizontal navigation in the header
  • Search bar at the top
  • Social icons at the bottom
  • Mobile responsive design

7. Beware of “false bottoms”

Modern marketing websites, especially the sales pages, are built with page blocks. These are rows of content, often with an image on one side and text on the other, flowing down the page in a single column.

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Here’s the anatomy of a typical service page on a lead generation website .

As the diagram shows, the footer has a darker background color. So many sites do this that visitors now expect that a switch to a darker background means the bottom of the page.

But if the design has a pageblock with a dark background, the visitor might think they’ve hit the bottom and stop scrolling. It’s a false bottom.

research on web design

Note: I debate with my own designers about this one. Kurt Cruse , our creative director, makes an excellent point. Changes in background color is an excellent way to let visitors know that the type of content is changing. I hear you, Kurt!

Just be deliberate when selecting background colors for page blocks. To be safe, choose only slight variations or just always use white or light gray. Then switch to dark gray or black in the footer.

8. Avoid carousels and rotating sliders

They’ve been popular for years and clients love them. But there is a problem with the homepage slideshow: visitors might only see the first slide.

There have been a lot of studies that come to the same conclusion. Messages on subsequent slides are less likely to be seen and calls to action are unlikely to be clicked. Just look at the click through rates for the slides on a university website.

They may be popular because they’re easy to get approved. Different stakeholders from different departments all get some pixels above the fold. They’re good for internal politics, not for visitors.

Homepage slideshows are good at keeping people from stabbing each other in conference rooms.

So what to do instead?

  • Stack the slides , so the visitor can see each by scrolling down the page. They will suddenly become much more visible.
  • Use a featured image , using the one most impactful slide as the hero. Give it a good call to action!

9. Avoid tabs and accordions

Here’s another way to take things out of hiding: avoid tabs and expandable boxes of content.

Knowing that up to 76% of website visitors are scanning , you can make your content more visible to them by keeping it all exposed, with no need to click to reveal something.

If tabs and expandable accordions were effective, you’ll probably see them on Amazon.

Remember, scrolling is faster and easier than clicking. If the visitors have to aim and click or tab to be able to view something, they are less likely to see it.

Let’s move on to the visuals. These tips are specific to the pictures on web pages.

10. Use people pictures

Faces are uniquely powerful imagery. From the time we are born, we gaze at faces more anything else . The magnetic power of people pictures is very useful in web design.

Not only do faces draw attention, they correlate with conversion. The famous case study by Basecamp showed a huge lift in results when faces and testimonials were combined on a sales page.

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Make sure your website doesn’t look like an “abandoned spaceship” without a soul onboard.

I’ve talked to thousands of businesses about their marketing over the years and I’ve noticed a pattern. Big companies are always trying to look small, and small companies are trying to look big. Strange, right?

Really, every company should just try to be more personal, more human.

research on web design

11. But avoid stock photos of people

There is a time and place for stock photos, but I would avoid stock photos of people like the plague. They just never feel genuine, therefore they don’t build trust.

Companies are tempted by stock photos because the production quality is high. But your visitors care more about reality. They would prefer to see real people who actually work at the company.

Authenticity is more important than polish.

The research backs this up. A study by NN Group found that visitors tune out stock photos of people and “filler” images, but actually look at pictures of real people.

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So be yourself, show your team and use pictures of real people, even if they are perfectly polished.

12. Use faces as visual cues

People pictures give you a special opportunity to guide the visitors attention. The famous “you look where they look” phenomenon.

When researcher James Breeze showed designs to 106 people , he demonstrated the power of well-positioned faces. They have the power to direct the visitors attention toward other elements.

This is the famous study with the baby face. When the baby looks at the camera, visitors look at the baby. When the baby looks at the headline, visitors look at the headline.

research on web design

My friend Oli Gardner is tired of this example with the baby (sorry, Oli!). If anyone knows of other research or good examples, please let me know in the comments!

Use a line of sight in face imagery as a directional cue to guide the visitors attention to benefit statements or calls to action.

13. Use arrows as visual Cues

Faces can guide attention, but they aren’t the only way to control the eyes of your visitors. Little hand drawn arrows may be even more effective.

In this eye tracking study by CXL found that a simple arrow was even more powerful at getting visitors to look at a page element.

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If you want your visitors to look at something, point at it with an arrow. I’m not sure if this tip is ridiculously obvious or profoundly insightful.

14. Use color to guide visitors’ attention toward calls to action

Colors have emotional connotations (red is urgent, blue is calm) and they’re part of brand standards. But they are also opportunities to pull the visitors eye toward buttons and CTAs.

A study by Eyequant about button color confirms the power of color and luminance contrast to draw attention.

research on web design

But the study shows that colorful buttons aren’t always effective. If you want your button to be more visually prominent:

  • Contrast the button color with the background
  • Contrast the button color and the button text
  • Contrast the button color with nearby elements on the page (or leave plenty of white space around it)

The “Von Restorff Effect”

In the 1930s, German scientist Hedwig von Restorff discovered that when shown a list of ten items, people remember items if they are a color different from the others. This is because the occipital lobe is sensitive to visual differences, or “pattern interrupters.”

Web marketer Paras Chopra conducted experiments that showed how standout colors aren’t just remembered more, they’re clicked more: 60% more!

Pro Tip! Pick an “action color” for all of your links, buttons, and rollover effects. Make it a color that’s distinct from the brand colors used throughout the design (these are the “passive colors”). Use the action color nowhere else but in the clickable items.

Navigation and Links

Now we get into the advice for navigation of the site, including the menus, buttons and links that let your visitors move around.

15. Be descriptive

Navigation is always visually prominent, so it’s an opportunity to communicate. Visitors typically start their visit by scanning across the header. Anything there, including your menus, are very likely to be seen.

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Source: UX Movement

When the navigation labels are generic, you’ve missed a chance to tell the visitors what you do. Compare these two examples:

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If your navigation labels are generic, then they are common to thousands or even millions of websites. You’ve missed a chance to leverage website navigation best practices , help your visitors and improve your search rankings.

16. Put home on the left, but other than that, don’t worry too much about the order of menu items

If you do have a home link, put it on the left. It’s the most common place for it, so visitors expect to find it there.

As far as the rest of the menu items, research shows that the order isn’t all that important. There are two different eye tracking studies that show a low correlation between the order of menu items and success of visitors ( source and source ).

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So don’t spend a ton of time worrying about the order of things in your menu.

17. Be careful linking from service pages to blog posts

If the visitor is on a service page, the goal is to convert them into a lead. If you add big opportunities to leave and go read your blog, they’ll land on pages that are less focused on lead generation. Blog posts naturally have more distractions, exits opportunities and lower conversion rates.

18. Be careful linking to anything on other websites

Whenever relevant, link to things that help the visitor reach their goals. On a blog post, that’s often a citation of a source or link to external references. This post links to dozens of articles and studies!

But on service pages and on your homepage, you should link away to other sites with care. For any page optimized to convert visitors into leads, ask yourself, do you really want visitors to click on that link? Does it help you reach your goals?

19. Avoid using social media icons in your website header

Similarly, colorful social media icons in your header isn’t great for your goals. If visitors click on any of those candy-colored buttons, they land on a site filled with distractions. They are unlikely to come back.

research on web design

This is generally the wrong way to do social media integration . If you link to a social network, do so from your footer. Visitors can find the social networks if they’re looking, but you’re not suggesting that they leave.

research on web design

Let’s talk about words. Earlier, we recommended a keyphrase-focused headline on the homepage. Here are a few more tips for the writing that goes into the website, including headers, subheads and body text.

20. Write meaningful subheads

Vague subheads are everywhere. They are often large and useless but followed by things that are small but useful. Strange, right? The opposite would make more sense.

Make sure that the big things are meaningful and helpful to visitors. If your subheaders say things like “products” or “services,” ask yourself if a more descriptive term would be more helpful. Here are some examples.

research on web design

This is good for scanners and usability. It’s good for the visually impaired and accessibility. It’s also good SEO best practices . Never miss a chance to indicate relevance!

ProTip: Subheads may be completely unnecessary. Would this page be just as good without it? Would visitors still know what they’re looking at? If so, just remove it.

21. Avoid long paragraphs and long line length

Long, blocky paragraphs do not align with digital content best practices. Simply breaking up long paragraphs makes the content easier to consume. As a general rule, don’t write paragraphs longer than 3-4 lines.

If line length is very long, it can be more difficult for visitors to read. The Web Style Guide recommends lines of no more than 12 words.

22. Avoid jargon. Use simple words.

The easier it is the read, the more successful the website will be. Use the common words that visitors expect. Long sentences and fancy words force the temporal lobe to work harder. That’s not good.

Copy that works well for “low literacy” users works well for everyone. It’s not about dumbing it down; it’s about using simple language that everyone can understand. Research has shown that bringing down the readability levels can improve the success rate for all visitors.

research on web design

Even PhDs prefer to read at an 8th-grade level.

That big word might make you sound smart, but it might make your visitor feel dumb. A visitor who doubts themselves is unlikely to take action. So as you write, keep asking yourself this question:

Do 100% of visitors know the meaning of the words on this page?

23. List Order and “Serial Position Effect”

When ordering any lists within your copy, put the important stuff at the beginning and end. The reader’s’ attention and retention are lowest in the middle of any list. As visitors scan the page, the first and the last items are most likely to stay in short-term memory.

research on web design

Source: Order Effects Theory: Primacy versus Recency

24. Answer the visitors’ top questions

They came with questions. The main job of the website is to answer those questions. Every unanswered question is a missed opportunity to build trust. Unanswered questions also increase the likelihood that the visitor will leave.

When Joel Klettke applied his process finding questions and writing answers, he was able to double the conversion rates on Hubspot landing pages . He interviewed customers, analyzed their answers, prioritized the messages and in the end, he used the words of the audience themselves in the new marketing copy. Smart!

Here are the questions Joel uses to discover visitors’ top questions:

  • What was happening that sent you looking for a solution?
  • What else did you try and what didn’t you love about it?
  • What almost kept you from buying from us?
  • What made you confident enough to give us a try?
  • What made X the best solution for you?
  • When evaluating X, what was most important to you?
  • What can you do now (or do better) that you couldn’t do before?
  • Give me an example of when X made a difference for you?
In one word, what is the purpose of your website? Answer.

Additional reading: The Perfect B2B Website Service Page: 13-Point Checklist

25. Add evidence and social proof

The “conformity bias” is the human tendency to do what other people are doing. So giving evidence that others have selected you makes choosing your company seem like a good choice. The goal is to make any decision other than using your company seem outside the norm.

Give your visitors proof that you’re legitimate. Ideally, every one of your marketing claims is supported with evidence.

The fastest, easiest way is to add testimonials . Here are other types of social proof.

  • Endorsements from relevant influencers
  • Product reviews from customers
  • “As seen in…” logos of media where your company has been mentioned
  • Social media widgets showing the size of your following
  • Trust seals, including association memberships, security certificates, and awards

How much proof is enough? How many testimonials should you add?

A lot. It’s possible that there is no such thing as too much evidence. We did a quick analysis of one of Amazon’s product detail pages and found that 43% of the page is evidence and reviews.

research on web design

Pro Tip! Don’t make a testimonials page. They tend to be low traffic pages. Instead, add testimonials to every service page.

26. Mention scarcity, trigger “loss aversion”

Humans are not efficient cost/benefit calculators. We tend to overvalue losses and undervalue gains. In other words, losses are more painful than gains are pleasurable.

This is true online and offline and explains a lot of human behavior. This article explains it well: Applying Behavioral Economics And Cognitive Psychology to the Design Process.

research on web design

This aversion to losses can be useful to web designers and copywriters. Here are some tips for writing copy with loss aversion in mind.

  • Emphasize the costs of not using your product or service.
  • Group costs together, list benefits separately.
  • Emphasize immediate gains.
  • Create urgency with limited time offers. If the product is scarce, say so.
Gently remind your visitors what they’ll miss, risk or lose by not taking action right now.

27. Optimize email signup forms for subscribers

There’s one at the bottom of this post. It’s a call to action to subscribe. If you look closely, you’ll see that it includes three separate elements. These are the 3 P’s for email signup forms .

  • Prominence It stands out within the visual hierarchy
  • Promise It tells the reader what they’ll get an how often
  • Proof It uses social proof: the number of subscribers or a tiny testimonial

When we first experimented with these changes, the conversion rate on the older form was very low, so the improvement was dramatic. We saw a 4,863% increase in email signups .

research on web design

When designing your emails signup form, make it visible, use social proof and tell the readers what they’re going to get.

More than just a pretty site

Everyone loves beauty. Everyone loves cool new design features. Everyone’s a critic. But as visitors, we need more than beauty. We need information. And as website owners, we need results.

Here are two studies with the same finding. The first is a survey by Hubspot that shows visitors value easy to find information more than beautiful design or fancy UX.

research on web design

This second study is the conclusion of a set of user tests by NN Group . It shows that when visitors fail, it’s because they can’t find information, not because the site isn’t beautiful enough.

research on web design

I love beautiful design as much as anyone. It’s why I got started in this business! And I often think of this quote:

But in web design, we create containers for content. And the visitors came for the content, not the container.

Websites should be beautiful. They should have a visual or emotional impact on the visitors. But the success of your website goes far beyond beauty. It’s about helping visitors find what they need. That is the heart of every tip in this article. And it’s the true purpose of web design.

Help your visitor find what they came for, and then give them what you want them to have.

Wait, more practical insights? Yes, please!

research on web design

13 Things To Remove From Your Website Immediately

Andy Crestodina

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How to Measure the Impact of Your Website Redesign Using GA4 (Video)

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3 High-Impact Insights from GA4 Explorations (Step-by-Step Process with Video)

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8 UX Research Methods to start using in Web Design

Need to build or optimize your website, but not sure how to make real impact? Well... stop building and listen first! 

It has become easier than ever to build a website, but just building items you think will help is a sure-fire way to see lack-luster results. We don't want to just build anything, we want to build the RIGHT items to deliver user value and drive business impact.

How do you do this? - Listen first, problem solve second, build third. Listening start with user experience (UX) research to gain a deep understanding of the desired outcomes of your audience and the challenges they are running into in trying to achieve them. 

Where do you get started with UX research ? This blog outlines the eight most common UX research methods to use when starting your UX reserach for your web design and optimization efforts. 

"Wait, why is ux research important in web design?"

Here’s one typical train of thought: “I need a website for my business. Let’s have a look at some templates. That one looks great. There we go, it’s installed and there are products on it. Traffic’s picking up. Hang on, why has no one bought anything after six months? It’s got to be the theme, I’ll find a new one…”

The relative ease of creating a basic site often means that the nuances of creating a high-performing website can get lost in the ether. Having a website as an online storefront isn’t enough. It also needs to provide returns, generate new leads on a consistent basis, convert sales and gather relevant consumer data if you’re serious about long-term business growth.

It’s not enough for your website to simply look good, either. While some sites do look incredible thanks to the creative use of HTML5, the real art of web development lies in creating an unbeatable user experience (often abbreviated to UX). Essentially, users need a site that flows, informs, entertains and – overall – intuitive to their needs.

THE UX RESEARCH PROCESS

Before we dive into specific types of UX research, it's important to know what the overall process looks like. Generally speaking there are three steps: Developing user questions, performing user research, and summarizing findings into a report. 

UX-Research-Process

1. Developing User Questions:  The goal of this step is to collect observed user challenges, friction points, or gaps of understanding and formulate specific user-focused questions that you can then work to answer.

2. Performing User Research : The goal of conducting research is to gain a clear understanding of the underlying challenges, motivations, and behaviors of your users to answer the questions you created in the previous step.

3. Summarizing into a Report:  The goal of the analyze and report step is to review your findings and summarize the key takeaways, learning lessons, and recommendations. Your job is to boil down all of the information you collected to the core findings and turn them into something actionable for your team and company.

Want to learn more about the user research process? Join the (free) Growth-Driven Design Certification to watch an entire lesson the the process - including process steps, templates, and examples. 

8 UX research METHODS FOR WEB DESIGN

The better you know your audience and their needs, the more likely you are to engage them as soon as your site launches. To do this, you need to put some effort into learning what your audience want to know, how they use the internet, and who represents your biggest competition in the market.

So, how do you approach your research if you’re a junior designer or a total beginner to web design? Read on for five simple UX research methods to incorporate. 

1: Socialise with your audience

It really is that simple. You may already be aware that every successful inbound marketing strategy starts with persona research. By learning as much as you can about your target market, you can then approach the right people more effectively through search, social and biddable campaigns.

The same rule applies to UX research – you need to know what your audience look for in a website.

Social media platforms allow you to reach out to target audiences easier than ever before, while email can be effective when conducting research amongst existing leads. Incentivised surveys and feedback campaigns can help you collect crucial information with direct and in-depth inquiries.

2: USER INTERVIEWS

User interviews help you uncover the deep challenges and motivations of why users behave a certain way. What drives and motivates a person, and why they behave the way they do is a deep-rooted matter, and so user interviews are better than some other research methods to get at that “why?”

A user interview is the most common method used when beginning to try to solve a problem. Often, in the strategy phase, your team is starting out on gaining understanding of the current state of affairs and what user problems you should be addressing. That can mean you don’t have the data you need or perhaps any data at all. User interviews can be an efficient way to get the data.

You can learn more about user interviews and watch more videos on the " UX Research - User Interviews " page on the GDD How it Works section. 

3: Card sorting

Ready for some interactive customer research? Card sorting is a really effective way of discovering how users may potentially use a site, and what they consider the most important parts of their online journey. There are two types of card sorts – closed and open – that can be done both on- and offline.

Closed card sorting sees the developer providing people with a set of cards complete with numerous categories, while the open version allows people to create their own categories. The goal is for your audience to create the most effective user journey with their cards, revealing what steps are most important to them.

Not only can this help you better analyse your site’s architecture, it’s also great for developing your overall online sales funnel.

4: Usability testing

Usability testing is arguably one of the most important parts of UX research. This can again be done moderated or unmoderated (with the assistance of surveys and testing software), and offline or online through live streaming sites, screen share apps and more.

Usability testing is essentially a real-world test scenario where groups of users are asked to complete certain tasks. Some usability testers go as far as employing an independent moderator to ask questions and get results. The benefits of usability testing range from achieving real-time, real-world data from users navigating your site, and providing their thoughts and observations, to picking up on errors that may have slipped through the net during development.

Want to learn a bit more about user testing? - Read and watch videos on the " UX Research - User Testing " page on the GDD How it Works section. 

5: Eye movement tracking

Eye movement tracking is a technique that wouldn’t have been possible a few short years ago. Thanks to advances in hardware and software though, prices have come down and the technology is becoming more accurate, allowing developers to track users’ eye movements in real-time.

The technology does what it says on the tin, tracking users’ eye movements when they’re presented with a site in testing conditions. This reveals which parts instantly attract their attention, which parts are ignored and which areas could be improved upon. Eye movement tracking is brilliant for assessing the appeal of a site design and evaluating the effectiveness of your calls to action, allowing you to tweak specific areas of your inbound campaign to improve conversions.

6: Click Heatmaps / scroll heatmaps

Setting up eye tracking studies can be quite technical and require a big time and money investment. A great alternative to understanding user attention on your website is to leverage click heatmaps, scoll heatmaps, and user recordings. 

Click heat maps are a visual report of where actual users are getting on the site, and what are they trying to click on.

ux-research-click-heatmap-growth-driven-design

Example click heatmap on GrowthDrivenDesign.com

It's a great way for we to identify areas of confusion where users are trying to click on something that they think is linked or they think is a menu item, or they think they should be going somewhere and it's not. 

We can also use it as a gauge to see what users care about. If we have five different types of products, we can see which one is getting the most clicks. We can see where people are clicking on the menu and which menu items are getting the most clicks. This can inform how we structure the menu.

Additionally, we can see what users are overlooking or missing. If there are calls to action, or if there are menus that are not being used or clicked on, that can help inform in the brainstorming session how to improve those things that we want users to find and interact with. What are the things that they're not interacting with now?

In addition to click heat maps, scroll heat maps allows you to understand how far down website users are scrolling down on the page. 

ux-research-scroll-heatmap-growth-driven-design

This allows you to determine how engaging your content is and if it is being consumed or missed by website users. 

7: USER RECORDINGS

Session recordings are also valuable tools. With session recordings, we receive live recordings of  users’ sessions on our website. we'll see what they're scrolling on, clicking on, and where they're stopping.

It's a great way for we to understand what challenges users are running into at a very specific spot. I want to underline that specific spot because we want to avoid falling in the trap of watching a ton of user recordings just to watch them. They're a cool feature, but we're not going to get a lot of insight as just by watching a ton of different user recordings.

Instead, what we want to do is pinpoint a specific area where we're running into challenges, where people are dropping off, where there's low time on site, high bounce rate, whatever those metrics are that we're measuring, those leading indicators, or even the focus metric, and start with the quantitative data. This is the data that's telling we where they're dropping off, and then when we want to start diagnosing the issue. When we want to start digging deeper at a very specific URL or a very specific spot on a page, then we can start looking at user recordings to help get some idea on what the problem is and actually diagnose it so that we can brainstorm solutions. That's my word of caution with this. Make sure that we have a very specific spot we want to dig into before going and looking at session recordings. Don't start with session recordings. Otherwise we'll be watching a whole ton of them and not necessarily walking away with a ton of focused action items.

8: A/B testing

Although technically a hypothesis testing tool, A/B testing can offer some great insights and user learnings based on how the interact with your proposed solution.

Once you've completed your research, problem solve, and build a proposed solution to the original isue identified in your research - you must test to see if your solution actually helped.

A/B testing can help answer these types of questions: If you’re linking an important call to action on your website, what would generate better results, an image or a text-based link? How do you know which forms are best for your checkout page? Would making a button a different colour help attract eyeballs and improve conversions?

A/B testing allows you to find the answers to all these questions, as you randomly present two test versions of your site to an equal number of users, collecting analytical data to see which version is most effective and gets the best results. A/B testing is also great when updating older sites, as it helps you discover which changes work and which areas are best left untouched.

UX research saves you time and money in the long-term

Although this might seem like extra up-front work to add to your process, integrating UX reserach and testing will save you time, money, and drive better results in the long run. 

Comprehensive UX research is an essential part of the overall design process. After all, would you launch a business or a product without doing some basic market research? Of course you wouldn’t, so why not go to the same lengths when building a website?

Follow our tips to UX research and you'll look as excited as these two tykes.

The very nature of online marketing is constantly changing, due to new algorithms from search and social providers, smart devices introducing new needs (mobile-optimised websites anyone?) and individual developing unique online habits. Continual UX research allows your web designers and developers to keep up with emerging trends and offer the best customer experience possible.

Costly mistakes and large alterations to the design of a site will also be less likely If you research before starting the build. This means your creative team has more time and resources to spend on other design and development projects, and more potential to turn big profits for your business.

Want to dive futher into UX research? Join the (free) Growth-Driven Design Certification to learn more about UX research and all the other pieces for building a peak performing website. 

Have specific questions? - Leave a comment below and I'd be happy to help! 

  • UX Research ,

Chris Knowles

Chris Knowles

Chris is Head of Design & Development at Six & Flow, an inbound marketing agency based in Manchester, UK.

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Evaluating the effects of responsive design on the usability of academic websites in the pandemic

  • Published: 12 July 2021
  • Volume 27 , pages 1307–1322, ( 2022 )

Cite this article

  • Alaattin Parlakkiliç   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-6834-6839 1  

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Responsive design allows users to benefit from the web page without having to worry about screen size and resolution. The aim of this study is to investigate the effect of responsive design on usability. For this purpose, a questionnaire consisting of a five-point Likert was applied to university students. According to the results, it was seen that 99.2% of university students had smart phones and used smart phones to connect to internet with a rate of 91.3%. It was observed that the participants' attitudes towards responsive design did not differ according to gender, and students in the 24–26 age group had more desire to use responsive design. And, university students' attitudes towards responsive design did not differ according to the Internet access method. It was found that 38% of the participants had a daily internet usage rate of 4–5 h and they used social media the most. Ease of use has been identified as the most preferred feature (Avg = 3.67/5, 73.4%) of usability in responsive design by evaluating dimensions central tendency measures. With regression analysis, responsive design explains 74.7% of the change in effectiveness (R 2  = 0.747) among the usability dimensions. With regression analysis, 91.5% of usability can be explained with the responsive design (R 2  = 0.915). Usability and responsive design (r = 0.92, p  < 0.01) were both found to be positively correlated. It can be said that the academic university websites developed with responsive design are preferred by university students in the pandemic and this has increased usability and effectiveness.

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.

1 Introduction

Many students in the world are not going to school because of coronavirus (COVID-19) disease. According to UNESCO’s monitoring, coronavirus is affecting more than half of the student population worldwide. Some countries have also closed schools locally. This has been a disruption in the education of millions of students (Unesco, 2020 ). Since The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the outbreak on March 11, 2020, the countries are continuing to control the spread and take preventive measures in students education (Global Health Security Index, 2019 ).

In order for students to perform education from their own mobile devices or computers off-campus, websites must be designed to be compatible with the screens used. To support screen size differences, Ethan Marcotte ( 2010a ) published the responsive design idea and technique. The goal of responsive web design is to make a website look equally good and usable on every device, regardless of the screen size of a device (Kim, 2013 ). The basic concepts in websites and applications are accessibility and usability. Different accessibility standards and guidelines have been established (Masri & Luján-Mora, 2012 ).

The concept of usability varies according to product and service areas. The usability dimensions, such as learnability, effectiveness, mentionability, fault tolerance, and satisfaction, have been developed by Nielsen ( 1993 ). The websites should be based on usability dimensions in order to design high-availability, user-friendly websites. Thus, the usability should align the design of appropriate products with the needs, expectations, and desired features (Evcil & İslim, 2012 ).

Creating different designs for different screens will cause problems of cost, time, update, and increase network load. Since it is impossible to create and use websites for every new device and resolution, "One Website Design Concept" lowers design cost, provides fast updates and access, saves time and reduces device limitations (Knight, 2011 ).

Responsive design is a website design approach to adapt the user behavior of design and development to the environment, screen size, and orientation of used devices (Knight, 2011 ). The purpose of responsive design is to provide access to the content of websites from all devices. The users should be able to access the content of websites regardless of the device used. Thus, the website is made compatible with all device screens with a flexible structure, flexible images, and application of media queries (Subic et al., 2014 ).

In this research, the aim is to realize responsive design of university websites considering user preference and usability with its functionality. In this respect, “Evaluation of the usability of university websites designed according to responsive design in pandemic” constitutes the aim of our study. Within the scope of this purpose, the following sub-objectives will be answered in order to evaluate the usability of the academic websites through responsive design:

What are the effects of coronavirus on education?

What is the relationship between students’ demographics and the usability of the academic websites?

How is the relationship among usability dimensions?

What is the relationship between responsive design and usability?

What are the effects of responsive and usable academic websites in the pandemic?

2 Coronavirus and education

The World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus as an epidemic on March 11, 2020, due to the negativities experienced.Countries continue to control the spread (Global Health Safety Index, 2019 ). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has begun providing emergency support to countries to minimize disruptions to education and facilitate continuity of learning, especially for the most vulnerable. UNESCO made recommendations for countries to continue students education with alternative communication technologies (UNESCO, 2020 ).

Communication technologies are used to increase the interaction in education. The interaction provides various functions in the education sector. These functions allow student control, assist in meaningful learning, facilitate program adaptation, and allow various forms of participation and communication (Fenech, 2011 ). For distance education, UNESCO's solutions to facilitate student learning by educational institutions and school systems are free and support multiple languages. If there is a product deemed to require that the digital learning provider be added to the resource list below, UNESCO requests that it be notified by e-mail. Sources are as follows (UNESCO, 2020 ):

Systems specially designed for mobile phones

Digital learning management systems

Systems with strong offline functionality

Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Platforms

Self-directed learning content

Mobile reading applications

Collaboration platforms that support live video communication

Tools for creating digital learning content.

In addition to UNESCO's recommendations, Snelling and Fingal ( 2020 ) offer the following online learning recommendations for educators in pandemic:

Preparation:

Provide digital equality.

Use practical structure.

Provide clear expectations to staff and parents.

Take the time to plan.

Prepare your documents.

Implementation:

Create daily schedules.

Provide robust learning.

Design independent learning.

Act emotionally.

Choose the right tools and stick to them.

3 Responsive design

A website designed at a fixed resolution ratio may have the proper viewing and usage in the browser with the same resolution ratio, but because each device has a different view resolution, image distortions are inevitable. The reason is the difference between the code system and the way the web browsers support it. The coding method that provides solution for browser convenience is to use responsive design approach (Oyucu & Polat, 2018 ).

The main reason for the rapid increase in the use of mobile devices is owing to the convenience, multi-functional features, and the opportunities offered by mobile communication technologies. The Internet users want to take advantage of all the capabilities of their devices and all the blessings of the internet. The responsive web design inherently adapts the responsively designed websites with user's devices (Marcotte, 2014 ).

The website prepared with responsive design method does not need to reduce and enlarge the display screen and scroll the page right and left on mobile devices (Rogatnev, 2015 ). The website dynamically adjusts its appearance according to the size and resolution of the screen being displayed. In this way, the website created does not need to be designed in accordance with the specifications of each device and in different size ratios for mobile devices (Oyucu & Polat, 2018 ). Users should have the best user experience on the site. For this reason, the site does not need to resize and scroll and users should be able to use the site with a full perception of visualization (Sharki & Fisher, 2013 ). Benefits of responsive web design include (Baturay & Birtane, 2013 ):

Easily adaptation to the display on any device

The content accessibility

The content visibility and readability

No need to resize website pages on the used devices horizontally or vertically

Providing necessary savings without creating a separate website for mobile devices

Although responsive design requires necessity with the use of mobile phones, it is also necessary for the internet and media devices that provide improvement, such as Web-based television services and smart televisions that provide viewing, video game consoles, and so on (Fielding, 2014 ).

3.1 Responsive design processes

Website design needs to be fast and have efficient steps in order to get results with the responsive design. Failure to apply the design process steps makes the other process difficult. Each step that is not completed will result in the repetition of the processes or the reconstruction of the design. In this case, it will create problems such as increasing time and cost and decreasing customer satisfaction. Responsive website design processes have four consecutive steps. These steps are as follows (Singh et al., 2015 ):

Structure flexibility

See and focus

Site construction

Analysis: It is required that the intended use of the site and its target audience are known. A website that meets the different specifications of the target audience and the user expectations should be considered.

Structure flexibility : The functionality of responsive design is considered at this level. The size of the objects placed in the grid changes as the screen size changes. It needs to understand how CSS should react as the screen size of the page changes. As the size becomes smaller, it is necessary to know which operations should be implemented.

See and focus : This level is the visual implementation of the flexible structure. It should focus on the placement of visual elements in the design of the site and the characteristics that should be used in terms of text type and size.

Site construction : Using HTML and CSS in the main design of the website minimizes future problems. Using visual elements as small as possible and CSS coding will increase the speed performance of the site during the loading phase. HTML5 and CSS3 can be used for seamless internet capability of understanding and responding to the qualities of digital devices (Singh et al., 2015 ).

3.2 Responsive design styles

There are three styles of responsive design. These are flexible structures, flexible images, and media queries (Marcotte, 2010a , b ):

Flexible structure:  The Internet website is a fluid layout that uses a flexible structure that is scaled to the screen width of the browser (Marcotte, 2009 ). As a different definition, it is a flexible structure platform that has the ability to be proportionally adapted to the screen, where a fixed-size layout is removed (ECAR, 2014 ). As explanatory, in a fixed layout, the width does not change and is set to pixels, so it is not adapted to the screen size of the user browser. Problems such as heavy data flow for small size, low-resolution screens, and free space for high-resolution screens can arise. In order to solve these problems, the browser screen with a flexible screen layout is designed on a flexible structure that is capable of expanding and shrinking in percentage (Gardner, 2011 ). The most widely used style in responsive design is the 960 grid system that was developed by Nathan Smith. The reason for the application of the 960 grid system is that the number 960 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 15, 20, 24, 30, 32, 40, 48, 60, 64, 80, 96, 120, 160, 192, 240, 320 and 480. Thus, it is possible to adapt the website to every screen (Çatal & Kürşad, 2015 ).

Flexible images:  Flexible images and videos that are scaled on the grid are to be fully displayed on the screen (ECAR, 2014 ). It is the resizing of media elements by adhering to the fixed width and height ratios (Harb et al., 2011 ). It is an adaptation of the site designed in accordance with the size of the browser screen to all media elements (Gardner, 2011 ).

Media queries: The cornerstone of responsive design is media queries. The internet uses the dimensions of websites to accommodate user browser pages by taking media queries such as width, height, orientation and color (Harb et al., 2011 ). The use of different text characters on the websites may cause problems in terms of readability and selectivity (Alican, 2014 ). On adapted websites, the size and type of the screen are too small or too large on the screen and the number of lines that are inadequate compared to the screen size is disturbing users. This problem can be solved in terms of percentage and minimum–maximum width by media queries (Harb et al., 2011 ).

4 Usability

The purpose of usability is to design products that meet user expectations and needs. The structure and general usage of the products are aimed to have the desired features for the users. Increasing the efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction of the products are among the objectives of usability (Gürses, 2005 ). The combination of elements that make it easier to work with a product or a system that benefits the user is defined as usability by Neilsen. Neilsen has defined the elements for user-friendly systems (Nielsen, 1993 ) as follows:

Ease of Learning: This is the ease of learning that allows the users who encounter the system for the first time to perform the operations they want to do quickly.

Effectiveness: The users who learn to use the system are effective in their usage, which provides high efficiency in the system.

Reminder: Users who have not worked with the system for a long time can be used by remembering the previous transactions and using the system again.

Fault Tolerance: The system should have a low error rate and tries to prevent user errors.

Satisfaction: The system should provide users with ease of use and desire.

Usability is not a static concept due to differences in human needs. For this reason, it is important to evaluate the usability features of educational institutions’ websites, such as universities, at least once a year in terms of positive user experience (Budak et al., 2017 ). Besides the usability, effectiveness, and efficiency of websites, usage satisfaction is important (Uğraş et al., 2016 ). Users who open the website are affected by the visual design of the site within the first few seconds and decide to use or leave the site. The visual design increases the reliability of the website to users.

Websites and applications are becoming compatible with mobile devices with the development of each passing day to meet user needs. Previously, mobile devices offer a wide range of possibilities. Since the day they were used, mobile devices have evolved to meet people's needs and wishes. Design, fineness, durability, speed, different usage characteristics, screen width will soon be presented with different features. In addition to hardware features, they have been developed for different devices in the applications used. The fact that websites are directed to devices that provide access to a wide range of users has increased the importance of web design suitable for mobile devices (Budak et al., 2017 ).

4.1 Mobile usability and compatibility

Mobile devices are personal and always accessible and benefit from the increasing importance of users. Unlike computer users, mobile users want customized and good services. W3C has developed web technologies that take into account mobile device features, such as CSS mobile, mobile XHTML, JavaScript API, widget, etc. technologies (Hazaël-Massieux, 2016 ). Mobile applications enable sharing of information freely without having to be connected to desktop computers and allows access to the content of the websites at the desired place and time (Desruelle & Gielen, 2013 ). Thus, it provides efficient and effective information from different devices by complying with responsive standards and design principles (Alsadi et al., 2017 ).

Mobile usability is derived from the characteristics of the mobile devices used. Mobile devices increase the life cycle of the website. Building better websites through usability helps create a positive user experience (Budak et al., 2017 ).The mobile devices enable to reach the desired content at any time and place and perform user transactions. General features of these devices are (Firtman, 2013 ):

Always available

Easy and fast operation

Have internet connection.

Mobile compatibility is another feature that completes usability. The goal of “access everywhere” have many restrictions. Mobile users want a good experience and like to make full use of mobile devices’ capabilities (Seward, 2011 ). Thus, a mobile compatible website is an essential requirement for being available on the internet. Peterson ( 2014 ) developed design, page layout, visual and interaction design, and navigation principles for mobile compatibility as follows:

Unnecessary items should not be on the site.

Desired content should be highlighted.

The page should indicate the hierarchical progress on the site.

Access to the home page and the next page should be available.

The contact address must be specified.

Page layout:

Pages should be created in a single column.

Horizontal scrolling should not be used on the pages.

Use limited vertical scrolling on pages.

Visual and Interaction Design:

Text input should be facilitated and reduced.

Use high contrast elements and text to ensure easy readability.

Readable font size should be used.

There must be space between the items and the keys pressed.

Navigating:

Navigation options should be kept up to date,

Important information should be highlighted on the homepage.

Signboards should be used.

There should be an available menu at the bottom of the page.

A search bar should be available on the site (Seward, 2011 ).

In order to execute mobile compatibility, Google offers practical solutions. The Google mobile compatibility test tool is run by specifying the URL. Test results are listed within one minute. The site provides a mobile screenshot to the user to see how their sites are mobile compatible (Google, 2019 ).

4.2 Limitations

With the technological developments, websites for mobile devices and applications bring some problems to the agenda. Website designers should consider differences in desktop and mobile devices. The operations that can be performed on desktop computers can be difficult to perform on some mobile devices. Mobile websites and applications are designed according to the screen size in order to make their content usable. The devices with large screens enable them to see the information they want to reach faster and have more efficient use but some others can have limitations (Raptis et al., 2013 ). The common mobile limitations are as follows (Wroblewski, 2011 ):

Screen size: The smaller the screen sizes can make browsing the website or applications difficult.

Performance: Limited connectivity during data retrieval affects performance. Hardware features can cause poor performance.

Location and Time: Mobile devices can have connection and timing problems in different ecological environments.

The universe of this research is university students. The research is experimental. A questionnaire was used as a data collection tool. The questionnaire was distributed to 134 students and 130 students answered. The response rate of the survey was 97%.

To measure the effect of responsive design on usability, the questionnaire form consisted of A and B sections. Section A contain questions to collect demographic characteristics from the individuals including age, gender, devices used, internet connection type, use of internet rate, internet usage reason, and use of social media. Section B contains 40 questions about responsive design and usability dimensions such as Ease of Learning, Effectiveness, Rememberability, Fault Tolerance, and Satisfaction. A five Likert scale was used to gather respondent’s choices ranging from 1 being “strongly disagree”, 2 “disagree”, 3 “neutral”, 4 “agree”, and 5 “strongly agree”.

Independent group t-test was used for paired group comparisons and one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used for three or more group comparisons. Correlation analysis was performed to determine the relationships between variables. Regression analysis was applied to measure the relationship between responsive design and usability dimensions.

The reliability values ​​of the scale used in the study were measured in terms of internal consistency. The Cronbach alpha reliability value of the survey was 0.79 as shown in Table 1 .

5.1 Findings

The frequency analysis findings for the demographic variables included in the study are shown in Table 2 .

The participants data obtained from the research were firstly examined in terms of outliers. Because the outlier observation values ​​in the data significantly affected the normal distribution, extreme data analysis was performed. Table 3 provides student views on responsively designed university websites. According to this; average scores on usability, ease of learning, effectiveness, rememberability, error tolerance, usage satisfaction, and responsive design dimensions had high scores. Ease of Learning had the highest point (Avg = 3.67).

5.2 Data analysis

The demographics were analyzed interpreted for usability and responsive design as follows:

According to the t-test findings, no significant relationship was found between gender and usability. This result means that the attitudes of the participants towards all dimensions are quite similar in terms of gender.

According to the age of the participants, no differences were detected except in the dimensions of Ease of Learning and Satisfaction. ANOVA test was used to determine the differentiation with respect to age. The usability dimension was differentiated by age as follows:

In the effectiveness dimension, the participants in the 24–26 age group had a higher level of effectiveness than the users in the 21–23 age group.

In the rememberability dimension, the participants in the 24–26 age group had a higher level of rememberability than the participants in the 21–23 age group.

In the error tolerance dimension, the participants in the age group of 27 and older have higher in tolerance than other age groups.

Devices used

When the devices used by the participants were examined, the use of mobile devices is seen to have highest rates. Mobile phones were used significantly high (%99.2).

Internet connections

Developing mobile communication link technologies were indispensable for mobile device users. 93.1% of the participants were connected to the Internet via Mobile Phone/Tablet/PDA. Attitudes towards all dimensions did not differ significantly according to the use of the Internet connection.

Use of Internet rate

The rate of daily internet usage was the highest with 38.5% of the participants, and they used the internet for more than 4–5 h per day. For the Responsive Design dimension, there was a significant difference according to daily internet usage time.

Internet usage reason

Considering the purpose of internet usage, the majority of the participants use the Internet for social media, ranking as communication, access to information, news and shopping.

Use of social media

Social media has been widely used in pandemic time. Social networks such as Youtube and Instagram were widely used in communication.

5.3 Responsive design and usability correlation

In the study, the correlation was evaluated. The relationship between Responsive Design and usability is generally positive and moderate as shown in Table 4 .

It was found that there was a high positive correlation between Usability and Ease of Learning, Effectiveness, Rememberability, Fault tolerance, Satisfaction and Responsive design.That means The other correlations are as follows:

There was a moderate positive relationship between Ease of Learning and Effectiveness, Rememberability, Fault Tolerance, Satisfaction and Responsive Design.

There was a significant positive correlation between Effectiveness and Rememberability, Fault Tolerance, Satisfaction, and a high positive correlation between the Responsive Design.

There was a positive relationship between Fault Tolerance, Satisfaction dimensions and a positive correlation between Responsive Design.

There was a moderate positive correlation between Fault Tolerance and Satisfaction and Responsive Design.

There was a moderate positive relationship between Satisfaction and Responsive Design.

5.4 Effects of responsive design on usability

In order to determine the effects of Responsive Design on Usability (Ease of Learning, Effectiveness, Rememberability, Fault Tolerance, Satisfaction) regression analysis was performed. For this purpose, separate regression models were established for each dependent variable. The results of the regression analyzes performed in this context are given in Table 5 .

Table 5 shows the effects of Responsive Design on Usability dimensions. The effects are as follows:

Responsive Design variable explains 91.5% of the change in usability (R 2  = 0.915). When the adjusted beta value was examined, it was found that the responsive design (β = 0.837; p  < 0.05) variable had a significant effect on usability.

Responsive Design variable explains 37% of the change in Ease of Learning (R 2  = 0.370). When the adjusted beta value was examined, it was found that the effects of responsive Design (β = 0.608; p  < 0.05) on Ease of Learning were significant.

Responsive Design variable explains 74.7% of the change in Effectiveness (R 2  = 0.747). When the adjusted beta value was examined, it was found that the responsive design (β = 0.865; p  < 0.05) variable had significant effects on the Effectiveness.

Responsive Design variable explains 52.5% of the change in Rememberability (R 2  = 0.525). When the adjusted beta value was examined, it was found that the responsive design (β = 0.725; p  < 0.05) variable had a significant effect on Rememberability.

Responsive Design Variable explains 33.9% of the change in Fault Tolerance (R 2  = 0.359). When the adjusted beta value was examined, it was found that the effects of Responsive Design (β = 0.582; p  < 0.05) on Fault Tolerance were significant.

Responsive Design variable explains 47.3% of the change in Satisfaction (R 2  = 0.473). When the adjusted beta value was examined, it was found that the effects of Responsive Design (β = 0.688; p  < 0.05) on Satisfaction were significant.

6 Conclusion

In this study, the opinions of university students were taken at the time of the pandemic with a questionnaire in order to investigate the effect of responsive design on usability. It was seen that the participants ' attitudes towards responsive design are quite similar according to gender. In the responsive design dimension, it is observed that the participants in the 24–26 age group are more careful and have more perception skills. Participants' attitudes towards responsive design do not differ significantly according to their connection point to the Internet. The daily Internet usage rate of 38% of the participants is 4–5 h. It is seen that mobile device usage has high rates. This shows that the participants, who were mostly mobile device users, were more sensitive in the responsive design dimension. Considering the purpose of internet usage, the majority of the participants mostly use the internet for social media and contact. Ease of Learning is one of the Usability dimensions that students find the most positive (Avg = 3.67/5, 73.4%). In the correlation, usability and responsive design (r = 0.92, p  < 0.01) were found to be significantly correlated. The regression analysis shows that responsive design explains 91.5% of the usability and explains 74.7% of its effectiveness. In this study, 99.2% of university students were using smart phones and the level of user satisfaction with responsive design was 93% in terms of using responsively designed university web sites. With the use of mobile devices, the responsive design increases website usability. It can be concluded that responsive design increases the usability of academic websites in pandemic period.

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Parlakkiliç, A. Evaluating the effects of responsive design on the usability of academic websites in the pandemic. Educ Inf Technol 27 , 1307–1322 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-021-10650-9

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Received : 05 December 2020

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Research-based web design & usability guidelines [2006 edition].

Michael O. Leavitt , U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Ben Shneiderman , University of Maryland at College Park Robert W. Bailey , Computer Psychology, Inc. Carol Barnum , Southern Polytechnic State University John Bosley , U.S. Bureau of Census Barbara Chaparro , Wichita State University Follow Joseph Dumas , Bentley College Melody Y. Ivory , University of Washington Bonnie John , Carnegie Mellon University Hal Miller-Jacobs , Human Factors International Sanjay J. Koyani , U.S. Department of Health and Human Services James R. Lewis , IBM Stanley Page , The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Judith Ramey , University of Washington Janice (Ginny) Redish , Redish & Associates, Inc. Jean Scholtz , National Institute of Standards and Technology Steve Wigginton , AMDOCS Cari A. Wolfson , Focus on U! Larry E. Wood , Parallax, LC Don Zimmerman , Colorado State University

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The new edition of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines . These guidelines reflect HHS’ commitment to identifying innovative, research-based approaches that result in highly responsive and easy-to-use Web sites for the public.

These guidelines help move us in that direction by providing practical, yet authoritative, guidance on a broad range of Web design and communication issues. Having access to the best available research helps to ensure we make the right decisions the first time around and reduces the possibility of errors and costly mistakes.

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As a web designer, you are responsible for big-picture decisions, like the menus listed on the site, and smaller details, like which fonts, colors, and graphics to use.

[Featured image] A website designer sits on a pink sofa in a living room with her computer on her lap working on a website design.

A web designer creates the layout and design of a website. In simple terms, a website designer makes a site look good. They use design programs to create visual elements. Website designers usually have expertise in UI, or user interface, which means they strategically design a site that’s intuitive and easy for visitors to navigate. If your interest is piqued, let’s dig into this career and see what it takes to become a successful web designer.

Website developer vs. website designer

It’s common for a website designer to be confused with a website developer . A developer uses coding languages to create the framework of a website. They build the structure and then turn the site over to a designer to beautify it. 

What do web designers do?

Before talking about the skills or education needed, let’s uncover the daily tasks of a website designer so you can see if it’s something that suits your interests. Regularly, a website designer will:

Design and layout websites

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Design sample pages and create mockups

Work in Adobe programs to create visuals, graphics, or animations

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Coordinate with writers and designers to create a site

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Web designer salary

For those exploring this job opportunity, there isn’t just growth in the field but good wages as well. The median annual pay for a web designer in the US is $64,209 [ 3 ]. This figure includes an average base salary of $59,317 per year and a median additional pay of $4,892 annually. Additional pay insights may include commissions, profit-sharing, and bonuses.

What kind of skills should you develop to become a website designer? 

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Workplace web design skills

Workplace skills are also known as non-technical or soft skills. Here are a few examples:

Communication

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Time management

As a web designer, you might take a freelance approach where you work with a variety of companies at once or you might work for one company. Either way, you’ll need the ability to manage your time effectively to keep multiple projects moving. 

Collaboration

A website designer often works with other people to create a site. There could be a copywriter, graphic designer, or even members of an IT department participating in website creation. If that’s the case, you’ll need the ability to listen, collaborate, and take constructive criticism. 

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Technical skills are specialized abilities that fall under the discipline of web design. Here are a few examples:

Visual design

The core part of a website designer’s job is to create visual elements for a site, so having a firm grasp of design principles is a must. Visual design incorporates various best design practices that hone in on things like proportions, symmetry, typography, and color systems.

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To generate the right experience for the audience, a designer often researches the audience and studies actions taken on the site to build a website experience that fits a brand’s target market. 

Knowledge of design programs

Website designers must have proficiency in design programs like Adobe Creative Cloud, CorelDraw Graphics Suite, or Inkscape. These programs are often used to create visual elements, produce mock-ups, and manipulate images, all of which are needed in web design. 

Some coding knowledge

A designer doesn’t write the code to make a site function, but it doesn’t hurt to know a little about HTML or CSS to make small tweaks to a site. With a basic understanding, you’ll be able to manipulate templates, enhance fonts, or adjust the placements of objects easier. 

Read more: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference?

Do you need a degree to land a job as a website designer?

Many website designers have a bachelor’s degree in website design or a related field, according to the BLS. However, a four-year degree isn’t the only path to this creative career, obtaining certifications is another option. Let’s take a closer look at both degree programs and certifications. 

Degree programs 

There are four-year degree programs that can provide the necessary training to become a website designer. Here’s a look at a few options: 

Bachelor’s degree in computer science: A degree in computer science provides a well-rounded education in computing skills, problem-solving, and design work. Within some programs, like BSc Computer Science from the University of London, you can pick an area of focus, like user experience (UX), to narrow your skill set. 

Bachelor’s degree in website design: Some students decide to get a specific degree in website design, which has a more narrow focus on design skills and layout principles that are all taught in concert with the technical programs that website designers use, like the Adobe programs mentioned earlier. 

Web Design Certificate Programs and Courses 

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree isn’t the only option, you can also explore certification programs or take courses to build your web design skills. Some employers may prefer candidates with relevant, up-to-date industry certificates. Here are a few relevant examples:

Google UX Design Professional Certificate : Learn from industry leaders at Google in this series of courses that cover foundational UX concepts. Build job-ready skills like wireframing, prototyping, and user research as you complete projects for your design portfolio. 

UI/UX Design Specialization : This series of courses from the California Institute of the Arts offers practical, skill-based instruction to help students understand the UI/UX development process, website architecture, site maps, wireframing, and best practices to create a delightful online experience for the end user.

Responsive Website Development and Design Specialization : With a growing number of people using mobile devices to search online, understanding how to make responsive, mobile-ready websites is a valuable skill. This specialization from the University of London has students develop and design responsive sites with built-in multi-user experiences. While this class might lean more towards web development, an understanding of these skills will bolster your web design knowledge. 

Web designer portfolio

With the right skills honed and the right educational background, securing a website designer job includes building an impressive online portfolio. To help, here’s a list of tips to curate the best examples possibilities:

Quality over quantity: A portfolio should contain your best work, but it’s important to be selective. It’s better to showcase fewer, higher-quality sites than many sites that don't showcase your best work. 

Highlight the kind of work you want to do : Is there a particular industry that you’d like to serve? Do you want to focus on creating online stores as opposed to single-page sites for small businesses? Your portfolio should include the kind of work you want to do and showcase examples that you’re passionate about creating. 

Provide context: Your portfolio is a visual representation of your best work, but it is also an opportunity to provide context about your impact and projects. Consider providing a quick three-to-four-sentence description that explains the site’s purpose, its challenges, and why it’s in your portfolio.

Update it regularly: It’s a good idea to set aside scheduled time once a quarter to update your portfolio. Even if you are not adding new work, you might have additional context to add, or edits to make, based on your ongoing learnings and goals. It's a lot easier to update when things are fresh in your mind versus months or years later. 

Still building your portfolio?

Building a portfolio takes time. If you need to fill the gaps in your portfolio, consider enrolling in a Guided Project in web design on Coursera. You can browse relevant options in the list below:

Design and Develop a Website using Figma and CSS

Build a website using Wix Artificial Design Intelligence

Develop a Company Website with Wix

Use WordPress to Create a Job for Your Business

Take the next step toward a career in web design with Coursera

Are you ready to take the next step toward building a career as a website designer? If so, consider earning a credential from an industry leader with the Meta Front-End Developer Professional Certificate . By the end of this 100 percent online, self-paced course, you’ll create a professional portfolio that you can use in your job search. 

Article sources

Stanford Web Credibility Research. "Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility, http://credibility.stanford.edu/guidelines/index.html ." Accessed February 16, 2023.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. " Occupational Outlook Handbook: Web Developers and Digital Designers , https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/web-developers.htm." Accessed February 16, 2023.

Glassdoor. "How much does a Web Designer make? https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/web-designer-salary-SRCH_KO0,12.htm ." Accessed February 16, 2023.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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research on web design

How to learn web design (in 9 steps)

Discover how to learn web design and learn the basics of UI, UX, HTML, CSS, and visual design.

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From 101 to advanced, learn how to build sites in Webflow with over 100 lessons — including the basics of HTML and CSS.

research on web design

Becoming a web designer doesn’t have to be difficult. If you want to know the basic fundamentals, we’ve put together this guide that covers everything you need to know to get started.

Web design has so many different facets and it can be hard to know just where you should begin. We want to make things easier for you and we’ve put together a wealth of great information to help get you on your way to becoming a web designer.

We’ll explore these fundamental steps to learning web design:

  • Understand the key concepts of visual design
  • Know the basics of HTML
  • Understand CSS
  • Learn the foundation of UX design
  • Familiarize yourself with UI design
  • Understand the basics of creating layouts
  • Learn about typography 
  • Put your knowledge into action and build something
  • Get a mentor

What is web design and what elements make it work?

Webflow designer

If you want to learn how to design websites, the first step is understanding what exactly web design is.

Web design is part artistry and part science, tapping into both the creative and analytical sides of a person’s mind.

Web designers take what’s conceptual and translate it into visuals. Images, typography, colors, text, negative space, and structure come together offering not only a user experience but a conduit for communicating ideas. Web design skills cover a variety of techniques and expertise in creating websites that are both functional and visually engaging.

A good web designer understands the significance of each piece of a design. They make choices on a granular level, styling each element, while never losing sight of how the elements will come together and function in delivering on the design’s greater goals.

No matter how spectacular the visuals of a web design are, they're meaningless without organization. Logic needs to guide the arrangement of ideas and visuals on each page, as well as direct how users will travel through it. A skilled web designer creates designs that deliver in the least number of clicks.

Web design can be broken down into several subdisciplines. Some designers make their careers specializing in areas like UI, UX, SEO, and other areas of expertise. As you begin your journey as a designer, you should know a little bit about all these different facets of web design.

Web designs are powered by the back end

You’re going to come across the terms back end and front end as you learn to design websites. Most beginners mix these up, so it’s important to know how they’re different.

The back end is everything that runs behind the scenes in displaying a website. Websites reside on servers. When a user requests to navigate to a specific section of a website, the server takes this incoming information and in turn, shoots out all of the HTML and other code so that it displays in the user’s browser correctly. Servers host the data a website requires to function.

Web developers who specialize in back-end development are often programmers who work in such languages as PHP. They also might use a Python framework like Django, write Java code, manage SQL databases, or use other programming languages or frameworks to make sure that servers, applications, and databases are all working together.

To become a web designer, you don’t need to go too deep into what happens on the back end, but you should at least understand its purpose. This is an advanced topic but for those who want to become full-stack developers, it’s as important as understanding front-end fundamentals like HTML & CSS. And speaking of front-end web development...

Front end relates to what site visitors see

The back end is considered the server side while the front end is the client side. The front end is where HTML , CSS, JavaScript , and other code work together to display a website. This is the part of a web design that people engage with.

As you advance in your career you might get into more specialized areas of learning web development. You may end up working with frameworks like React or Bootstrap or go deeper with JavaScript or jQuery. These are more advanced areas that you shouldn’t worry too much about in the beginning.

Good visual design make websites stand out

visual design of boxes

Though the best web designs look effortless in execution, they’re all based on the guiding principles of visual design. Though there are those rare web designers who have an innate eye for visual design, for most of us, this is a topic that we must learn on our own. Those who can tell the difference between good and bad design will have an easier time learning web development. Understand how visual design works. Know the rules of composition and understand how elements like shapes, space, color, and geometry come together.

A great starting point is our post about visual design principles for web designers . Studying concepts like reification, emergence, and invariance will allow you to incorporate these principles into your design process. Learning how to be a web designer also means understanding the history of design. We’ve put together this in-depth graphic design archive to show you all of the major developments in design that have brought us to where we are today.

1. Understand the key concepts of visual design

Every letter, border, and division in a layout is made up of lines that make up their greater structure. Learning web design means understanding the how to use lines to create order and balance in a layout.

The three basic shapes in visual design are squares, circles, and triangles. Squares and rectangles work for blocks of content, circles work for buttons, and triangles are often used for icons that accompany an important message or call to action. Shapes also have a sense of emotion, with squares associated with strength, circles with harmony and comfort, and triangles with importance and action.

Texture replicates something in the real world. Through texture, we get an idea of whether something is rough or smooth. Textures can be seen throughout web design. From paperlike backgrounds to the colorful wisps of a Gaussian blur, be aware of the different kinds of textures that can make your designs more interesting and can give them a sense of physicality.

If you want to learn how to web design and create websites that aren’t an eye strain, you should educate yourself in color theory . Understanding the color wheel, complementary colors, contrasting colors, and the emotions that different colors evoke will make you a better web designer. A huge part of knowing how to web design is knowing what color combinations look good together.

Grids have their roots in the earliest days of graphic design. They  bring order to images, texts, and other elements in a web design. Learn how to structure your web layouts using grids.

2. Know the basics of HTML

Hypertext markup language (HTML) provides the directions for how the content, images, navigation, and other elements of a website display in someone’s web browser. Though you don’t need to be an expert in HTML, it still helps to have some familiarity with how it works, even if you’re using a visual-based design platform like Webflow. 

HTML tags are the instructions a browser uses to generate a website. Headings, paragraphs, links, and images are all controlled by these tags. You’ll especially want to know how header tags like H1, H2, and H3 tags are used for content hierarchy. In addition to affecting layout structure, header tags are important in how web crawlers classify a design and affect how they show up in organic search rankings.

To learn more about the basic concepts of HTML and CSS, check out this Webflow University lesson .

3. Understand CSS

CSS (or Cascading Style Sheets) provides styling and additional instructions on how an HTML element is going to appear. Doing things like applying fonts, adding padding , setting alignment, choosing colors, and even creating grids are all possible through CSS.

Knowing how CSS works will give you the skills to create unique-looking websites and to customize existing templates. Let’s go over a few key concepts of CSS.

CSS classes

A CSS class is a list of attributes that come together in styling an individual element. Something like body text could have the font, size, and color as part of a single CSS class.

CSS combo classes

A combo class is built on an existing base class. It inherits all of the attributes like sizing, color, and alignment that may already be in place. Attributes can then be changed up. Combo classes save you time and let you set up variations of a class that you can apply wherever you need to in a web design.

Knowing how CSS works is essential when learning web design. As mentioned in the section about HTML, we recommend that you head over to Webflow University to see more about how CSS works.

From the fundamentals to advanced topics — learn how to build sites in Webflow and become the designer you always wanted to be.

4. Learn the foundations of UX design

Those who want to learn web development often confuse UI and UX . UX (user experience) is the magic that brings a website to life, transforming it from a static arrangement of elements into something that engages with the emotions of someone scrolling through it. 

The color scheme , content, typography, layout, and visuals all come together to serve your audience. User experience design is about precision and evoking feelings. It offers someone not only a smooth journey but connects them with the entity or brand behind the web design.

Here are a few UX principles you’ll need to know.

User personas

If you want to learn website design, you must be cognizant of the connections between websites and the people who visit them.

Web design means understanding end users. You should learn how to do user research and how to create user personas. In addition, you’ll need to know how to use this information to create a design that’s optimized for an audience’s needs.

Information architecture

Without clear organization, people will get confused and bounce. Information architecture and content mapping provide a blueprint for how the website and each section will work together in providing a clear customer journey.

Constructing user flows may come into play when you work your way up to more extensive design projects, but you’ll be better off in the future if you start thinking about these and building them out for your early designs. User flows communicate how people will move through a design. They help you to prioritize the most important sections and make sure that people can access them.

Wireframes show where on a web page headings, text, visuals, forms, and other elements are going to be placed. Even if you’re building a simple one-page web design , mapping out a wireframe will give you a solid guide to work from. As you move on to more complicated websites, wireframes are essential in creating a consistent experience, structuring layouts, and not missing anything that needs to be included. 

Prototyping

Prototypes can have different levels of fidelity but act as a representation of a functioning design. Images, interactions, content, and other important elements are all in place and replicate the real-world design. Prototypes are used to get feedback and fine-tune a design throughout the process.

5. Familiarize yourself with UI design

UI (user interface) design is another huge subject you’ll dive into as you learn website design. A user interface is a mechanism that puts a piece of technology into action. A doorknob is a user interface. The volume control on your car radio that your significant other won’t stop messing around with is a user interface. And the keypad that you enter your PIN into at an ATM is a user interface. Just as buttons and other mechanisms in the real world allow someone to interact with machines, the user interface elements on a website allow someone to put actions into motion.

Let’s review two key UI principles: intuitive design and simplicity.

How to create intuitive interfaces

Interacting and engaging with a website should be consistent and follow repeatable patterns. People landing on a website should immediately understand the systems that are in place in navigating through it.

Make UI simple

UI exists to optimize usability. This means making the controls easy to use, as well as obvious in their functionality. Whether you’re minimizing the number of navigational options, making the checkout process quick, or integrating other interactive elements that increase accessibility, understanding UI will help you streamline someone’s experience in interacting with a website.

Of course, UI is a vast subject that can’t be captured in just a few paragraphs. We suggest you check out the blog post 10 essential UI (user interface) design tips as a primer to UI.

6. Understand the basics of creating layouts

Our eyes latch on to certain design patterns automatically, making for an easy route through a web design. We intuitively know where to look because we’ve seen these same patterns over and over as we’ve consumed media throughout our lives. Knowing design patterns will help you create websites that have a smooth flow to the content and visuals. Two common web layout patterns you need to know about are Z-patterns and F-patterns.

For layouts with an economy of words and images and generous amounts of negative space, the Z-pattern makes for an efficient way to cruise through a website. When you start paying attention to where your eyes are going through a design, you’ll recognize right away when a Z-pattern is in place.

Designs heavy on text, like for an online publication or a blog, often follow a distinct F-pattern. On the left-hand side of the screen, you’ll see a list of articles or posts, and in the main body of the page, you’ll see rows of related information. This pattern is optimized to give people all the information they need, even if they’re quickly glancing through it.

Related reads: Web page layout: website anatomy every designer needs to learn

Understand responsive web design

Along with understanding layout patterns, it’s also important to know the fundamentals behind responsive web design. A responsive website functions and has a consistent look no matter what device they’re being displayed on.

Related reads: Intro to responsive web design

7. Learn about typography

Fonts can impart different tones or emotions as well as affect readability. If you’re learning about web design, knowing how to use typography is essential.

Typography serves several purposes in web design. First, it serves the utilitarian purpose of making content legible. But it can also evoke emotion and atmosphere, and the tasteful use of stylized typography can add to the overall aesthetic.

Here are three basic typographic concepts you should know.

Serif typefaces have minuscule lines known as serifs that grace each letter. This typographic style can be traced back to print.

As the name implies, sans serif typefaces lack the identifying lines of serif typefaces. These typefaces are found throughout the digital realm of websites and apps.

Display typefaces are often used for headlines and can be either large and impactful or made of sharp, thin lines. They usually have sophisticated letterforms and are meant to grab someone’s attention.

Related reads: Typographic design: font styles and resources for designers

8. Put your knowledge into action and build something

Retail website template

You can watch tutorials, read blog posts, enroll in online courses, and absorb all of the theory and information you can about web design, but the only way to become a web designer is to begin web designing.

Start with a simple project. Maybe someone you know needs help creating a portfolio or has a side hustle that is lacking any sort of web presence. Offer to design them something for free.

A blog is also another great beginner project. This will give you practical design experience in learning how to use things like a content management system (CMS) , as well as provide a showcase for your writing skills.

Building a website for a fake company or business is another fun creative exercise in developing your design chops. Plus, you can add it to your portfolio.

9. Get a mentor

Mentors are valuable because they’ve been where you are — at the very beginning — and have the desire to help you out through the hard-earned lessons they’ve learned. They have a deep well of expertise and knowledge. They’re a great resource for getting feedback on your work and finding what you’re doing right and what needs improvement.

In searching for the appropriate mentor, make sure you find someone who does the type of design you admire and specializes in what you want to learn. Mentors can give you a clear path from years spent in the field so you don’t have to stumble through learning web design.

Visual development provides an easy entry into web design

There was a time, not that long ago when you had to have a deep understanding of HTML and CSS to manually write the code behind a web design. Today, with no code options and visual development tools like Webflow, it’s possible to put together a website and launch it in a short amount of time. What took days or weeks can now happen in hours.

Of course, so much goes into creating a good web design. Learning the fundamentals behind visual design, the basics of UI and UX, and knowing how the front end and back end function will make you a more well-rounded designer.

Whether you’re just starting or are an expert, Webflow offers an intuitive visual-based platform to empower you in realizing your creativity. Along with an easy-to-use way to launch websites, Webflow has an entire community to give you advice and to help you level up your skills. We look forward to seeing your work in our user submitted Made in Webflow collection of websites.

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  • What Is a Research Design | Types, Guide & Examples

What Is a Research Design | Types, Guide & Examples

Published on June 7, 2021 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 20, 2023 by Pritha Bhandari.

A research design is a strategy for answering your   research question  using empirical data. Creating a research design means making decisions about:

  • Your overall research objectives and approach
  • Whether you’ll rely on primary research or secondary research
  • Your sampling methods or criteria for selecting subjects
  • Your data collection methods
  • The procedures you’ll follow to collect data
  • Your data analysis methods

A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research objectives and that you use the right kind of analysis for your data.

Table of contents

Step 1: consider your aims and approach, step 2: choose a type of research design, step 3: identify your population and sampling method, step 4: choose your data collection methods, step 5: plan your data collection procedures, step 6: decide on your data analysis strategies, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research design.

  • Introduction

Before you can start designing your research, you should already have a clear idea of the research question you want to investigate.

There are many different ways you could go about answering this question. Your research design choices should be driven by your aims and priorities—start by thinking carefully about what you want to achieve.

The first choice you need to make is whether you’ll take a qualitative or quantitative approach.

Qualitative research designs tend to be more flexible and inductive , allowing you to adjust your approach based on what you find throughout the research process.

Quantitative research designs tend to be more fixed and deductive , with variables and hypotheses clearly defined in advance of data collection.

It’s also possible to use a mixed-methods design that integrates aspects of both approaches. By combining qualitative and quantitative insights, you can gain a more complete picture of the problem you’re studying and strengthen the credibility of your conclusions.

Practical and ethical considerations when designing research

As well as scientific considerations, you need to think practically when designing your research. If your research involves people or animals, you also need to consider research ethics .

  • How much time do you have to collect data and write up the research?
  • Will you be able to gain access to the data you need (e.g., by travelling to a specific location or contacting specific people)?
  • Do you have the necessary research skills (e.g., statistical analysis or interview techniques)?
  • Will you need ethical approval ?

At each stage of the research design process, make sure that your choices are practically feasible.

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Within both qualitative and quantitative approaches, there are several types of research design to choose from. Each type provides a framework for the overall shape of your research.

Types of quantitative research designs

Quantitative designs can be split into four main types.

  • Experimental and   quasi-experimental designs allow you to test cause-and-effect relationships
  • Descriptive and correlational designs allow you to measure variables and describe relationships between them.

With descriptive and correlational designs, you can get a clear picture of characteristics, trends and relationships as they exist in the real world. However, you can’t draw conclusions about cause and effect (because correlation doesn’t imply causation ).

Experiments are the strongest way to test cause-and-effect relationships without the risk of other variables influencing the results. However, their controlled conditions may not always reflect how things work in the real world. They’re often also more difficult and expensive to implement.

Types of qualitative research designs

Qualitative designs are less strictly defined. This approach is about gaining a rich, detailed understanding of a specific context or phenomenon, and you can often be more creative and flexible in designing your research.

The table below shows some common types of qualitative design. They often have similar approaches in terms of data collection, but focus on different aspects when analyzing the data.

Your research design should clearly define who or what your research will focus on, and how you’ll go about choosing your participants or subjects.

In research, a population is the entire group that you want to draw conclusions about, while a sample is the smaller group of individuals you’ll actually collect data from.

Defining the population

A population can be made up of anything you want to study—plants, animals, organizations, texts, countries, etc. In the social sciences, it most often refers to a group of people.

For example, will you focus on people from a specific demographic, region or background? Are you interested in people with a certain job or medical condition, or users of a particular product?

The more precisely you define your population, the easier it will be to gather a representative sample.

  • Sampling methods

Even with a narrowly defined population, it’s rarely possible to collect data from every individual. Instead, you’ll collect data from a sample.

To select a sample, there are two main approaches: probability sampling and non-probability sampling . The sampling method you use affects how confidently you can generalize your results to the population as a whole.

Probability sampling is the most statistically valid option, but it’s often difficult to achieve unless you’re dealing with a very small and accessible population.

For practical reasons, many studies use non-probability sampling, but it’s important to be aware of the limitations and carefully consider potential biases. You should always make an effort to gather a sample that’s as representative as possible of the population.

Case selection in qualitative research

In some types of qualitative designs, sampling may not be relevant.

For example, in an ethnography or a case study , your aim is to deeply understand a specific context, not to generalize to a population. Instead of sampling, you may simply aim to collect as much data as possible about the context you are studying.

In these types of design, you still have to carefully consider your choice of case or community. You should have a clear rationale for why this particular case is suitable for answering your research question .

For example, you might choose a case study that reveals an unusual or neglected aspect of your research problem, or you might choose several very similar or very different cases in order to compare them.

Data collection methods are ways of directly measuring variables and gathering information. They allow you to gain first-hand knowledge and original insights into your research problem.

You can choose just one data collection method, or use several methods in the same study.

Survey methods

Surveys allow you to collect data about opinions, behaviors, experiences, and characteristics by asking people directly. There are two main survey methods to choose from: questionnaires and interviews .

Observation methods

Observational studies allow you to collect data unobtrusively, observing characteristics, behaviors or social interactions without relying on self-reporting.

Observations may be conducted in real time, taking notes as you observe, or you might make audiovisual recordings for later analysis. They can be qualitative or quantitative.

Other methods of data collection

There are many other ways you might collect data depending on your field and topic.

If you’re not sure which methods will work best for your research design, try reading some papers in your field to see what kinds of data collection methods they used.

Secondary data

If you don’t have the time or resources to collect data from the population you’re interested in, you can also choose to use secondary data that other researchers already collected—for example, datasets from government surveys or previous studies on your topic.

With this raw data, you can do your own analysis to answer new research questions that weren’t addressed by the original study.

Using secondary data can expand the scope of your research, as you may be able to access much larger and more varied samples than you could collect yourself.

However, it also means you don’t have any control over which variables to measure or how to measure them, so the conclusions you can draw may be limited.

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As well as deciding on your methods, you need to plan exactly how you’ll use these methods to collect data that’s consistent, accurate, and unbiased.

Planning systematic procedures is especially important in quantitative research, where you need to precisely define your variables and ensure your measurements are high in reliability and validity.

Operationalization

Some variables, like height or age, are easily measured. But often you’ll be dealing with more abstract concepts, like satisfaction, anxiety, or competence. Operationalization means turning these fuzzy ideas into measurable indicators.

If you’re using observations , which events or actions will you count?

If you’re using surveys , which questions will you ask and what range of responses will be offered?

You may also choose to use or adapt existing materials designed to measure the concept you’re interested in—for example, questionnaires or inventories whose reliability and validity has already been established.

Reliability and validity

Reliability means your results can be consistently reproduced, while validity means that you’re actually measuring the concept you’re interested in.

For valid and reliable results, your measurement materials should be thoroughly researched and carefully designed. Plan your procedures to make sure you carry out the same steps in the same way for each participant.

If you’re developing a new questionnaire or other instrument to measure a specific concept, running a pilot study allows you to check its validity and reliability in advance.

Sampling procedures

As well as choosing an appropriate sampling method , you need a concrete plan for how you’ll actually contact and recruit your selected sample.

That means making decisions about things like:

  • How many participants do you need for an adequate sample size?
  • What inclusion and exclusion criteria will you use to identify eligible participants?
  • How will you contact your sample—by mail, online, by phone, or in person?

If you’re using a probability sampling method , it’s important that everyone who is randomly selected actually participates in the study. How will you ensure a high response rate?

If you’re using a non-probability method , how will you avoid research bias and ensure a representative sample?

Data management

It’s also important to create a data management plan for organizing and storing your data.

Will you need to transcribe interviews or perform data entry for observations? You should anonymize and safeguard any sensitive data, and make sure it’s backed up regularly.

Keeping your data well-organized will save time when it comes to analyzing it. It can also help other researchers validate and add to your findings (high replicability ).

On its own, raw data can’t answer your research question. The last step of designing your research is planning how you’ll analyze the data.

Quantitative data analysis

In quantitative research, you’ll most likely use some form of statistical analysis . With statistics, you can summarize your sample data, make estimates, and test hypotheses.

Using descriptive statistics , you can summarize your sample data in terms of:

  • The distribution of the data (e.g., the frequency of each score on a test)
  • The central tendency of the data (e.g., the mean to describe the average score)
  • The variability of the data (e.g., the standard deviation to describe how spread out the scores are)

The specific calculations you can do depend on the level of measurement of your variables.

Using inferential statistics , you can:

  • Make estimates about the population based on your sample data.
  • Test hypotheses about a relationship between variables.

Regression and correlation tests look for associations between two or more variables, while comparison tests (such as t tests and ANOVAs ) look for differences in the outcomes of different groups.

Your choice of statistical test depends on various aspects of your research design, including the types of variables you’re dealing with and the distribution of your data.

Qualitative data analysis

In qualitative research, your data will usually be very dense with information and ideas. Instead of summing it up in numbers, you’ll need to comb through the data in detail, interpret its meanings, identify patterns, and extract the parts that are most relevant to your research question.

Two of the most common approaches to doing this are thematic analysis and discourse analysis .

There are many other ways of analyzing qualitative data depending on the aims of your research. To get a sense of potential approaches, try reading some qualitative research papers in your field.

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A research design is a strategy for answering your   research question . It defines your overall approach and determines how you will collect and analyze data.

A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research aims, that you collect high-quality data, and that you use the right kind of analysis to answer your questions, utilizing credible sources . This allows you to draw valid , trustworthy conclusions.

Quantitative research designs can be divided into two main categories:

  • Correlational and descriptive designs are used to investigate characteristics, averages, trends, and associations between variables.
  • Experimental and quasi-experimental designs are used to test causal relationships .

Qualitative research designs tend to be more flexible. Common types of qualitative design include case study , ethnography , and grounded theory designs.

The priorities of a research design can vary depending on the field, but you usually have to specify:

  • Your research questions and/or hypotheses
  • Your overall approach (e.g., qualitative or quantitative )
  • The type of design you’re using (e.g., a survey , experiment , or case study )
  • Your data collection methods (e.g., questionnaires , observations)
  • Your data collection procedures (e.g., operationalization , timing and data management)
  • Your data analysis methods (e.g., statistical tests  or thematic analysis )

A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population . Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.

In statistics, sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population.

Operationalization means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations.

For example, the concept of social anxiety isn’t directly observable, but it can be operationally defined in terms of self-rating scores, behavioral avoidance of crowded places, or physical anxiety symptoms in social situations.

Before collecting data , it’s important to consider how you will operationalize the variables that you want to measure.

A research project is an academic, scientific, or professional undertaking to answer a research question . Research projects can take many forms, such as qualitative or quantitative , descriptive , longitudinal , experimental , or correlational . What kind of research approach you choose will depend on your topic.

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Web Design Research Creates Successful Projects

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John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO .

Your website is a big deal .

It is your number one marketing tool, so getting it right is important.

Many small and mid-sized organizations have to align their internal forces and gather their resources to get a web project in motion.

If a web project is executed ineffectively, it may be a while before the business gets another shot at doing it again.

The research phase of web design is necessary because it establishes if we are solving the right problem, tests our theories about what our target users need, and takes other outside factors into consideration.

By including a research and discovery phase, we get a much clearer focus on what we are building, who we are building it for, and what needs to be included. It sets the stage for the rest of the project by putting us on the right course.

We want to make sure we’re not solving the wrong problem.

Benefits of Web Design Research

Structured research allows us to define our most important customers, and build for them first, not outliers. We can discover what their real habits are and not operate strictly from assumptions.The important thing is to keep an open and observant mind, test any assumptions we have, and analyze findings first. Only after analyzing the findings of the research is it time to propose solutions to the problems that have been discovered.

Structuring the Research

In the beginning, assume nothing.

Asking iterative questions with stakeholders is my way of getting to the heart of what the business is trying to accomplish and why. As an outsider, I can ask questions that internal team members cannot voice or see easily. My job is to discover the goals and motivations of the business and figure out how to bridge the gap between the current website and where we will go.

Once a problem is defined, remove the obstacles to success.

Seeing Things From the Users Perspective

The purpose of user research is to get inside their minds and see what they see. We can use interviews, web analytics, or surveys to answer certain questions. Why do they make the decisions that they do? What are they looking for? What could they benefit from on the site? Figuring out where and how they use a site helps me figure out what design decisions to make.

We have to decide what problems need solving before we ever figure out the best way to solve them.

Knowing what audience a business site is targeting helps me gather research from the right candidates, the most valuable users, as determined by stakeholder interviews. Focusing research efforts on the right audience makes the results more accurate and less open-ended. What does the site offer them? What do they want the site to offer them? Is those things they are just saying, or will they act on those statements? Research is all about finding needs that are currently unfulfilled and filling that gap.

Considering Outside Factors in Web Research

Fluctuations in website traffic or conversions are sometimes not entirely related to the website itself. Factors outside of the business itself can have a major role, and these must be considered as well. These offsite factors can include new competitors in the market, changes in the local economy, and lifestyle changes in the target audience .

Web design research is an important phase of the design process , and should precede anything else. Defining the user pain points allows us to remove them. The research phase sets the path for the rest of the project, and keeps us from wasting time and money on the wrong issues.

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Is Web Design a Dying Career in 2024? (The Answer Is No)

With the rise of generative AI and the advancements of website builders, some are starting to question whether web design is a dying industry.

You can now have AI design entire websites and even write code. Or use website builders with drag-and-drop editors to create websites within minutes. Or use templates to build websites without having to do any coding.

So, is web design a dying career? The short answer is NO!

Make no mistake, web design is still very much alive and we need skilled web designers now more than ever. Here’s why.

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Shopify, tumblr & more, the current state of web design.

current state of web design

Right now, you can ask an AI tool to design specific websites and have ChatGPT code an entire website layout and, with the right prompts, it will deliver you an impressive website design within seconds.

Website builders like Wix, Squarespace, and Shopify have also integrated AI into their systems, allowing anyone to build a website without any experience in web design.

These new tools and technologies certainly help create more opportunities for people and businesses to easily create their own websites. However, an important question remains unanswered – are they “good” website designs?

What most people fail to understand is web design is not about arranging some text and images on a web page layout. It’s about creating an experience for the users and taking them through a journey of discovery, be it a business, brand, or product.

While anyone can create a website these days, you still need human designers to create websites that are successful, impactful, and memorable.

Is Web Design a Good Career?

Web design is one of the most exciting industries in the world that is constantly evolving. There is always something new happening in web design that creates new opportunities in this field for both beginners and experienced designers.

awwwards examples

Go to the Awwwards website and explore some of its featured website designs and you’ll see how diverse this industry can be. Each and every website featured there has a different design that sets those brands and businesses apart from the rest. Do you think an AI tool can do that?

A career in web design also offers many opportunities for you to pursue. In addition to crafting website layouts, you can also pick a niche to specialize in, like user experience design, interaction design, eCommerce web design, motion design, front-end or back-end development, and accessibility design.

Web design is also a career where skills are recognized globally. And it’s a career where you can make a difference. By creating great website designs, you are making the digital landscape a better place, one website at a time.

Is There a Good Demand for Web Designers?

top in demand skills upwork

On the list of Upwork’s top in-demand skills of 2023, front-end development ranks at number two and web design ranks at number five.

Web design is one of the most in-demand skills in freelance marketplaces. A quick search on sites like Upwork, Toptal, and Freelancer.com will show you how easy it is to find jobs as a web designer.

Since it’s fairly easy to get started in web design, there is also fierce competition in the industry. However, there is always demand for skilled web designers who specialize in their niche.

Even if you plan on joining an agency, a startup, or a company, finding a web design job is not that difficult. A simple search on LinkedIn or Indeed is often enough to find one quite easily.

How to Choose the Right Web Design Career Path

Web Design Career Path

Web design is a strong career path to follow right now. But you need to pick the right path to succeed and build a lasting career as a web designer.

Trending Career Paths in Web Design

As we mentioned earlier, web design is not just about building websites. There are many niches and specializations you can follow to become an expert in different aspects of web design.

Especially when you can combine your web design skills with another niche, your value increases. For example, a web designer with front-end development skills or UX design experience has more demand than others.

Always look for those trending career paths in web design and learn new skills to accommodate your career even further.

Assess Requirements and Skill Levels

Web design is an evolving industry and today, you need more than just HTML, CSS, and Javascript knowledge to get started as a web designer.

The skill levels and requirements to qualify as a web designer often change depending on the job you’re targeting. For example, to get into eCommerce web design, you need to understand how online shopping works for different industries and how customers behave.

It’s important to have a goal of what type of web designer you want to become before getting started. It will be the key to creating a successful career as a web designer.

Checking for Industry Demand

Most niches in web design have good demand, but it’s always important to double-check to make sure the niche you picked has good demand.

You can use freelance marketplaces and job search platforms to check whether your niche has demand right now. Better yet, you should seek an opinion from an industry veteran if you can.

Look for Educational Paths

The good news is you don’t need to have a degree in computer science or expert knowledge in programming languages to get into web design. While those qualifications can be beneficial, they are not required.

You can find plenty of successful self-taught web designers who learn by following online courses and programs. Depending on the niche you’re getting into, you can also find great courses and programs to learn everything online.

Look to the Future

It’s difficult to predict the future of any industry right now. With the introduction of AI tools, many jobs have become irrelevant and we can’t know for sure what will come next. Either way, it’s always wise to look for ways to future-proof your career in web design.

5 Tips To Future-Proof Your Web Design Career

Tips To Future-Proof Your Web Design Career

There are many things you can do to future-proof your web design career. Here are a few things you should start doing right now.

Go Beyond the Basics

Learning and adding additional skills to your resume is crucial to future-proofing your career as a web designer. Learn UX design, front-end design, and consider learning about back-end development to become an indispensable web designer.

Pick a Specialization

Be a jack of all trades but also be an expert in one or two skills at the same time. Specializing in a niche is important when you want to establish yourself as an authority in the industry.

Find Your Style

As you develop your skills and practice your craft, develop your own style as well. Every successful web designer has a unique signature style that sets them apart from millions of other designers.

Take Advantage of AI Tools

Don’t be afraid of AI tools, learn to use them to your advantage. These AI tools will make your work much simpler and easier. Find ways to add those tools to your workflow.

Add a Human Touch

It’s easy to get swept away by the advancements of AI or use pre-made templates to do things the easy way. While we encourage you to use them, you should also think about the end users and make sure to design things with humans in mind.

Should You Start a Web Design Career?

There’s never been a better time to get started in web design than right now. With the advancements of AI, developments of easy-to-use frameworks, and enhanced design software, web design is on a trajectory to becoming a profitable career path this year.

Soon, designing websites will be much easier and simpler, which will give designers more time to think and get creative with their projects. And there will always be demand for more creative and skilled web designers.

This paper is in the following e-collection/theme issue:

Published on 19.1.2024 in Vol 26 (2024)

Engaging Parents in Technology-Assisted Interventions for Childhood Adversity: Systematic Review

Authors of this article:

Author Orcid Image

  • Grace Aldridge 1 , BPsych(Hons)   ; 
  • Alessandra Tomaselli 1 , BSc   ; 
  • Clare Nowell 1 , BPsych(Hons)   ; 
  • Andrea Reupert 2 , DipEd, GradDip(CounsPsychol), BA, PhD   ; 
  • Anthony Jorm 3 , BA, MPsychol, PhD, DSc   ; 
  • Marie Bee Hui Yap 1, 3 , BA, BSc(Hons), MPsych, PhD  

1 Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, School of Psychological Sciences, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

2 School of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

3 Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Corresponding Author:

Marie Bee Hui Yap, BA, BSc(Hons), MPsych, PhD

Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, School of Psychological Sciences

Monash University

Level 5, 18 Innovation Walk

Clayton Campus

Phone: 61 3 9905 0723

Email: [email protected]

Background: Youth mental health problems are a major public health concern and are strongly associated with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Technology-assisted parenting programs can intervene with ACEs that are within a parent’s capacity to modify. However, engagement with such programs is suboptimal.

Objective: This review aims to describe and appraise the efficacy of strategies used to engage parents in technology-assisted parenting programs targeting ACEs on the behavioral and subjective outcomes of engagement.

Methods: Using PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) reporting guidelines, we conducted a systematic review of peer-reviewed papers that described the use of at least 1 engagement strategy in a technology-assisted parenting program targeting ACEs that are within a parent’s capacity to modify. A total of 8 interdisciplinary bibliographic databases (CENTRAL, CINAHL, Embase, OVID MEDLINE, OVID PsycINFO, Scopus, ACM, and IEEE Xplore) and gray literature were searched. The use of engagement strategies and measures was narratively synthesized. Associations between specific engagement strategies and engagement outcomes were quantitatively synthesized using the Stouffer method of combining P values.

Results: We identified 13,973 articles for screening. Of these, 156 (1.12%) articles were eligible for inclusion, and 29 (18.2%) of the 156 were associated with another article; thus, 127 studies were analyzed. Preliminary evidence for a reliable association between 5 engagement strategies (involving parents in a program’s design, delivering a program on the web compared to face-to-face, use of personalization or tailoring features, user control features, and provision of practical support) and greater engagement was found. Three engagement strategies (professional support features, use of videos, and behavior change techniques) were not found to have a reliable association with engagement outcomes.

Conclusions: This review provides a comprehensive assessment and description of the use of engagement strategies and engagement measures in technology-assisted parenting programs targeting parenting-related ACEs and extends the current evidence with preliminary quantitative findings. Heterogeneous definition and measurement of engagement and insufficient engagement outcome data were caveats to this synthesis. Future research could use integrated definitions and measures of engagement to support robust systematic evaluations of engagement in this context.

Trial Registration: PROSPERO CRD42020209819; https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/prospero/display_record.php?RecordID=209819

Introduction

Parenting programs to prevent or reduce depression and anxiety disorders in young people.

Depression and anxiety disorders are major sources of the global disease burden in children and young people [ 1 , 2 ]. Parenting factors are known to influence the risk of developing these disorders in children and adolescents (ie, offspring aged 0-18 years, henceforth referred to as “young people”) [ 3 , 4 ]. Unlike other known systemic or biological factors (eg, poverty or family history of psychopathology), parenting factors are within a parent’s capacity to intervene. Parenting programs capitalize on the central role that parents and caregivers play in a young person’s development by improving the parenting skills involved in supporting their young person’s outcomes. There is good evidence to support the efficacy of parenting programs in improving young people’s mental health outcomes [ 5 ] in between-group comparisons over time when compared with a control condition (no treatment) [ 6 ] and when compared with a range of control conditions such as usual care or attention controls [ 7 ]. However, patterns of poor engagement (such as low rates of enrollment and program completion) are common in studies of face-to-face parenting programs, which limit the potential benefits of these programs at the family and population level [ 8 , 9 ]. Common barriers include time constraints, conflicting schedules, perceived stigma, and stress from involvement in parenting programs [ 10 , 11 ].

Parenting Programs for Parents of Young People With Adverse Childhood Experiences

Barriers to engaging in parenting programs are especially prevalent in families who experience adversity, marginalization, and stress owing to socioeconomic pressure [ 12 , 13 ]. Parental stress is associated with maladaptive parenting behaviors (defined as parenting behaviors characterized by high hostility and low warmth [ 14 ], henceforth referred to as “maladaptive parenting”) [ 15 ]. Recent evidence suggests that maladaptive parenting is as predictive of mental disorders and suicidality in young people as more commonly known family-level adverse childhood experiences (ACEs; such as child maltreatment and interparental conflict) [ 16 ]. Therefore, there is a clear potential for parenting programs to intervene with these family-level ACEs and to reduce or prevent the risk of mental disorders in young people. Further, benefits from engaging with such programs may potentially buffer against the stress experienced because of other systemic ACEs. However, a better understanding of strategies to enhance engagement with programs targeting family-level ACEs is needed, given that target families are likely to experience greater barriers to engagement.

Technology-Assisted Parenting Programs

Technology has the potential to minimize or overcome common barriers associated with engaging in face-to-face parenting programs. For example, technology can offer a user flexibility and choice regarding how and when they access a parenting program, as well as increased privacy. Functions such as automated reminders and content tailoring may also enhance the relevance and relationship between the program and its user [ 17 ]. The delivery and reach of existing services for parents can also be enhanced with technology, as it can carry out progress monitoring and content updates in a time-efficient manner and with fewer human resources. The potential benefits of technology-assisted parenting programs have therefore been widely explored over the past 2 decades [ 18 ], especially in recent years owing to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on families’ ability to access face-to-face services [ 19 ]. There is a growing body of evidence supporting the efficacy of technology-assisted parenting programs in improving parenting outcomes (including maladaptive parenting), reducing their young person’s internalizing problems [ 20 , 21 ] and externalizing problems [ 22 - 24 ], and promoting their physical and mental health [ 25 ]. Importantly, the efficacy of these programs has also been found for parenting outcomes and child problem behaviors for families experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage [ 26 ]. However, program effect sizes are often found to be small, warranting further exploration of how these effects might be enhanced.

Parental Engagement in Technology-Assisted Parenting Programs

Engagement in a program is a key mechanism for improving target behavioral outcomes [ 27 ]. In the context of parenting programs, engagement has specifically been conceptualized as 3 discrete behavioral components: initial engagement, measured by both intended and actual enrollment in a program; ongoing engagement, as indicated by measures of attendance or program completion; and quality of engagement, as shown through measures of active participation (such as completing specific program components either within or beyond the program itself) [ 28 ]. It has been suggested that the quality of engagement is most closely related to program outcomes and, hence, is suggested to be a key mechanism for positive parenting change [ 29 ].

Several systematic reviews evaluating the effects of technology-assisted parenting programs on target parents and young people’s outcomes have also explored the use of specific engagement strategies or program features. For instance, Florean et al [ 24 ] found that parenting programs to reduce elevated or diagnosed behavior problems in young people that are delivered via videoconferencing yielded comparable effects on young people’s outcomes with the programs delivered face-to-face. They also found that the effects on both young people and parenting outcomes were comparable between conditions that provided specialized support (ie, understanding and applying program content) and conditions that provided technical support (ie, using and navigating the program) [ 24 ]. Similarly, Spencer et al [ 21 ] found that web-based parenting programs with additional clinical support (ie, access to a specialist or therapist in addition to the program) did not significantly influence the strength of program effects on a range of parenting and young people’s outcomes compared with programs without clinical support. Corralejo and Domenech Rodrigues [ 23 ] noted that although more than half of 31 included studies on behavioral parent training programs included coaching components, no study compared program effects between conditions with and without coaching. Thongseiratch et al [ 30 ] used qualitative comparative analysis to identify specific program components associated with stronger program effects on child behavioral problems. Their analysis revealed that sending reminders to parents was the only effective feature, whereas additional phone calls were associated with weaker program effects. Notably, these reviews did not consider or explore the effect of these features on program engagement outcomes despite endorsing the utility of technology in improving accessibility.

Hansen et al [ 20 ] attempted to explore the relationship between program engagement strategies and engagement outcomes in a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of technology-assisted parenting programs. They found that recruitment and tailoring strategies were linked to higher postintervention study retention rates, but limited and inconsistent reporting of program adherence outcomes across studies precluded drawing conclusions about the effects of such strategies on parents’ engagement with the program itself [ 20 ]. In studies on face-to-face parenting programs, reporting of data on program adherence outcomes has also been limited [ 8 , 27 ] or absent [ 28 ]. As program adherence measures quality of parental engagement with a parenting program, and quality of engagement is a key mechanism for changes in parenting outcomes [ 29 ], greater focus on measuring and evaluating quality of engagement is warranted.

Conceptualizing Engagement in Technology-Assisted Parenting Programs

Studies of engagement with technology-assisted parenting programs are largely undertaken within the behavioral science discipline, hence engagement is typically conceptualized and measured in behavioral terms (eg, use of the program as a whole or per components, known as “dose” or “adherence,” respectively) [ 31 ]. However, the design and delivery of technology-assisted programs is informed by multiple disciplines, meaning that there are often differences in theory that result in highly varied conceptualizations of engagement in the literature [ 32 ]. For example, in the computer science and human-computer interaction disciplines, engagement is conceptualized in both behavioral and subjective terms, with subjective terms referring to experiences that emerge in the momentary interaction with the program [ 31 ]. Thus, conclusions drawn by behavioral science evaluations of engagement with technology-assisted programs may be both deepened and advanced by using behavioral and subjective measures of engagement.

To reduce the fragmentation of research objectives and findings between disciplines, Perski et al [ 31 ] proposed an integrated definition and conceptual framework of engagement, which maps both evidence-based and hypothesized influences of engagement based on available interdisciplinary literature. This comprehensive conceptualization of engagement may advance the behavioral science understanding of enhancing engagement. For instance, evidence on the influences of engagement may assist program developers to consider and design program features that enhance these influences and broaden the range of a program’s engagement strategies. In addition to program features, this framework includes context in its conceptualization of engagement [ 31 ]. Prior research has suggested that a program’s level of prevention (ie, universal, selective, or indicated) is an important contextual factor to consider in enhancing engagement, as the intensity of program involvement at each level (and consequently, the effort typically required of program users at each level) may require different strategies to engage users [ 33 ].

This Systematic Review

Intervening with family-level ACEs represents an important focus in efforts to reduce or prevent the risk of mental disorders among young people. Engagement represents a key mechanism by which programs yield desired improvements in target parenting outcomes [ 29 ], and technology can potentially improve engagement by overcoming common barriers. However, to date, no study has systematically synthesized engagement strategies and outcomes in technology-assisted parenting programs. Further, the behavioral science understanding of engagement strategies and measures that can be used in the design and delivery of technology-assisted programs has likely not been sufficiently conceptualized to account for the full experience of engagement [ 31 ]. The primary aim of this review is to address this knowledge gap by (1) describing the range of engagement strategies reported in the design and delivery phases of technology-assisted parenting programs targeting an ACE, (2) exploring any patterns in the use of engagement strategies based on the program’s level of prevention, and (3) describing the range of behavioral and subjective engagement measures used in studies of technology-assisted parenting programs targeting a family-level ACE. The secondary aim of this review is to synthesize, where possible, the effects of specific engagement strategies on engagement outcomes and the associated target ACE outcomes.

The search strategy, inclusion criteria, primary and secondary outcomes, and proposed data synthesis methods were prespecified, registered, and published on the PROSPERO database (CRD42020209819).

Information Sources

Following consultation with academic librarians within the School of Psychological Sciences and Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University, the following 8 electronic bibliographic databases were searched: CENTRAL, CINAHL, Embase, OVID MEDLINE, OVID PsycINFO, Scopus, ACM, and IEEE Xplore.

An effective combination of search terms was designed by the first author (GA) according to the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) statement [ 34 ] and in consultation with an academic librarian. The terms were identified based on relevant prior research and keyword search. Syntax was specific to each database. Keywords and terms used in IT databases were less specific than those used in health databases to maximize the yield of potentially eligible studies. Search terms for all databases included multiple terms for target ACE concepts (maladaptive parenting, child maltreatment, and interparental conflict), parents, interventions and programs, and technology ( Multimedia Appendix 1 provides a full list).

Search Strategy

The first search was conducted on November 26, 2020. No language or date filter was applied to ensure that a diverse range of studies was retrieved. Abstracts from studies published in languages other than English were entered into Google Translate during screening to ascertain whether they were eligible for a full-text review. No such studies were eligible, hence further translational resources were not required. Although no date filter was applied during the search, a recency criterion was later applied following consultation with other authors and academics, leading to the exclusion of studies published before 2010. This decision was made given that technology-assisted interventions are more susceptible to changes over time owing to rapid advances in technology, hence research regarding these interventions’ engagement capacity may be quickly outdated. This approach is consistent with the decisions made in previous reviews [ 26 , 35 ]. Reference lists of relevant systematic reviews identified in the search were manually searched to identify additional studies that were either overlooked or missed in the initial electronic database search. A gray literature search was also conducted to fully exploit available data, defined as targeted website browsing of relevant authorities and organizations and search engine searching ( Multimedia Appendix 1 provides documented results). The flow of studies identified, screened, and excluded based on recency criterion can be found in the PRISMA diagram ( Figure 1 ).

research on web design

Following the initial search, it was decided among the review team to exclude 2 target ACEs (parental physical and mental illness and bullying) on the basis that they are not specifically parenting behaviors and hence less within a parent’s capacity to modify. Thus, the studies returned from these 2 searches did not undergo further screening following retrieval. The PROSPERO record was updated to reflect this decision, along with the decision to apply a recency criterion and an elaboration on the proposed data synthesis methods. To ensure that the latest data were included in the review, an updated database search was conducted by the first author (GA) on November 30, 2021, to include studies published between December 2020 and November 2021. The reference lists of relevant systematic reviews identified in this search were manually searched to identify any additional studies that had been missed in the electronic database search.

Eligibility Criteria

Studies were included in the review if the study met the following criteria: (1) published in a peer-reviewed journal or publication (except for gray literature); (2) reported on a delivered intervention targeting ≥1 of the 3 predefined, modifiable ACEs (maladaptive parenting, child maltreatment, or interparental conflict); (3) >50% of the intervention was directed at parents or caregivers of young people aged 0-18 years; (4) >50% of the intervention was delivered through technology-assisted methods or platforms; (5) described at least 1 strategy used to engage parents in the design or the delivery of the intervention; and (6) published during or after 2010. It is understandably typical for interventions targeting ACEs to self-describe from a strengths-based perspective, hence the study’s background and intervention outcome measures were checked to verify whether the intervention was intended to target ACEs if otherwise unclear. Included studies that met the following additional criteria were included for answering this review’s secondary aim: (1) a comparison group whose engagement was measured and compared with the experimental group (eg, treatment as usual, active control, attention control) and (2) between-group statistical analyses were conducted, with statistical significance reported. The peer-review criterion was also required for any gray literature that was otherwise eligible for inclusion in answering the secondary aim. Multimedia Appendix 2 provides further detail with regard to the inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Selection Process

Following the removal of duplicate references (using both human and automated tools via Covidence v2815 systematic review software), 2 authors (GA and CN) independently double screened the titles and abstracts of studies that were identified through the first search. One author (GA) screened the titles and abstracts identified through the second database search.

Data Collection Process

Full-text articles of potentially eligible studies identified through both searches were assessed independently by 3 authors (GA, AT, and CN), with each study assessed by 2 authors. Each author worked blinded and independently until all studies were assessed, both at the level of title and abstract and full-text screening. Discrepancies in eligibility assessment were resolved through discussion with MY. All reasons for exclusion are documented in the PRISMA diagram ( Figure 1 ).

Extraction of key study characteristics and outcomes was completed using a standardized form on Excel (Microsoft Corporation), which was prepiloted on 10 studies (ranging in study design) by the first author (GA). All extractions were independently completed by 2 of 3 researchers (GA, AT, and CN), with the first author (GA) extracting from all studies.

Data Items: Study Characteristics and Coding of Predictors and Outcomes

The extracted study characteristics included the country of sample population; sample size; demographics (age, sex, and socioeconomic position) of the target parent or caregiver and young person; mode and function of technology-assisted intervention components; level of intervention (eg, universal, selective, or indicated prevention); intervention design frameworks; proportion and intended duration of technology-assisted component; and type of ACE outcome targeted (ie, maladaptive parenting, child maltreatment, or interparental conflict).

The extracted predictors included reported engagement strategies or program features designed to engage parents, strategies, or features not specifically reported but identified according to definitions from prior research [ 17 , 31 ]. Engagement strategies (predictors) were primarily identified as attributes of a technology-assisted parenting program that prior research has identified as having an evidence-based or hypothesized influence on engagement with the program [ 17 , 31 , 36 ]. An overview of these attributes and definitions is provided in Table 1 .

a Strategy subtypes are italicized.

b Defined by authors.

Engagement outcomes were identified as measures of engagement. Measures were categorized by the component of engagement and defined with reference to prior research [ 28 , 31 , 37 ]. Components were also defined with reference to prior research both from the parenting intervention literature that describes behavioral components ( initial, ongoing, and quality ) [ 28 ] and the technology-assisted intervention literature that describes experiential components ( qualitative ) [ 31 , 37 ]. An overview of the engagement outcome measure categories and definitions, organized by components of engagement, is provided in Table 2 .

Additional outcomes for studies included in the secondary analysis included between-group statistical analyses and associated P values for engagement outcomes and target ACE outcomes.

a Measure category subtypes are italicized.

Methodological Quality Assessment and Appraisal

The included studies were found to use qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods for reporting on and evaluating interventions. Therefore, the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT; version 2018; [ 38 ]) was used to analyze the methodological quality of the included studies. The MMAT includes 2 screening items to check whether a study reports on empirical data, and 5 subsequent items (which differ depending on the category of empirical study design selected) to assess the methodological quality of empirical studies. The MMAT’s 2-item screener and 5-item quality criteria were included in the prepiloted extraction template. Each included study that met the 2-item screener was then rated according to the 5-item MMAT scoring criteria ( Multimedia Appendix 2 provides the methodological quality assessment decision rules). As recommended by the MMAT, the spread of ratings was interpreted per criterion to better summarize the quality of the included studies (rather than an overall score per criterion). If an included study did not meet the 2-item screener criteria, its quality could not be assessed. However, it was still included in the narrative synthesis for answering this review’s primary aim but was excluded from the quantitative synthesis for answering this review’s secondary aim. Risk of bias was independently assessed by 2 researchers, with the first author (GA) assessing all studies, and 2 researchers (AT and CN) assessing alternating studies. Discrepancies in ratings were resolved through discussion between researchers.

Data Synthesis Methods

Primary outcome.

A narrative synthesis [ 39 ] was used to address the primary aim of describing the range of engagement strategies and measures used in technology-assisted parenting interventions that target ACEs and exploring any patterns to the use of engagement strategies based on the program’s level of prevention. The total number of observations of a given strategy and measure was reported along with the proportion of included studies that used a given strategy or measure.

Secondary Outcome

Heterogeneity in intervention features, settings, populations, and statistical tests did not allow a meta-analysis of effect sizes to be conducted. When studies examine a common variable, but results are represented by a variety of effect magnitude measures, combined significance tests are indicated [ 40 ]. The Stouffer method of combining P values [ 41 ] was used to synthesize results from studies eligible for the secondary outcome analysis. Where there were ≥2 independent observations of the association between the same engagement strategy and engagement outcome category in the included studies, the Stouffer method was applied to test the combined significance of this association. (all subcategories for each engagement strategy were included in pairs, as all subcategories fall under the same definition). Stouffer z was also applied to test the combined significance of associations between engagement outcomes and target ACE outcomes, where ≥2 independent observations of this association were identified. Stouffer z was calculated by dividing the sum of the z ( p i ) values by the square root of k , where k is the number of associations per pairing of the engagement strategy and outcome. If the resulting P value corresponded to a probability level <.01, the null hypothesis of no effect was rejected.

Before analysis, the engagement outcomes were coded into discrete types and measures for consistency ( Table 2 ). Raw P values were converted to 1-tailed values before analysis to test the directional hypothesis that engagement strategies significantly increase engagement. Direction of effect was assumed toward the experimental group, given the rationale provided in all studies for testing engagement strategies, based on theory or evidence that they might have an effect.

Study Selection

Figure 1 provides the flow of the systematic search process. A total of 13,973 records were identified by searching electronic databases, which were reduced to 6377 records after removal of duplicates and the postsearch decision to exclude studies published before 2010. Of the 6377 records whose titles and abstracts were screened, 290 (4.55%) full texts were assessed for eligibility and 147 (2.3%) were excluded ( Figure 1 provides the reasons for exclusion). Manual searching of the reference lists of both relevant systematic reviews identified in the database search and included studies revealed 8 additional records that met the study criteria. A gray literature search was conducted ( Multimedia Appendix 1 provides the search strategy and results); 415 records were identified, 33 records were retrieved and screened, and 10 full-text records were assessed for eligibility. Five reports were excluded ( Figure 1 ), leaving 5 additional reports that met the study criteria. A total of 156 records were included in the review, comprising 127 separate studies ( Multimedia Appendix 3 indicates which records were merged). The included studies are summarized in the Characteristics of Included Studies section using narrative synthesis methods for the primary outcome and Stouffer P analysis for the secondary outcome. Multimedia Appendix 4 details each study’s characteristics, engagement strategies, and measures used.

Characteristics of the Included Studies

Study designs.

Most of the included studies were RCTs (77/127, 60.6%), followed by nonrandomized studies that estimated the effectiveness of the program (31/127, 24.4%). Other included studies had a descriptive design (5/127, 3.9%), mixed methods design (6/127, 4.7%), and qualitative design (3/127, 2.4%).

Participants

Studies were conducted across 16 different countries, although most were conducted in the United States (69/127, 54.3%), followed by Australia (33/127, 26%). Programs most often catered to parents of young people with a mean age between 5 and 12 years (31/127, 24.4%), although many studies (51/127, 40.2%) did not report the age of parent or caregiver’s young person. Mothers or female caregivers represented most (ie, >80%) of the sample in just more than half (69/127, 50.4%) of the included studies, whereas fathers or male caregivers comprised most of the sample in far fewer studies (8/127, 5.5%). A very small percentage of the studies reported an even spread of male and female caregivers (6/127, 4.7%). Just more than one-third (42/127, 33.1%) of the samples in the identified studies were reported as taking place in the context of socioeconomic difficulty or vulnerability, and approximately half (61/127, 48%) did not specifically report or state participants’ socioeconomic position (where possible, participant characteristics were extracted only for study participants with access to the technology-assisted intervention).

Most programs (97/127, 76.4%) did not report a design framework by which the program was designed or developed, although a small number reported user-centered design approaches (9/127, 7.1%). The most common ACE targeted by the programs was maladaptive parenting behaviors (98/127, 77.2%), followed by interparental conflict (19/127, 15%), and child maltreatment (10/127, 7.9%). A small percentage of the studies (6/127, 4.7%) reported targeting more than one of the target ACEs. Programs were almost equal either at the selective (48/127, 37.8%) or indicated (47/127, 37%) level of prevention, with universal programs being less common (32/127, 35.2%). The programs were primarily delivered in the participants’ home (84/127, 66.1%), and approximately a quarter of the programs were delivered at home through a health (20/127, 15.8%) or community service (11/127, 8.7%). One-fifth (26/127, 20.5%) of the programs involved the young person of the participating parent or caregiver. The programs’ technology most commonly functioned to facilitate self-directed (ie, asynchronous) learning (67/127, 52.8%), with one-third (39/127, 30.7%) of the programs combining remote clinician contact with self-directed learning (ie, synchronous). A few programs included technologies that functioned to enhance existing services (5/127, 3.9%). Most programs comprised one (54/127, 42.5%) or two (42/127, 33.1%) modes of technology in the delivery of the program, with web-based modules being the most common mode (76/127, 59.8%). Videos, videoconferencing, emails, telephone calls, and text or application messaging were also commonly used. Table 3 provides a detailed breakdown of the participants and program characteristics of the included studies.

a N/A: not applicable.

b ACE: adverse childhood experience.

Quality Assessment of Included Studies

All studies were assessed for quality according to the MMAT, except for 4 studies [ 42 - 45 ] that did not meet the MMAT screening criteria. As results from the MMAT are best understood via ratings of each study design’s criterion rather than calculating an overall score per study [ 38 ], a brief summary of the key results is provided ( Multimedia Appendix 5 provides a full summary of results and results from each included study). All the criteria were met in 10% (8/77) of the included RCTs. The most commonly unmet criteria for RCT studies were insufficient outcome data (28/77, 36% of RCT studies) and insufficient adherence to assigned interventions (24/77, 31% of RCT studies). All criteria were met in 19% (6/31 of the included quantitative nonrandomized studies, with complete outcome data again being the most commonly unmet criterion, although interventions were more commonly administered as planned compared with quantitative RCT studies. Quantitative descriptive studies mostly included appropriate sampling strategies and statistical analyses for the research question, although criteria regarding sample representativeness and the risk of nonresponse bias were commonly unmet. Mixed methods studies overall adhered to the quality criteria for each method involved, but criteria regarding integration between each method’s results and divergences or inconsistencies were less commonly met. All qualitative studies met all the criteria.

Engagement Strategies Used in the Design and Delivery of Programs in the Included Studies

Strategies used to influence engagement during the program’s design phase of the intervention cycle were reported in 43 studies [ 42 - 44 , 46 - 85 ]. The total number of strategies used per study ranged from 1 to 6 (mean 2.0). End user consultation was the most commonly used strategy (26/43, 60%), followed by user testing, stakeholder consultation, and expert consultation. Multimedia Appendix 6 provides a detailed overview of the types of strategies identified in the design phase, number of observations of each strategy, and number of studies reporting the use of each strategy (definitions for “Type of strategy” are provided in Table 1 ).

Strategies and program features designed to influence engagement during the delivery phase of the intervention cycle were reported in 123 studies [ 42 , 45 - 76 , 78 - 167 ]. The total number of strategies used per study ranged from 1 to 16 (mean 6.2). Interactive program features were the most commonly used strategy (85/123, 73%), followed by videos or animations providing guidance, user control features, professional support features, and behavior change techniques. Multimedia Appendix 6 provides a detailed overview of the types of strategies identified in the delivery phase, the total observations of each strategy, and the total studies reporting the use of each strategy (definitions for “Type of strategy” are provided in Table 1 ).

Overview of Measures Used in the Included Studies

Engagement was measured in 111 of the included studies [ 42 , 46 , 48 - 55 , 57 - 60 , 62 - 76 , 78 - 98 , 100 - 115 , 117 , 118 , 121 - 125 , 127 - 146 , 148 - 159 , 162 - 167 ]. The most common component of behavioral engagement measured was initial engagement (83/111, 74.8%), followed by ongoing engagement (78/111, 70.3%) and quality of engagement (42/111, 37.8%). Moreover, 70.3% (78/111) of the studies used qualitative measures of engagement, which was comparable with the number of studies that used behavioral measures of ongoing engagement. Enrollment and recruitment rates were the most commonly reported measures of initial engagement, with a small number reporting expressions of interest. The most commonly used measure of ongoing engagement was session or module completion rates, followed by study retention, attrition, or dropout rates. The most used measure of quality of engagement was use of specific program components, followed by completion and time spent on specific program components. Satisfaction ratings or questionnaires were the most used measures of qualitative engagement, followed by feedback measures. Multimedia Appendix 6 provides a detailed overview of measures used in the included studies (definitions for “Component of engagement, Measure” are provided in Table 2 ).

Engagement outcomes between groups were statistically compared in 22 studies, in which 1 group received unique engagement strategies. Most studies in this subgroup were RCTs (15/22, 68%) that evaluated a program targeting maladaptive parenting (19/22, 86%) at the indicated level (10/22, 45%), involving parents only (15/22, 68%) in a home setting (14/22, 63%). The mean number of engagement strategies used was highest at the selective level of prevention (mean 10), followed by the indicated level (mean 7), and universal level (mean 7). No study evaluated measures related to initial or quality components of engagement, hence the following synthesis explores the effects of engagement strategies on the ongoing and qualitative components of engagement. Multimedia Appendix 4 details each study’s between-group engagement outcomes. Of these studies, 18 (82%) reported program engagement outcomes with P value data and were therefore appropriate for the analysis [ 49 , 73 , 75 , 86 , 87 , 94 , 97 , 98 , 100 - 102 , 122 , 124 , 125 , 142 , 149 , 152 ].

Stouffer P analyses indicated that ongoing and qualitative engagement outcomes were positively and reliably associated with both user and stakeholder involvement (consultation and testing) in the program’s design, web-based formats (compared with face-to-face equivalents), provision of practical support to use the technology, personalization or tailoring program features, control features, and use of engagement strategies during the program’s design phase. Interactive program features were also reliably associated with ongoing outcomes of engagement, but not with qualitative outcomes of engagement. Clinical professional support features, videos, behavior change techniques, and reminders were not reliably associated with ongoing and qualitative outcomes of engagement. Table 4 provides a complete overview of the results.

Only 2 studies included in this subgroup statistically analyzed the relationships between engagement outcomes in the experimental group and target ACE outcomes [ 87 , 149 ]. Stouffer P analysis indicated that session completion (ongoing engagement) was positively and reliably associated with improvements in maladaptive parenting behaviors ( P <.01). One study analyzed the relationship between parent-rated therapeutic alliance (qualitative engagement) and changes in child outcomes, but no significant association was found [ 142 ].

Among the 22 studies eligible for inclusion in the secondary analysis, 3 (14%) studies [ 49 , 87 , 102 ] reported significant positive effects of the experimental group (where unique engagement strategies were used) on changes in maladaptive parenting compared with control groups where such engagement strategies were not used. Moreover, 3 (14%) studies [ 73 , 94 , 149 ] reported nonsignificant group effects on maladaptive parenting and 5 (23%) studies reported no difference between groups on changes in maladaptive parenting [ 72 , 84 , 105 , 124 ] and interparental conflict [ 159 ]. One study found a significant negative effect of the experimental group (where unique engagement strategies were used) on changes in interparental conflict compared with a control group where strategies were not used [ 152 ]. Another study identified a negative effect of both experimental and control groups on interparental conflict, although this reduction was significantly lower for the experimental group than in the control group [ 124 ]. Five studies assessed engagement outcomes only and did not include a measure to assess changes in target ACE outcomes in the parenting domain [ 66 , 75 , 100 , 101 , 122 ] or included a measure that was not aligned with this study’s definition of ACEs [ 97 ]. Multimedia Appendix 4 details each study’s program effects on ACE outcomes.

a Indicates significance ( P <.01).

b N/A: not applicable.

Principal Findings

This review aimed to systematically describe the range of engagement strategies and measures used in the design and delivery of technology-assisted parenting programs targeting ACEs related to modifiable parental behavior. A secondary aim of this review was to synthesize the findings from studies that examined the effects of using specific engagement strategies on engagement outcomes and explore any patterns in the associations between engagement outcomes and ACE outcomes. The following discussion synthesizes the primary and secondary outcome findings for the most commonly identified engagement strategies and other strategies included in the secondary outcome analysis. The available data did not permit the synthesis of engagement strategies and the initial and quality of engagement outcomes in the secondary outcome analysis, hence this discussion explores patterns of associations between engagement strategies and ongoing and qualitative engagement outcomes.

Summary of Evidence

Use of engagement strategies in technology-assisted programs targeting parent-behavior aces, design strategies.

Just more than one-third of the studies reported using a strategy in the program’s design phase to enhance engagement during the program’s delivery. This finding is comparable with the results from the systematic review of technology-assisted parenting programs by Hansen et al [ 20 ], which found that just more than one-third of the RCTs reported strategies to enhance engagement during the program’s design phase. In addition, this review found that approximately 1-2 strategies were used on average per study, with program user consultation and testing being among the most commonly reported strategies. Programs that involved users and stakeholders in their design were more likely to better engage users in their ongoing use and subjective experience of the program, respectively, compared with programs developed without these strategies. This finding supports the central claim of user-centered design approaches in that incorporating users’ unique experiences and knowledge into the design of a program is likely to increase acceptability and relevance to other parents during the program’s delivery [ 168 ].

Delivery Strategies

This review found that the use of program-specific engagement strategies or engaging program features reported in the delivery of a program was significantly more common than the use of design strategies, with studies using approximately 7 strategies on average. Although previous reviews exploring the use of engagement strategies in technology-assisted programs for parenting [ 20 ] and mental health [ 169 ] did not report the number of strategies used per study, it appears that the average number of strategies identified in this review was higher than the number of strategies identified in previous reviews. The review by Hansen et al [ 20 ] defined engagement strategies a posteriori, whereas the review by Saleem et al [ 169 ] defined engagement strategies a priori using the same conceptual framework as this study. This review used a conceptual framework to identify engagement strategies a priori as well as to identify and categorize additional strategies a posteriori. This approach allowed identification of strategies reported by the study’s authors and strategies that were not reported but were consistent with the conceptual framework, which may explain the higher number of strategies identified in the studies included in this review.

Interactivity was the most commonly used strategy, often in the form of challenges posed by the program to the user such as multiple-choice quizzes, check-in questions, or problem-solving exercises. Programs with interactive features were more likely to better engage users in their ongoing use (indicated by greater attendance, lower treatment dropout, greater module log-ins, and completion) compared with programs without these features. However, users’ subjective experience of programs with these features was not significantly different from the experience of users in a program without these features. Perski et al [ 31 ] identified interactivity as primarily having a hypothesized influence on engagement. Findings from this review provide preliminary support for the reliability of the influence that interactivity has on a user’s ongoing engagement in a technology-assisted parenting program.

Guidance provided by videos in the form of roleplays or vignettes was often used for demonstrating or modeling skills to users. Videos were not, however, more likely to better engage users in their ongoing use or subjective experience of a program compared with programs without videos. Interestingly, a reliable positive association between ongoing program engagement and target ACE outcomes (maladaptive parenting) was found in 2 programs [ 87 , 150 ] that included guidance provided by videos. According to social cognitive theories, demonstration and modeling are the key mechanisms by which learning occurs [ 170 ]. Therefore, it is likely that video guidance might be more relevant to measures of the quality of engagement (ie, what parents specifically invest in and receive from the program), which in turn may form a key mechanism for change [ 28 , 29 ]. No study with video guidance measured parents’ quality of engagement, hence this hypothesis could not be explored.

Control features frequently referred to features that allowed the parent to choose how they engage with the program, such as self-selection of modules or topics, and the ability to self-pace (which often took the form of delivering the content “all-at-once” or in a way that permitted end users to review content). Control features such as self-pacing and ability to review content were found overall to better engage users in their ongoing use of a program compared with programs without these features. However, this finding should be interpreted with caution as there were only 2 studies included in this analysis, one of which reported that users of a program with control features were less likely to engage compared with users of a program without such features [ 124 ]. Control features were also more likely to improve users’ subjective experience of a program. This finding is consistent with recent research with parents from a low socioeconomic background, which suggests that convenience and flexibility were key preferences for engaging with technology-assisted programs [ 171 , 172 ]. These results suggest that greater freedom in choosing how to engage with the program may enhance parents’ perceived benefit and satisfaction.

Professional support features were most frequently clinical in nature, such as coaching or therapist support, or professional facilitation of other clinical interventions (eg, groups or forums). The presence of professional support features was not found to better engage users with a program compared with programs without the presence of a professional. This finding does not support findings from similar reviews on digital health or mental health programs for adults [ 31 , 169 ], both of which found that professional support features or coaching had positive influences on ongoing measures of engagement (eg, number of log-ins and time spent on the internet). One key difference between these reviews and the current review is that programs in the current review targeted parents, however parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds have previously identified professional support features as a potentially engaging feature for technology-assisted programs [ 171 ]. Interestingly, one study in this analysis that reported a positive link between professional support and engagement also involved user consultation as a design strategy. It is possible that consulting parents about the type of professional support they would like to receive may positively influence ongoing engagement. Further, data from the included studies in this review did not permit the assessment of professional support features’ effects on the quality of parents’ engagement (such as adherence) or their qualitative engagement (such as therapeutic alliance), hence it remains to be seen whether professional support features may influence parents’ engagement in other ways. Closer inspection of the studies included in this review revealed that parents who used a program with professional support features were not more likely to improve target ACE outcomes compared with parents who did not receive professional support features ( Multimedia Appendix 4 ). This finding is consistent with previous reviews of technology-assisted parenting programs, which indicated that additional support did not make programs more effective in changing young people and parent outcomes than those without such support [ 21 , 24 , 30 ]. Spencer et al [ 21 ] argued that this suggests programs both with and without professional support may be beneficial, whereas Florean et al [ 24 ] argued that given prior research has highlighted the importance of professional support, and the number of studies in their meta-analysis was small, the lack of effect they identified should be interpreted with caution. Overall, further research is required to clarify whether professional support features can enhance both engagement with technology-assisted parenting programs and parenting outcomes. This may be achieved by designing professional support features that suit parents’ contexts based on parent user consultation and measuring the effects of professional support features on the quality of parents’ engagement or their qualitative engagement. These measures are more closely related both to what parents specifically invest in and receive from a program and to their experience of receiving professional support, respectively.

Behavior change techniques most frequently took the form of feedback (eg, as a tailored report or in response to interactive challenges) and goal setting. Including behavior change techniques in programs was not found to better engage users in their ongoing use and subjective experience of a program. However, the effects of behavior change techniques may be more relevant to target ACE outcomes than engagement outcomes, given that they are specifically designed to promote change in target parenting behavior. Inspection of the studies included in this analysis (n=3) found that all programs with behavior change techniques were more likely to improve target ACE outcomes compared with programs without behavior change techniques [ 47 , 122 , 147 ].

Delivery mode being web based, compared with a face-to-face mode of delivery of the same program, was more likely to engage parents in their ongoing use and subjective experience of a program. Up to 10 studies were included in this analysis, which enhanced the robustness of this finding. This suggests that technology-assisted programs’ ability to overcome a range of barriers for attending and completing sessions (ongoing engagement) is likely to enhance parents’ perceived acceptability and satisfaction (qualitative engagement) with the program. Although half of the studies included in this analysis did not measure ACE outcomes, the studies that did generally find no differences between web-based programs compared with programs delivered face-to-face. To our knowledge, this is the first review to directly compare both engagement and ACE outcomes between web-based programs versus programs delivered face-to-face. Our findings suggest that web-based programs were as effective as face-to-face programs in improving ACE outcomes related to modifiable parenting behavior; however, engaging in a web-based program may have been a more positive experience than attending face-to-face.

Personalization or tailoring strategies often included content recommendations based on user data, or artifacts that permitted the user to personalize their experience (eg, scrapbooks or journals). The review found that these strategies were more likely to better engage parents, consistent with prior research [ 31 , 169 ], providing further support for personalizing or tailoring parenting programs. Although practical support for using the technology-assisted components appears to have generally been included for research purposes, this review found that programs involving practical support were more likely to engage parents, indicating that this may be an important strategy to enhance continued engagement with a parenting program. For example, one low-cost strategy to provide practical support was to provide instructions, user manuals, or orientation sessions on using the technology.

Finally, this review found that the use of reminders was not more likely to engage with parents’ ongoing use or subjective experience of a program. Previous reviews have found mixed support for the use of reminders in engaging users [ 173 , 174 ]. This review found that control features and personalization or tailoring were more likely to improve engagement, hence offering parents control over how they receive reminders and personalizing or tailoring reminders may increase their relevance and enhance engagement.

Use of Engagement Strategies Across Levels of Prevention

Programs at the level of selective prevention were found to use a higher number of engagement strategies, whereas the use of engagement strategies was roughly equal between programs at the level of indicated and universal prevention. Prevention strategies are most effective when they account for variation in families’ needs, as well as families and services’ available resources and capacities [ 33 ]. Given programs at the indicated prevention level are more intensive, they may require more intense effort and greater use of strategies to promote parental engagement. All programs at the indicated level included professional support features, whereas professional support features were much less frequently included for programs at the selective level and not at all for programs at the universal level. This association may be because fewer strategies were needed to deliver programs at the indicated level owing to the presence of a clinician facilitating and supporting engagement, whereas programs delivered at the selective level made use of other features to facilitate and support parents whose young people are identified as “at risk” in self-directed learning and engagement. On the basis of the findings from this review, parents’ ongoing engagement with self-directed learning programs aimed at selective or universal prevention may be enhanced by using personalization or tailoring strategies, control features, and interactivity.

This review found that most studies in this review reported measuring initial engagement in a program, which was likely because most studies were RCTs where reporting on measures of initial engagement or recruitment rates is required [ 175 ]. Technology-specific engagement measures, such as frequency of use, time or duration spent in the technology-assisted component, and interaction with components (eg, modules viewed and links clicked), were relatively low. However, studies including such measures tended to include >1 measure, which may in fact provide greater insight into engagement compared with focusing on one measure or domain [ 37 ]. Qualitative measures of engagement were most often in the form of satisfaction and feedback measures, which are efficient methods for understanding the perceived acceptability and usefulness of programs, evaluating the program’s acceptability and usefulness from a user perspective, and informing continued program development and refinement [ 37 ]. A very small number of studies (n=16) used measures to explore parents’ subjective experience, such as semistructured interviews, focus groups or “think aloud” techniques. Although such measures may require greater time resources, they are likely to support users to reflect on how the program affected changes in target domains. Such data may assist researchers and program developers to better understand the features or components that are specifically related to behavior change. The number of studies that measured the quality of engagement was approximately half the number of studies that measured other domains of engagement. Given that the quality of parents’ engagement is suggested to be a key mechanism for positive parenting change [ 76 ], more frequent evaluation of engagement quality is required to extend our understanding of engagement and associated change in target outcomes in technology-assisted programs.

Strengths and Limitations of This Review

To our knowledge, this is the first systematic review of technology-assisted parenting programs to comprehensively assess and describe the use of engagement strategies and measurement of engagement outcomes. Unlike previous reviews, which have identified specific strategies to assess a priori, this review did not place any restrictions on the type of program engagement strategy or outcome, and furthermore, used a highly inclusive approach to study selection. This permitted identification of a broad range of technology-assisted parenting programs, and subsequently a broad range of strategies and measures were identified for synthesis. Findings from this review were also reported using an existing conceptual framework, as use of a shared terminology can support both advancements in understanding and integration of knowledge across disciplines. Although a meta-analysis was not possible in this review, the range of strategies and outcomes identified through an inclusive approach meant that it was possible to perform a quantitative synthesis of associations between engagement strategies and engagement outcomes. This extends the current evidence, which to date has been narratively synthesized [ 20 ]. Overall, the methodology in this review permitted a comprehensive description and preliminary quantitative assessment of engagement strategies used in technology-assisted parenting programs. This in turn is a step toward responding to calls in the wider digital health literature for assessment of all available engagement strategies to generate more robust evidence, as well as contributing to a reduction in conceptual and empirical fragmentation in digital health research [ 31 , 32 ].

Several limitations of the current review should be noted. First, although the use of existing conceptual frameworks [ 28 , 31 , 37 ] supported consistent definitions of identified engagement strategies and measures, some strategies and measures required new definitions based on available information from included studies. Such information was not consistently clear or adequate, hence these definitions and results associated with these strategies and measures should be interpreted with this caveat in mind. Second, available data for associations between engagement strategies and engagement outcomes were heterogeneous both in program delivery and statistical analysis. This precluded meta-analysis to estimate effect sizes, so the Stouffer P method was used to estimate the reliability of these associations. This method is argued to be limited by its inability to weigh studies according to their sample size, although some authors argue that P values are already weighted, as the P value itself depends on the sample size for which it is calculated [ 176 ]. However, available data for associations between engagement strategies and engagement outcomes were limited. The resulting small sample size of the studies included in the Stouffer P analyses should be considered when interpreting the reliability of these associations. Another critique of P values is that they are less clinically relevant than other measures of statistical inference such as effect sizes and CIs. However, given that engagement is not specifically a clinical outcome, we considered use of P values to demarcate significant change as appropriate in this context. Third, although the quality assessment of the included studies was primarily to provide a summary of the quality of the available literature, the overall quality of the studies included in the quantitative analysis was low. Most notably, just more than half of the RCTs (42/77, 55%) reported sufficient complete outcome data, so reported P values for engagement outcomes may have been biased by completer versus noncompleter characteristics. Fourth, fewer than half (32/77, 42%) of the study participants sufficiently adhered to the assigned program. The cutoff value applied for acceptable adherence to the program in this review was based on findings from a previous review that examined adherence to technology-assisted parenting programs [ 20 ], however this cutoff may be above the norm for technology-assisted parenting programs (see the Recommendations for Future Research section for further elaboration). Finally, samples of parents in the included studies were overwhelmingly mothers or female participants, underscoring the well-recognized need for better representing fathers or male caregivers in technology-assisted parenting program development and evaluation [ 177 ].

Recommendations for Future Research

This review identified a broad range of engagement strategies that future research can draw on in the design and delivery of technology-assisted parenting interventions. The findings from this review also suggest that consulting and testing program components with parents in the design phase of a program may lead to better engagement outcomes. It is recommended that future research meaningfully involves parents in the program’s design to more effectively identify strategies that will be perceived as acceptable and useful in the delivery phase of a program, and hence enhance engagement. Furthermore, the process of engaging, incorporating, and triangulating multiple stakeholder perspectives may uncover assumptions about engagement within the literature and potentially advance the understanding of why technology-assisted parenting programs are frequently undermined by poor engagement.

Heterogeneity in measuring and evaluating engagement has been cited as precluding meta-analysis of engagement outcomes in technology-assisted parenting programs [ 20 ]. This review integrated measurement concepts from the digital intervention and parenting intervention literature to synthesize heterogeneous measures in a conceptually meaningful way, which allowed a preliminary quantitative synthesis. To continue reducing heterogeneity in measuring and evaluating engagement, future studies of technology-assisted parenting programs may consider these integrated measurement concepts in selecting a range of measures, at various stages of engagement, appropriate to a given research question. Future studies should also consider selecting nonbehavioral measures of engagement to complement behavioral measures to sufficiently capture the full experience of engaging in a technology-assisted parenting program.

Of the 87 studies whose research design involved a treatment or experimental group and a comparison group, only 22 (25%) performed statistical comparisons of parents’ engagement outcomes. Low proportions have been reported in other reviews of engagement in digital interventions in the mental health field [ 169 ]. To respond to calls for a better understanding of how technology-assisted parenting programs work, future research should consider using experimental study designs and statistical between-groups comparisons of both intervention and engagement outcomes and report standardized effect sizes to facilitate meta-analysis of engagement outcomes. Such data can extend our knowledge of the effects of specific engagement strategies on engagement outcomes, as well as better understand the associations between engagement and intervention outcomes. Yardley et al [ 32 ] argued that promoting “more engagement” in technology-assisted programs may not always be associated with positive intervention outcomes, as greater demands on a user to engage with an intervention may lead to user burden and fatigue [ 31 ]. Current standards for assessing sufficient engagement on outcomes such as attrition or adherence may therefore be too high. Therefore, this knowledge may also contribute to better understanding of what an optimal dose or “effective engagement” [ 32 ] looks like in technology-assisted parenting programs. Better understanding of sufficient engagement with a program to accomplish desired effects may have implications for how these concepts are evaluated in future studies.

Summary and Conclusions

This review describes and appraises the range of engagement strategies and measures used in the design and delivery of technology-assisted parenting programs targeting ACEs that are within parents’ capacity to modify. Preliminary evidence was found for including involvement of users and stakeholders in the program’s design, personalization or tailoring features, control features, and provision of practical support for enhancing ongoing and qualitative outcomes of engagement. Preliminary evidence was also found for the notion that web-based parenting programs are effective in promoting ongoing engagement, which in turn may enhance overall satisfaction. Engagement strategies that were not found to enhance ongoing or qualitative engagement outcomes (ie, professional support features, videos, and behavior change techniques) may be related to the quality of parents’ engagement in a program. Using a broad range of engagement measures to sufficiently capture parents’ experience of engagement in a technology-assisted parenting program and statistically comparing engagement outcomes between groups receiving different programs to facilitate meta-analysis can advance current knowledge on the potential effects of specific strategies on engagement outcomes. However, such knowledge should serve to complement knowledge about user context when designing technology-assisted parenting programs [ 32 , 168 ]. There is much yet to learn about the relationship between engagement in technology-assisted parenting programs and change in target ACE outcomes, but efforts to better understand this potential mechanism for change hold significant implications for preventing or reducing the impact of ACEs at the family level and associated mental health outcomes of young people.

Acknowledgments

This project is affiliated with The Centre of Research Excellence in Childhood Adversity and Mental Health, a 5-year research program (2019-2023) cofunded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Beyond Blue. GA was funded by the Research Training Program Scholarship (Monash University). GA has also been awarded a top-up scholarship from the NHMRC Centres of Research Excellence Grant APP1153419 titled “Centre of Research Excellence in Childhood Adversity and Associated Depression and Anxiety.” AJ was supported by NHMRC Investigator Grant 1172889.

The first author would like to acknowledge the contribution of specialist librarians Anne Young and Mario Sos from Monash University for their input in developing the search strategy and Dr Sarah Khor for her input in supporting the secondary data analysis of this review.

Authors' Contributions

GA was involved in conceptualization, data curation, formal analysis, investigation, preparation of methodology, project administration, visualization, and writing the original draft. AT and CN were involved in the investigation and writing, reviewing, and editing the manuscript. AR and AJ were involved in writing, reviewing, and editing the manuscript. MBHY was involved in conceptualization, methodology, supervision, and writing, reviewing, and editing the manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

None declared.

Search strategies.

Decision rules.

Additional references merged with main references.

Results of individual studies.

Results of quality assessment.

Primary outcome tables.

PRISMA checklist.

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Abbreviations

Edited by T Leung, G Eysenbach; submitted 01.11.22; peer-reviewed by H Holmen, P Mcgrath; comments to author 05.03.23; revised version received 28.04.23; accepted 30.11.23; published 19.01.24

©Grace Aldridge, Alessandra Tomaselli, Clare Nowell, Andrea Reupert, Anthony Jorm, Marie Bee Hui Yap. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (https://www.jmir.org), 19.01.2024.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on https://www.jmir.org/, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

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The Sun Is Teaching Us How to Make Our Own Nuclear Fusion

Master of fusion, our home star’s sunquakes could reveal vital information for making our own sustainable energy source.

The keys to harnessing fusion power—a clean, almost limitless supply of energy—sit in the heart of the sun. The only way we can access that heart is by listening to the sun’s heartbeat.

To start up a fusion reaction, NIF shines 192 laser beams simultaneously on a frozen pellet of deuterium (a stable isotope of hydrogen whose atoms contain not only one electron and one proton but also a neutron) and tritium (a radioactive form of hydrogen that has one proton and two neutrons). The lasers bring the temperature and pressure of the pellet up to such an incredible degree that those elements fuse into helium. That fusion reaction leaves a little bit of energy left over, which we can potentially use to power our homes, industry, and everything else that we depend on in our modern society. Best of all, the reaction leaves behind no nasty radioactive byproduct, and it’s much easier to control than traditional fission-based nuclear reactors. When you want the fusion to stop, you just pull the plug.

deuterium tritium fuel frozen inside a millimeter sized capsule

But as well-deserved as NIF’s achievements are, they’re a far cry from safe nuclear power running our civilization. While the reaction itself produced a net positive energy difference, that calculation doesn’t include the energy needed to power the lasers themselves. Another big problem is that we currently have no way of harvesting and storing that energy to produce electricity. If we want to make a massive leap in understanding nuclear fusion , there’s only one place to look: the sun.

The Sun Is a Role Model For How to Create Fusion Energy

The sun is a giant fusion factory. Deep in its core, hydrogen reaches temperatures of over 27 million degrees Fahrenheit and pressures so large it hardly makes sense to type the number. But I will anyway—it’s over a trillion psi (imagine the weight of 1,500 Empire State Buildings bearing down on every square inch, if you can). Those conditions slam the hydrogen nuclei together to form helium, at a furious pace. Every second, the sun consumes nearly 700 million tons of hydrogen and turns a small fraction of that into raw energy, enough to keep it shining for billions of years to come .

Fusion is a tricky game. Hydrogen atoms, which are usually made of just a positively-charged proton, really hate getting close to other atoms, and the extreme forces involved to make fusion happen are difficult to fully understand, especially when we’re trying to recreate those conditions safely on the surface of the Earth. But while we would just love to carve up the sun to take a peek on what’s going on in the core, we unfortunately do not the ability to do so (nor the inclination).

.css-1joebg2{font-family:Placard,Placard-roboto,Placard-local,Helvetica,Arial,Sans-serif;font-size:1.625rem;line-height:1.2;margin:0rem;padding:0.9rem 1rem 1rem;}@media(max-width: 48rem){.css-1joebg2{font-size:1.9375rem;line-height:1;}}@media(min-width: 48rem){.css-1joebg2{font-size:2.1875rem;line-height:1;}}@media(min-width: 64rem){.css-1joebg2{font-size:2.1875rem;line-height:1;}}.css-1joebg2 b,.css-1joebg2 strong{font-family:inherit;font-weight:bold;}.css-1joebg2 em,.css-1joebg2 i{font-style:italic;font-family:inherit;} Sunquakes are directly tied to the fusion happening in the core. And they’re the only way that astronomers can get a glimpse below the surface .

Thankfully, the sun itself has offered up a way to peek inside—no mega-engineering projects needed. The sun is a giant ball of plasma, made of superheated hydrogen and helium. Energy from the fusion eventually makes it way to the surface, carried by radiation and convective plumes of plasma. This roiling mass is just like any other ball of stuff in the universe : it’s vibrating.

The sun is constantly jiggling, sloshing, and wobbling, powered by the constant fusion reactions in the core, the release of energy from those reactions, and the struggle of that energy to make its way to the surface. In response, that surface is always in motion, much like the surface of the Earth is always in motion because of earthquakes and plate tectonic action happening all around the globe.

How We Model the Sun

Beginning in the 1960s astronomers started searching for signs of motion on the sun’s surface. Today, it’s an entire branch of astronomy, known as helioseismology , the seismology of the sun. To detect motion on the sun’s surface, astronomers rely on the light coming from that surface. When a patch of the sun happens to be swelling outwards, it will look like that patch is moving in our direction. That forward motion will add energy to the light coming from that patch, causing it to shift to the bluer, high-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Conversely, when a patch is sinking, it will appear to be moving away from us, causing its light to shift to the red, lower-energy end of the spectrum.

These changes are very subtle, and not something you can pick out by eye. But astronomers have combined a globe-spanning network of powerful sun-observing telescopes with sophisticated computer analysis algorithms. They can make round-the-clock observations of the solar surface, to watch sunquakes vibrate across the face of the sun, see regions of the sun shudder from some hidden release of energy, and more.

These sunquakes are directly tied to the fusion happening in the core. And they’re the only way that astronomers can get a glimpse below the surface. To make this work, astronomers take different models of the solar interior, changing how the fusion process unfolds, how energy is transported from the innermost regions outwards, and so on. These different models will give different predictions for the size, strength, and frequency of sunquakes. Then astronomers match the observed sunquakes with the model that best predicts them. Rinse and repeat, with more detailed models and better observations.

Helioseismology has already proven its usefulness in verifying that our models of fusion reaction in the sun’s core are largely correct—despite other observations that had cast those models into doubt. Specifically, the fusion reactions produce a ghostly particle known as a neutrino, and we weren’t observing as many neutrinos as we thought we should. It turns out our understanding of neutrinos was to blame, not our understanding of the sun’s fusion process.

As we expand our capability to monitor and measure sunquakes, we can throw this data at ever more sophisticated models of the sun’s core. In turn, those models depend crucially on our understanding of nuclear physics, especially fusion processes operating at extreme temperatures and pressures.

Applying Our Solar Knowledge to Control Nuclear Reactions on Earth

And how do we apply a better understanding of fusion reaction? Through experiments like the NIF. As an example, our research on the Sun has proved that a tiny particle known as a neutrino is vital to understanding the fusion process, and this insight has guided the NIF design to maximize results. It’s all one big scientific circle of understanding: theoretical insights give us new ideas on how to control and exploit nuclear reactions; we test those ideas through observations of helioseismology; and we take those refined models and use them to develop better technologies of human-controlled fusion. With better technologies in hand, we can gain leverage from our insights for even better theoretical models, and the cycle starts anew.

We likely will not have fusion energy powering our homes in the next decade. It will take a monumental amount of work to figure out the nuts-and-bolts engineering to go from the net-positive fusion that we’ve achieved in advanced laboratories to a fusion power plant generating gigawatts of electricity. But if we’re going to get there, we’re going to need every tool available. If that means staring at the sun and examining its subtle vibrations, then so be it.

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