Let me tell you a little story.

It’s about my first Apple product. It was a 4th generation iPod Nano. I didn’t think much of it the first few times I used it, trying to get the hang of the jog wheel. But over a period of time, my relationship with that little gadget kept getting better.

Soon, I was in love… with its simplicity, functionality, and design. And then one day, I found it in the pocket of my jeans that I just pulled out of the washing machine.

It was heartbreaking, to see a thing of such beauty being damaged like that. I tried drying it in the sun, putting it in a bag of rice (as suggested by a website), and many other things. Nothing worked. It was done. I had bricked it. And I was miserable.

This is the effect that design can have on our lives. It can get us emotionally invested in the brands and products it associates with. This is why there are those insane lines at Apple stores each time a new iPhone is launched. This is also why the most successful publishers online—from Wired to Vice—invest so much time and money in creating a great user experience for users.

But you’re just a blogger, a one-man show, or maybe even a small team—there’s no way you can outspend or outwork the big league guys, right?

Here’s the good news: You don’t have to.

You don’t need a $200,000 marquee design makeover to leave an impression on your readers. But at the same time, you can’t afford to piss them off either. So how do you find a solid middle ground? Well, there’s help at hand. Many academic and independent researchers have been toiling over the years to figure what makes users tick and what makes them cringe. And there are some findings that you can easily apply to your own blog to improve user experience. Let’s look at them.

1. Go easy with the never-ending text

Study after study suggests that people hardly, if ever, read text online word-by-word. Instead, they scan pages for the information that they’re looking for.

Okay… so you spend a lot of time creating all that amazing content, almost half of the readers never get to reading the entire content, and then things get worse. Obviously, this is a problem.

Research shows that users are more likely to read an article thoroughly if they are interested in it and if they do it for pleasure. So you have to make it fun for the reader, otherwise they’ll just see it as another chore they need to get done with—crack a joke, share an anecdote, and you’ll be able to better hook your reader.

Other than this, make it easy for them to scan the text and find the information that they came for. You can do this by:

  • Highlighting important keywords
  • Making bulleted lists like this
  • Writing meaningful subheadings
  • Reduce the word count
  • Present one idea per paragraph

Lastly, users hate sales pitches and “marketese” and can spot it from a mile away. So use the kind of language that you would with a friend instead. Try to sound like a product brochure and they’ll bolt faster than a gazelle being chased by a cheetah.

2. Fix your design, improve your credibility

You want to be credible, don’t you? Of course you do. Everyone does. If users perceive you as a credible source of information—they’re more likely to take you seriously and pass your message along. Think of any A-list blogger, from Seth Godin to Leo Babauta, and you’ll notice that more often than not, their blogs are powered by simple, transparent designs.

Let me put this in another way: No one ever became a top blogger using an anonymous account on Blogger.com.

For better or for worse, when it comes to the web, people do judge a book by its cover. Elements such as typography, layout, color, the quality of content, frequency of updates, and trustworthiness of authors all affect how users perceive your blog and what kind of image you project.

So what makes design credible? Is there a set of guidelines that you can follow? Turns out that yes, there are quite a few basic rules. Stanford Persuasion Technology Lab’s web credibility project is dedicated to exploring the subject. Here are some of their recommendations:

  • Provide citation and links to information
  • Highlight your expertise and focus on it
  • Make it easy for users to contact you
  • Update your blog’s content frequently
  • Show users the team behind the blog
  • Choose a professional and easy to use design

For a more detailed list of recommendations and the accompanying research, you may want to check out their full list of guidelines.

3. Test your ad units to increase revenue

For most serious bloggers, making money is one of the primary, if not the only aim of running a blog. And one of the most common ways of monetizing blogs is by running banner ads. But wait, what if I told you that almost no one looks at banner ads anymore? It’s called banner blindness.

Over the years, the click-through rate of banner ads has fallen from a high of 50% (when they first started) to a measly 0.1% in present time. In fact, you are more likely to get accepted into Harvard and Stanford both than click a banner ad!

Since ads are a big part of most blogger’s monetization strategy, this just means that they’re making less money than ever before for the same effort. So this is obviously broken. How can you fix it?

Start testing your ad units for performance. Many factors can have a noticeable effect on click-through rates such as ad size, ad location, and ad design. To increase revenue, you must find the perfect configuration of ad units that returns the highest click-through rates.

There are a couple of ways to do this. If you want to do it manually, pick a few different ad locations for each unit, also called variations, split your traffic between the different variations compare the click-through rates from each of them—then repeat the same to test ad sizes. If you happen to know some programming, you can even write a script to automate some aspects of the testing.

If that sounds like too much work (and it can be), there are tools now that help web publishers fight banner blindness and optimize their online ad revenues using advanced, automated A/B testing without the need for any programming knowledge.

4. Conduct basic user testing to identify key problems

I know what you’re thinking. Does a blog even need usability testing? Isn’t that for things like apps, operating systems, and gadgets?

Well, usability is defined on Wikipedia as the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object. The object of use can be a software application, website, book, tool, machine, process, or anything a human interacts with.

So no matter how good you think your blog is, you still need an outside perspective to avoid any possible blind spots that you may have missed.

A user who gets frustrated navigating the layout of your blog or just otherwise finds it tacky for some reason is less likely to ever return or share along the content (which means trouble).

According to research, elaborate user testing is a waste of time and money. In fact, you would identify 85% of the usability problems just by having 5 users provide their feedback—anything more than that doesn’t justify the cost or effort that goes into it.

“As you add more and more users, you learn less and less because you will keep seeing the same things again and again. There is no real need to keep observing the same thing multiple times, and you will be very motivated to go back to the drawing board and redesign the site to eliminate the usability problems. After the fifth user, you are wasting your time by observing the same findings repeatedly but not learning much new.”

5. Stop using generic stock images

There are more instances now of professionals smiling in stock photos than there are in the real world—okay, don’t quote me on that, but you get the idea. It’s true that humans are incredibly good at processing visual information, which is also be the reason why we’re quick to reject it when we perceive a lack of intrinsic value.In general, users overlook stock images, and may even find them frustrating.

In general, users overlook stock images, and may even find them frustrating.

User Interface Engineering conducted user tests on different types of images and categorized them as navigational (guide towards information), content (deliver information), and ornamental images (convey nothing in particular). They found that ornamental images do more harm than good.

Instead of using generic images that convey no useful information, use visuals only when they’re relevant to the content, or at least don’t look downright disconnected and fake. This doesn’t mean you have to start creating your own media, you just need to think of context when using visual media; Joshua Brewer of 52 Days of UX illustrates this point well:

“I know not everyone has the resources to do this, but even when using stock photography, care should be taken to ensure that the photo is truly telling your story and reinforcing your message.

It doesn’t matter if it is a picture, an infographic, a screenshot, or a product rendering, all visual communication in your design leaves a cumulative impression on the user. Take the time to make sure that every part of your visual communication on your site or around your product is reinforcing your message.”

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but simply a few steps you can take to improve the way users think and feel about your blog.

What else can you think of that needs to be on this list? Common misconception, mistakes bloggers make, or maybe just a friendly word of advice—let’s hear it in the comments!

Image by Marisa Vasquez