Animation, sound, video, and applets of all kinds are considered the "hot ticket" for high-tech Web sites. My question is: Do you know who your end users are? Intranet administrators know who their users are because the network is a closed loop. Software manufacturers use their sites to showcase their wares, so they expect more advanced end users. Artistic and personal sites usually have a specific audience in mind.
(Note: This is written with the understanding that your site is a domestic effort, not an international sales effort. Foreign sales and the subsequent "imperial entanglements" are not being considered here.)
If you are designing an e-commerce site for the general public, use restraint in applying high-tech elements. There is no way for you to know what version of browser, operating system, connection speed, screen resolution, or color depth your potential customer has on his or her desktop. The goal of an e-commerce site is sales. Sales occur when a customer buys something. You should be aware that the threshold of boredom is dropping like a rock. If the customer can't see your navigation bars or won't wait 48 seconds for that fancy graphic to load, you risk losing that potential sale.
It's an imperfect world, and the clients who hire you to build sites for them can be "unique," to say the least. I get to relearn the old adage "the customer is always right" at least once per job, so I'm very aware of the strain Web site builders can fall under. They may want fancy navigation bars and wild animation on their pages. They may think they want crazy gradient backgrounds that change color as you scroll through the pages. Of course it can be done, but to what degree should it be done, if at all? The best we can do is try to make the clients aware that we have their best interests in mind when we steer them in the direction of a clean, concise Web site.
A user-friendly site is one that loads fast and is simple to navigate, easy on the eye, and informative. It will clearly guide the consumer to the item you are selling and allow an effortless purchase procedure. Your site will also have to cater to the lowest common denominator: the new e-commerce customer.
Keeping it simple means creating a set of rules based on the widest audience and sticking to them.
For instance, we chose to design for a particular browser version that we know are Java capable for the most part. If you can figure out a way to avoid using Java applets or elements, so much the better. Mouseovers are very common in site design these days, but sometimes they don't work (we have noticed this on some sites designed for 3.0 version and earlier browsers and on WebTV). Try not to include any ActiveX controls that require the user to download and install anything; it tends to scare new users, and it diverts their attention from the site.
Unless you work for Microsoft or Netscape, avoid the temptation to put a "Designed for Netscape" or "Designed for Internet Explorer" tag on your site. The goal of the site is selling your client's product, not selling browsers, so who cares?
Font selection doesn't seem like a big problem, but if the look and feel of the site are important, be sure to select a set of fonts likely to be on the end users' machines (that will give you about four choices).
We set our screen resolution to 640 by 480, the smallest practical screen resolution, so that the site we create would not require users to do a horizontal scroll to view it. Horizontal scrolls are annoying and unnecessary with good planning. Strive to use Web-safe colors in your designs to attempt to ensure that what your users see is what you intended them to see.
Text links at the bottom (or top) of the site will cover you in case your fancy Java navigation bar fails to load. Use simple terms for your site navigation, so the site visitor has the best chance of finding out where he or she wants to go. Don't overwhelm the user's eye with a crowded site body. Keep it simple and clean, and don't forget that white space is your friend. (Another friend is the spell-check option.)
Make sure you test your site against as many possible degrees of user savvy and Web browser versions as possible before you go live.
While most of this is basic common sense, one look around the Web will make you wonder if common sense is alive and well or on vacation.
Our goals as professional Web site designers should be attention to detail and covering every possible contingency for our client sites. Making sure that the broadest possible user base can access the client site is Step 1. Keeping them there and getting them to spend money on that site is Step 2. Hearing end users say, "It was easy to buy that [insert item here] on your site" is the greatest compliment a site can get. Then again, hearing the client say to you "Great job" isn't a bad thing, either.