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One of the key aspects in improving the user experience lies in designing a winning website design flow. This critical factor is often overlooked in premature discussion of page design and content architecture, and all too often the element of design flow rarely gets the attention it deserves. This very idea is outlined in a recent article on Smashing Magazine by Morgan Brown titled Stop Designing Pages And Start Designing Flows, where Brown examines the correct way to handle design flow in order to create truly successful web experiences.

As with any aspect of web design, design flow should start with the user. Consider the user objectives for the site at hand. These vary, depending on the type of site being created. With an ecommerce site, the user will be searching through products, which will ultimately lead to a stage of purchase. In the case of membership, the user will click a link that leads to a landing page that allows them to register or join by supplying his or her information. A user could be searching for factual information or seeking a tutorial or attempting to connect to other users'among countless other possibilities'but regardless of his or her objectives, it is critical to gain a thorough understanding of this first in order to design an effective flow.

Next, Brown advises mapping user flows into 'conversion funnels.' Every user will be different in their level of knowledge, their origin and their goals. As a designer, it is your responsibility to be the expert and map out user flows that are of value to the user and help to achieve the goals of the site.

'You should prioritize the flows and focus your effort on the few that will impact the most users and have the greatest gain,' says Brown. Some of the typical user flows that Brown illustrates are paid advertisements, led to by a banner ad; social media, guided by a shared link; and organic search, which occurs through a search engine query. Understand how these differ and the varying user needs and expectations each elicits.

The next step involves diving into these funnels. Brown uses the example of display advertising, which has the ultimate goal of generating new customers. Display advertising most usually starts with a banner, which ideally results in a click-through and therefore represents the very beginning of your user flow. The design of this banner should consider the user's knowledge and needs in order to achieve this success.

The designer should ask questions like: What type of user is the target? How do I relate to them in a way that gains their attention and piques their interest? What kind of message would generate this kind of appeal? What kind of problem are they attempting to solve and how can I illustrate that this ad leads to the solutions they seek? Addressing these issues will help to initiate the flow by first engaging the user to go further.

The landing page should ensure that the flow continues. Brown explains how it should build user confidence, streamline content and design in a way that reinforces the call to action, eliminate friction in each step and does all of this in an enticing and engaging manner.

Then comes stacking the flow. Again, in doing this, the designer should refer to the type of site that is being created and its goals. This order should involve minimal steps and tell a visual story that easily makes sense to the user and encourages them to become a part. Take note of the more difficult stages of conversion, and ensure that there are multiple touch points to get the user through to these latter parts of the flow. 'By considering how the flows interact, you can create a seamless experience that builds confidence and deepens the user's connection to your website, leading to the ultimate purchase conversion.'

As illustrated here, design flow can make or break a site. Without first taking a moment to understand the user, their needs and their objectives, a site cannot properly funnel in the way it is intended and fulfill its goals. Brown offers this last piece of advice: 'When considering user flows, think past the first conversion, and design for the ultimate conversion, which might lie a few steps behind.' While as designers, we are often encouraged to go against the grain, this is one instance where you really should just go with the flow.