Website Reviews - A beginner's guide
Reviewing websites is the process of analyzing different aspects of a website. You can review your own site to find issues and improve it, or review the sites of others to learn or give constructive feedback. Like a quality PR review, there is a lot to reviewing websites. You can review the overall user experience, the design, the content, the code, the performance, the site’s accessibility, the SEO, and more. In this short article, I want to provide you with a simple step-by-step guide to get started with website reviews.
The goal of following a process is to divide the work into manageable tasks and conquer each task individually. Especially when new to programming, everything all at once may seem overwhelming, but it gets easier when you break it down into smaller pieces.
The process I follow when reviewing websites is as follows:
- Review the website from the perspective of a first-time visitor
- Utilize reporting tools to get objective data
- Test on different devices and browsers
- Use screen readers and keyboard navigation
- Check the Network tab
- Review the code
The order of the steps doesn't really matter, but I like to start with the user experience and then move on to the more technical aspects. You also don't have to go through all the steps. For your personal site, you may want to do so, but for a peer review, you can focus on some specific areas. You may learn the most by inspecting the code on cool sites, but each step can help to give constructive feedback.
Review the website from the perspective of a first-time visitor
Reviewing the site from the perspective of a first-time visitor will help you to take a step back and focus on what's most important: the user experience. Make sure to open the website in a guest or incognito window to make sure you are not logged in, have an empty cache, and no browser extensions running.
When reviewing the website, ask yourself questions like:
- What is the purpose of the website?
- What does it want me to do?
- What is the first thing I see?
You can then use the answers to these questions to give feedback on the overall user experience. For example, if the website is an online course website but the first call to action is a link to the blog, you can give feedback on that. Maybe the first call to action should be a link to the course catalog or a sign-up form.
Utilize reporting tools to get objective data
There are some great tools out there that can help you get objective data about a website. Lighthouse, Web.dev and WebPageTest provide reports on performance, accessibility, SEO, and more. These tools are great for getting actionable feedback. Additionally, you can use specialized tools like WAVE to get additional reports on accessibility.
I recommend you start with Lighthouse. You can run a Lighthouse report from your Chrome DevTools by navigating to the Lighthouse tab and clicking the Generate report button. Read through the report, focus on one issue at a time, and try to understand the issue and how to fix it. Don't be shy about using Google for more information about the issue. For example, if Lighthouse suggests to use smaller images, you can Google "how to optimize images for the web"! 🤓
Side note: Optimizing images can have a huge impact on your site’s performance. The Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) often heavily depends on your images. However, managing responsive images can also get complicated. I personally use Cloudinary for image hosting on this site, which automatically optimizes images and serves the right image size based on the device. unpic is also a great package (and starting point) to help you optimize your images. Definitely don't shy away from using packages and services to help you with this!
Test on different devices and browsers
A great way to detect issues is to test the website on different devices and browsers. At a minimum, use your mobile phone and your computer. You can also use the Chrome DevTools to test on different screen sizes. Finally, make sure to test on all three major browsers: Chrome, Firefox, and Safari and their mobile counterparts. Switching to landscape mode on your phone can also uncover additional layout issues.
Use screen readers and keyboard navigation
Screen readers are tools that read the content of a website out loud. They are used by people with visual impairments. Screen reader users may navigate your site using keyboard navigation. Keyboard navigation is also used by people with motor impairments or for productivity reasons. Testing the website with a screen reader and keyboard navigation will help you detect accessibility issues.
Using keyboard navigation
Depending on your browser, you may have to enable keyboard navigation in your system or browser settings. Once enabled, you can use the following keys to navigate through the page:
- Tab: Move focus to the next focusable element
- Shift + Tab: Move focus to the previous focusable element
- Enter/Space: Activate the focused element
- Arrow keys: Scroll or navigate through a list of elements or a radio button group
- Esc: Close a dialog or menu
Navigate the page without using your mouse and ensure all elements are focusable. Are all elements reachable? Test all interactive elements like inputs, buttons, links, and select elements. Does a focus ring clearly outline the currently focused element? If not, you may want to enhance your focus styles.
Working with screen readers
There are many different screen readers out there. I recommend you start with NVDA on Windows and VoiceOver on macOS. On a Mac, you can enable VoiceOver in your system settings. Once enabled, VoiceOver announces the currently focused element and reads the page's content out loud.
Using screen readers may feel overwhelming initially, but it is a great way to create empathy for screen reader users. It will help you understand how image alt texts, input labels, and other accessibility features come into play.
Use the Network tab of your browser's developer tools to get insights into the performance of your website. The Network tab shows you all the requests the browser makes to load the page. You can see the size of each request, the time it took to load, and more. You can also see the size of your assets.
For example, maybe you identify that you currently reference your custom font in a CSS file. This means that the browser first has to download the CSS file, then download the font, and then apply the font to the page. You can improve this by using the
preload link tag to preload the font. This way, the browser can download the font while it is parsing the HTML document (find more information on web.dev).
Review the code
Finally, you can review the code! I recommend first inspecting the HTML and CSS in your browser's developer tool's Elements tab. Even if you can access the repository or own the code, inspecting it through the browser gives you a different perspective. For instance, you can review the
head section. What meta tags and links are included? Is anything missing? The developer tools are also great for spotting padding, margin, or flexbox spacing issues. Explore and see if you can find anything that could be improved!
Some things I like to look for are:
- Are we using semantic HTML elements?
- Do all images have an
- Are all buttons and links descriptive or have an
- Do all input fields have an associated label?
- Are we using anchor tags for links and buttons for actions (great video)?
Finally, you can jump into the source code (if you have access) for a proper code review. However, this may be a story for another day. Happy coding! 🙋