Think about your own internet habits: what do you do if a website is slow to load or you can’t find what you are looking for? How do these experiences impact your opinion of the brand? Probably unfavorably.

User experience (UX) is the practice of taking a user-centered approach to design. The goal of UX is to create a website, product or app so well designed that users can enjoy all the features and functionality it provides without having to do heavy manual work.

UX is integral to the success of any business—in fact, 62% of customers make buying decisions online based on previous experiences. If a website takes too long to load, is difficult to navigate, cluttered or visually unappealing, users are more likely to look elsewhere. This is why it is absolutely critical for customer retention and growth of sales that every small business invests in enhancing its user experience.

There are so many elements that encompass UX—usability, design, information architecture, copywriting, marketing, etc.— It may be challenging to determine where to start. However, there are five essential steps that small business owners can take to improve user experience in a matter of weeks.

Speed Matters: Turbo Charge the Website

We have become accustomed to certain conveniences, one of them being low-latency website loading. More than half of mobile users will abandon a website that takes longer than three seconds to load, and nearly 10% of web users will leave after two seconds. Every second counts, so the load-time of a website and its pages is crucial, and heavily influences UX.

There are several quick ways to improve the speed of any website. To start, test the speed of the website with a tool like GT Metrix. This will help determine how much work needs to be done.

Often load speeds are slowed down because of large images on a landing page. To optimize images for the web, start by resizing images before uploading them to the content management system, then compress them with an image compression tool.

Another fast way to improve speeds to purge any unused or duplicate plug-ins—some plug-ins take a long time to load, thus slowing down the overall speed. To narrow down which plug-ins are slowing the site down the most, utilize GT Metrix and uninstall each plug-in one at a time to determine which are causing the most problems.

Additionally, it might be time to upgrade from shared hosting to virtual private server (VPS). As a business grows, so do its hosting needs. Going from shared hosting to cloud hosting, or from shared to a VPS, can make a huge difference to how quickly a website loads.

Focus on Becoming User-Centric

Site visitors are not going to stick around if the site content doesn’t fit their needs. To create content and design a website that is truly user-centric, small business owners must know their audience. An online retailer that sells parts for customers to build their own computer can certainly get away with more technical content, but a gardening blog wouldn’t have the same success.

To understand their audience, small business owners should review website analytics, turn to market research tools and/or invest in social listening tools to get an overall look at trends and demographics. To get deeper insights, small business owners can issue customer surveys, chat with customers and leverage feedback on social media.

From there, decisions can be made about how to improve user experience. SMB retailers can use customer insights to expand their product offerings to meet customer demand and tweak the design of their website; adjusting content to ensure it is customized for maximum impact. Furthermore, creating quality content not only engages with visitors, but also encourages them to make a purchase.

Improve Site Structure (Information Architecture)

The Information Architecture (IA), or the organization of a website or application, determines whether or not users are successful in finding desired information and completing tasks, such as placing an order or looking to contact a SMB directly. This drives positive, or negative, UX in that if users cannot find what they are looking for, customers may feel frustrated and not remain loyal or advocate for the brand.

Having repetitive content or a huge index of poorly defined content can adversely affect follower growth and even SEO. Users should be able to easily find what they are looking for, comprehend and act upon it quickly. Indicators of good IA include:

  • Similar content is grouped and labeled together versus spreading out or watered down,
  • Website navigator is organized and clearly communicates what information is on each page,
  • Each page should look and feel similar to each other.

Don’t Forget Mobile

User interactions with desktop and mobile are incredibly different, especially when it comes to shopping habits. When shopping on desktop, users tend to spend more time absorbing information; conversely, on mobile, users move quickly through the buying process. Considering that nearly a third of all online shopping happens on mobile devices, websites must be optimized for mobile. Websites not only need to fit within the frame of countless small devices, but also support how users prefer to browse.

Optimizing a website for mobile goes back to knowing the audience; knowing customer preferences and buying behaviors will guide small businesses in determining what type of website design fits its needs. Once the mobile website is created, it is important to test it on multiple different devices and browsers to ensure that the user experience is consistent across platforms.

Optimize for Google

The aforementioned tips all funnel into the importance of SEO. Google states that page speed is a ranking factor in search results. IA, mobile responsiveness, user-centric content and the use of relevant search terms greatly improves the chances that content will appear in front of the target audience.

In addition, page titles, headlines and content should be optimized so Google knows what type of business is hosted on your page. Phrases of content, such as subheadings and page titles, actually determine where your page lands in search results – those with more optimized keywords used in their page content appear higher than others.

Content should also include links to reputable external sources, as those trusted sources build credibility within Google’s search algorithm by sharing trusted information with your audience. This practice also increases the probability that your sources will link back to you in their content.

Businesses no longer have the luxury of thinking in terms of one type of experience – every visitor approaches a website differently, and all personas need to be considered in the UX design.

The results of investing in UX will speak for itself, but it isn’t a set it and forget it type of project. People’s habits and business change over time. To continually improve user experience and keep up with the changing habits of customers, small business owners need to check in frequently, test and pivot their strategy accordingly.

Brian Glover is the Product Design Manager for HostGator.

Website on phone stock photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock