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Avoiding a web design disaster

In 2012, it’s simpler than it ever has been to take the task of building a business website into your own hands. With more people taking the do-it-yourself approach, however, there are more and more websites out there that don’t quite get the details right.

Getting a web designer to do it for you, or even just to help you with the more technical aspects, is a good step to avoiding this conundrum – but it doesn’t rule out all potential problems. Some of the most expensive and beautifully designed corporate sites are plagued by the same basic problems met by self-designed small business sites.

Creating a website that does what you want it to has as much to do with planning and strategy as it does with knowing how to write HTML. To avoid creating a disaster site, it’s vital that you know what you’re trying to achieve before you sit down to draw up a wire frame plan, or brief your designer.

Branding first

Make sure your business’s branding is right before you spend any time or money on creating a website.

Chief executive officer Lloyd Perry says his company, Big Richard Condoms, started as a clothing brand, and gradually evolved into its current product focus. Perry’s original concept for the business’s site was unconventional, but suited its initial focus on clothing, and its adventurous, youth-focused branding strategy.

“What we wanted to create was a horizontally scrolling website – it looked like it was the inside of a wardrobe,” he explains.

While the concept was strong, it proved difficult to execute, as most content management systems (CMS) don’t easily allow for sideways scrolling. More importantly, the new product focus came with a complete branding makeover, and this direction meant a redesign of the site from the wireframe up.

“I think the concept was great but it was poorly executed. Once the new branding came along, that design became really unsuited to the new aesthetic we’d produced,” says Perry.

“Have all of your branding sorted before you start website design, because your branding will inform most of your website design,” he advises.

What’s the goal?

It’s not enough to simply ‘be online’ – your website needs to have a purpose. Ask yourself: what is this website going to achieve for the business?

If you run a restaurant, then the purpose of the site should be to convince visitors to make a booking. In this instance, contact details should be the foremost concern, followed by information about the restaurant’s whereabouts, and what’s on the menu. Take the site for Marque Restaurant in Sydney – at the very top of the page are the contact details, the address, and a button to press for reservations. The next most prominent features are menu details and cookbook information.

“List out what you want to achieve on the website, and order it 1–10 in order of importance.” says Amy Cheng, head of design at E-Web Marketing.

Having done this, focus on the top three most important goals, and make sure your website addresses these simply and directly.

First impressions

There are many factors at play in how visitors form first impressions, but one of the most crucial is how your site uses images as part of its design.

If you choose to greet online visitors with an image, it’s important that it works to represent what your business does and why it’s relevant to them.

E-Web Marketing’s Cheng singles out accounting school CPA Australia’s site as one that could do more with its homepage imagery.

“You’re greeted with a black header and a man in a suit. Most people look at this image generally, and think ‘that’s a good image,’” she says, “but in terms of conversion rate, it actually isn’t.”

The reason for this is that, while it suits the branding, the image doesn’t act to explain what it is that CPA does, or why it’s preferable to its competitors.

“A lot of people make the mistake of finding stock images of things which are very generic – which explain what the company does, but are not very unique to the company,” says Cheng. “These images won’t be memorable.”

If you’re uncertain whether your homepage imagery is giving the right impression, it could be worthwhile testing its effectiveness on a random sample of web users. Cheng makes note of a service called Five Second Test which exposes your website to 100 users for five seconds, and then quizzes them about the message it left with them.

“Most of the time people will say ‘I remember the image of the man in the business suit,’” she says. “If it’s something like that, you know it’s not closely enough related to your business – you know it’s not a good image.”

Take note of competitors

Another good way to gauge what your website needs to achieve in terms of design is to compare it to the competition. As an example, Cheng compares Overspianos.com.au with Steinway.com. The problem with the former is that the feel of the site doesn’t communicate what the visitor expects of a business that specialises in grand pianos.

“The words that are normally related to grand pianos are ‘expensive’, ‘exquisite’, ‘luxurious’,” says Cheng. “Obviously, you want your website to reflect that, because your website is pretty much the face of your business. Overs Pianos doesn’t look luxurious at all.”

This is why it’s essential to investigate how your competitors present themselves online before you create or re-design your site.

“It’s always important to compare who you’re up against, especially if your product has a specific feel and prestige to it,” says Cheng. “I tell my clients ‘you have to be the George Clooney of the group’. You have to be the good looking one.”

Can you edit?

It is essential for a small business to be able to change the basic content that appears on its website without any external input or cost. Any site built on a content management system such as WordPress or Drupal can facilitate this, but not all web developers use these by default.

“Many small local web developers do not use content management systems,” says Fabienne Wintle, founding director of Untangle My Web. “The business model of these small developers is ‘You call me, I’ll make the changes, and I’ll send you an invoice’ – that’s how they survive.”

It’s not cost-effective for you to have to pay a web developer every time you need to change pricing or product information. Make sure that it’s possible to edit the basic information on your site, so that changing it to match your business’s growth won’t send you bankrupt.

Avoid Flash

Your web designer may also be keen to sell you on the idea of a website that uses Flash animation. While there are aesthetic benefits to this, there are a number of operational downsides. Firstly, any changes you want made to content may have to be handled by a web designer familiar with Flash. Secondly, Flash poses problems when it comes to search, as a Flash site is less easy for a search engine to index than a site built in WordPress or Drupal. Finally, Flash can distract from the purpose of the site – anything that acts as a barrier between your visitors and your products should be used sparingly or not at all.

Untangle My Web’s Wintle uses the example of the Captains Paddock vineyard’s site, which has been designed with Flash. A quick look at the source code shows that none of the writing that appears on each of the pages is featured in the meta-data, making it virtually invisible to search engines.

“What I normally tell people is to run their site through a website called SEOBrowser.com, and that will basically show them what a search engine can see,” says Wintle. “The most important thing with a website is being able to be found on search engines to attract visitors. By having a flash website, you actually have a marketing tool that can’t really help you market.”

Strong content

Web design may play a major role in capturing a visitor’s attention, but good content is required to sustain it long enough to convince them to pick up the phone or buy a product.

The first and most essential form of content is the headlines that appear on your homepage.

“A headline is a big, bold statement,” says Big Richard’s Perry. “If you look at our website, we’ve got ‘Rated Australia’s number one condom by Cosmopolitan magazine.’ Generally, you’ve got 2–3 seconds before people get what it is that you’re offering. One sentence that sums that up makes you more relevant.”

A strong headline shows visitors what your business does, and helps to make the content on each page easier to digest, visually.

“People don’t read the site, they have to scan it,” says Cheng. “Most websites just use a huge slab of content; no headlines, no paragraphs or anything. People who are designing the website automatically think people are going to read their website top to bottom, but that’s not the case. It’s very important to use subheadings and headlines to break up the content.”

In addition to headlines, it’s important that your content is relevant to your visitors. Think about what they would hope to receive if they went ahead and became customers, and address that in the content on your site.

Big Richard’s Perry notes that he uses this sort of information in small doses throughout his site, to support his larger headlines, and to give customers further reassurance when they’re considering a sale.

“They’re called reassurance messages. For us, it’s little sales messages: ‘free shipping with any two products’, ‘100% electronically tested condoms’, ‘discreet packaging’, ‘fast delivery’,” he says. “Succinct messages about the product or service that you offer, placed in a prominent spot on your website.”

Call to action

A call to action is a brief, punchy piece of content that encourages visitors to act on their curiosity – by picking up the phone or sending an email enquiry. A call to action can be a simple written command – like the sentence ‘Join our mailing list’ on the Marque Restaurant homepage – or can take the form of a button, encouraging people to click.

E-Web Marketing’s Cheng uses Optus.com.au as an example of a website that makes good use of buttons for its call to actions.

“It uses different colours and sizes for different particular actions they want to take,” she says. “The form on the right hand side has yellow buttons, and it communicates ‘Use these yellow buttons to make an enquiry.’ Whereas on the bottom, the ones that are ‘find out more’ are the blue buttons.”

This stands in stark contrast to the homepage for Citibank Australia. It features two call to actions, but neither is prominent.

“This is an example of where call to action buttons aren’t used as well as they could be,” says Cheng. “It has a lot of content, lots of colour, but you don’t really know what to do. The call to action I can see on this page straight away is ‘sign in to Citibank online’, which is just for existing leads. I think the main one should be ‘apply for Citibank products’; it’s not very obviously shown.”

A call to action should reinforce the purpose that you laid out for the website in the first place. The most core function of your website should have the strongest call to action.

Don’t rest on your laurels

Finally, understand that a website is never finished. As customer demands and design fashions change, so should your site.

“Most companies that I find who get a new website designed or updated, think that it looks really good now, and they don’t have to do anything more,” says Cheng. “The thing to remember is that there’s never a silver bullet in web design, in terms of conversions, because what a user thinks one day might be completely different the next day.”

This doesn’t mean that your site needs to be completely redesigned every other month – simply that you need to keep an eye on how your site appears in the context of its industry, and to continue to keep its messaging and call to actions fresh and relevant to customer interests.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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Articles, ‘How To’ pieces, interviews and news, these small business web design ideas and advice will help ensure your company has a website to rival all others. From colour palettes to branding, right through to technical applications and coding, NETT offers mixtures of articles guiding and inspiring you through every step of web design for small business.