The following tips will help you understand why strong design elements are needed, not for the sake of good design but rather to give your audience what they are looking for, and as quickly as possible. After all, that is customer service.
Think Like A User
Like other marketing initiatives, good Web design involves seeing the information through the eyes and browsers of users. This could require surveying the target audience to find out what’s on their list of “must haves” and “nice to haves” as well as the list of what “not to have” (and reconciling these factors with the budget and other resources). You may have to encourage the audience to participate in the survey with some incentive, but if they are regular customers they likely will want to participate anyway to improve their buying or customer service experience from you.
Perceptions are fed by the way you view your company and must be aligned with how customers see it. This mindset has to be apparent and consistent in all marketing materials. For example, if the firm tends to be more conservative, the imagery will reflect that with everything totally legible and a good bit of white space. Prospects that see a conservative look in one piece and an avant garde image in another will note the inconsistency, and they will assume your product or service is equally disjointed.
Also, you need to know the expected lifespan of the site. If the firm will add new product lines in the near future, then a site can be designed so that current needs are met as well as future ones without the high changeover costs.
Another factor in knowing your audience is their technology. If most are business-to-business users, they may have a T1 line and can download lots of pages and large graphics easily. If this is your largest group of users, the site needs to accommodate them, but also keep in mind the other users; if they use dial-up access with 56K modems, provide a button for a text-only site with fewer graphics to minimize download times. Either way, if your total page size is more than 50K, or if the site takes longer than five seconds to load, you need to make adjustments.
Browsers also must be compatible with all platforms, and screen resolutions must be optimized for the audiences. In contrast to printed material that is produced as one version, copy and images on the Web can look great on your monitor but different on others. In fact, there are more than 40 different screen resolutions, so your site ought to be tested in as many as possible to ensure that users are seeing it in as visually appealing way as they should. Minimum resolution tends to be 800 x 600, while most is 1024 x 768 and some go as high as 1280 x 1024.
How Viewers Progress Through a Site
Viewers have a specific purpose in mind when visiting a site, so they spend no more than 10 seconds looking at a home page to see if they are in the right place. They focus on the dominant visual element, then move to the navigation bar (many seem to prefer left-hand navigation bars). Therefore, minimize the number of links on the home page to keep the clutter down and make it viewer-friendly. Use graphics as needed to highlight primary links, or have them clearly labeled as to avoid misinterpretation. And, have everything on the site no more than three clicks away from any given page.
Also, keep all the home page information on one screen. A lot of research has proven that viewers do not scroll down on a home page; if they can’t determine that they are in the right place from “above the fold,” then they will most likely click away to another site. It’s okay to scroll down on subpages, but the primary real estate of the home page can’t be that cumbersome if you want to hold viewers’ attention for those precious few seconds.
Design at the Ground Level
Good design is appropriate for the medium and is aesthetically pleasing, but it also must reinforce what is said in the copy. If the product or service has a literal message, as in “this software saves you time and money,” then the imagery needs to offer defined concepts and colors to echo that. If sales are made based on impulse buy, then imagery ought to convey an emotion and perhaps be more abstract.
In general you don’t want colors competing with each other, so be careful with full-strength and reversed-out type. Light on dark or dark on light is easier to see and read.
Another consideration is when to use photos. Although you have to pay for them and cite their source, royalty-free stock photos can be cost effective for a budget-oriented site. The downside is that many other sites can use the same photo, so there’s no exclusivity. In fact, even a competitor could use the same photo as you. In such cases when you can’t buy a photo with a usage license or get another photo, the picture can be cropped to show a different part of the photo.
Maintaining “Sticky” Sites
Capturing viewers’ contact information is vital for many marketing efforts, but it can be tough to balance the need for that information with the users’ desire for anonymity. They need to know that you won’t sell their information or otherwise abuse it before they agree to become part of your database, and beyond that they need a good reason to keep coming back.
Traditional tactics like coupons and free consultations might be appropriate, but you are generally dealing with very savvy consumers so the offer ought to be well thought out. If you target businesses, successful ways of capturing customer information is to have them register for a Webinar or other event you host or sponsor, or to have them sign up to receive a newsletter that offers valuable, non self-promotional information. Underlying good design still has to be solid sales and marketing principles that include developing and maintaining relationships.
The Web is a unique medium, but having a Web site today is like having a left arm – everyone has one, and they are usually a prospect’s first introduction to a company. While you can buy a template for very little, this may not provide the good first impression that you’re looking for, and it probably won’t demonstrate a customized approach to sales, marketing, and customer service.
What will set you apart, however, is having a site that involves customer input early, so you will know whether you need a “Mercedes” site, a “Yugo” one or something in between. If customer involvement waits until the usability-testing stage, then a lot of time has already been spent, and possibly wasted. And if customers are not polled periodically after it’s launched, then it’s more difficult and costly to measure satisfaction and tailor the site to fulfill new business opportunities.
You may have a great technology, but slapping a brochure on a Web site won’t drive your sales traffic, nor will good Web design by itself. To really maximize the technology’s potential, you also need a marketing mindset.
Dina Wasmer is president of Incite Creative, Inc., a provider of strategic marketing and communications design services to a variety of clients. She is a longtime member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and has received awards from Print and How magazines, University and College Designers Association, and the Advertising Association of Baltimore. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or see www.incitecreativeinc.com.