I spent a few hours last night in an insomniatic rage browsing websites of local businesses and I was completely shocked at the lack of presentation, organization and design. Any professional website that is advertising services or goods, or displaying information needs to remember the three most important parts of having a website.
Developing and Designing Your Website
The three most important1 elements when you are developing your website (or someone is developing it for you) are content, design and interactivity.
Content is the single most important element to your website. You could have NO design and if your content fullfilled the visitor’s needs, or spiked an interest, you will have repeat visitors and attract new ones.
What is quality content?
To determine if your content is “quality” you must first assess who exactly your website is targetting.
For example, you are developing a website that will contain a well of information to help new moms. Your main target audience would be new mothers and the subset target audience would be pregnant/trying to concieve mothers/all mothers. So you would need to put yourself in the shoes of a new mother.
Sit down and make a list of the types of information new mothers could be searching for, or would be interested in reading about. For example, your list may include items like feeding, sleep issues, soothing methods, play, developmental charts, and bonding. You will need to develop quality content in these areas. Articles, facts, links to other sites will all be things that the user is looking for.
Not only will you need those items, but you will need them to be well written, well organized and unique. Almost all parenting websites contain the same tried and true information. Why? The articles contain factsand examples. So how can you make yours better? How can yours stand out? Easy.
- Get straight to the point – don’t be wordy. Nothing will turn a visitor off to your content more than making reading difficult. Condense it.
- Pictures A large part of the population communicates best visually (hello tv!). Throw in a relevant image that will help convey your message. (And by throw in I don’t mean “throw in”. We’ll talk about effective design next)
- Facts & Examples It’s important to include facts (and their origins) or examples. Let’s go back to our new mom website – say you have an article written on teething and this is an excerpt:
Infants can start teething any time, but generally teething starts in the fourth or fifth month. Some infants don’t get their first tooth until after their first year!
Great, that’s a nice theory, but where are your facts? It may not matter to a general user, or someone casually browsing, but a new mother with a cranky 4 month old wants to know for sure whether all that drool is a sign of teething, or something else — and she wants to know NOW. A better way to frame that quote would be:
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics teething can start at any time, but generally begins at the fourth or fifth month. Some infants may not get their first tooth until after their first year, and it can be completely normal. Remember – each baby develops at their own pace. To be sure your infant is hitting the appropiate milestones keep up with your well-child checkups.
This is just touching the surface of great content, and content writing. Two great books that focus on this are Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Websites, by Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton. and Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-Quality Web Content by Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton. A List Apart has a great content writing resource as well.
The world of web design can be tawdry at times, and my research last night really impacted this idea. I saw site after site after site with huge animated gif graphics for logos and headers, huge background images that overwhelmed the content of the site, tiny fonts and abominable color schemes.
When to know where to leave personal taste, and to start professional design
As a site owner you want to convey your product/service/information to the end user in way that showcases it, but also communicates your personality/product. Too many times I see design trump content and the result is an over designed site that distracts users from the content — or a design so tacky and un-user-friendly that it will turn away nearly all users.
You may think that a huge brightly colored, animated clipart of a man nailing a board will be perfect for your contracting site – but chances are anyone visiting your site won’t think so. The keys to most successful designs are to keep it simple and elegant, and organized.
This doesn’t mean it needs to be plain though. General ideas to remember when designing your site, or having someone design your site are as follows:
- Colors. Choose a color scheme and stick with it. Stick with 2-3 main colors, and use hue variations of those colors. Too many colors will overwhelm users.
- Graphics. Keep them simple, and elegant. Stay away from animated gifs (please). They may cause your site to look dated, or irritate visitors.
- Navigation. Don’t hide it!!! This is one of the most important parts of your design. Chances are if someone ended up on your site they are looking for something specific. If you hide the navigation or present it in an non-intuitive way users will become frustrated and leave. Users tend to looks for navigation features in three places – left side of page, horizontally across the top, or on the right side.
- Typography. You may REALLY REALLY REALLY love Comic Sans or Lucida Handwriting … but let’s face it Comic Sans was developed for, well, comics and Lucida Handwriting is illegible, especially in large blocks of text. Remember content is the single most important part of your website, and if you make it hard for a user to read, they will leave. yourhtmlsource.com had a good article on Web typography.
- Structure. This goes hand-in-hand with navigation – make sure the structure of your pages are consistent. Do you have a gallery of products on your site? Have you chosen to name the navigation link to your gallery “Product Images”? Try to use the same structure in your folder naming as well, so if your user clicks the “product images” link, that he will be delivered to http://yoururl.com/productimages.
I have a pile of web design books that I used when learning design and coding, but the ones that helped me the most were Designing with Web Standards by Jeffry Zeldman, Designing CSS Web Pages, by Christopher Schmitt and most recently CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions (Solutions) by Andy Budd. There are hundreds of great web design blogs out there, and it would be tiresome to list them all, so if you want to see who I am reading, check out my bloglines subsciptions.
The internet is a great way to publish and share information; no one can argue with that, but visitors crave interactivity. They want to be able to easily ask questions, send opinions or further a discussion. They want to be a part of your site.
How can you provide this for your visitors? There are many ways, from simply offering a contact page with a form or email address, or a complete discussion forum. But make sure you stay involved. Don’t let emails pile up and dicussions fizz out because you haven’t made time to respond, that would be just as bad as not offering any type of interaction at all.
Granted, not every site can provide a forum, or allow comments on articles, but a simple (and easy to locate) contact link can work wonders. Make users feel like they are a part of things.
Most CMS applications come with the ability to allow comments on pages, posts and/or articles. My favorite applications to use for backend development are Movable Type, WordPress, and Textpattern. I’m still on the fence with Joomla even though lots of people swear by it.
Summing it Up
To sum up, you need the three basic things mentioned above to make your website successful: fantastic, unique content that will kee users coming back, elegant design that will enhance your content NOT hide it, and interactivity- make every user have the option to be involved somehow.
1There are many more very important things for developing a website, such as accessbility, standards, pratical and semantic coding, etc. But these are the most important things to your visitor.