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More Web Site Design Basics

By Adam Wright | Wed, 1 Jun 2005

Some companies have dynamic and productive web sites. More firms belatedly see the need for one but are fighting procrastination. But by far the largest group of companies are pondering how they can improve upon the shortcomings of the site they have.

The key question that you need to ask, no matter which group you fall into, is "what design techniques will make my site exceptional?" The short answer is a site that attracts repeat visitors with intriguing fresh content and dynamic visual appeal, and that can also perform as a powerful business development tool.

While web design theories and techniques abound, too often these ideas are more creative brainstorming than real world success stories. Why not look at the lessons learned from a broad spectrum of companies and industries, their Web site objectives, and how their sites fared when the public clicked to and through their great expectations?

Tip #1 - Dynamic Trumps Static.

Effective web sites don't require rocket-scientist-level analysis, so it's surprising how many Web sites need a creative "trauma team" to bring them back to life - simply because basic design and marketing rules were ignored. For example, one of the first things a company should do is to change their Home page from static to dynamic. By this, I mean when visitors return to your site after their first visit to find the exact same look, feel and content, they're much less likely to return. Change pictures, change words or slogans, change articles?. Just be sure to change something so that each time a visitor returns, they're intrigued by something new. Fortunately, this project can be 100% dynamic (database automated) so that you can compile the content once, and it's done (at least for three to six months). Place it and forget it, then watch the hits and click-throughs on your site increase dramatically.

Tip #2 - Relevant, professional images sell better

We've found sites that use content-relevant pictures, professionally taken and correctly sized and placed, keep their viewers inside their site longer and encourage further exploration of the site. Showing actual use of your products or services adds a vital perspective to the viewer. For products, this is communicated in terms of the size, appearance and the psychological reward of possessing the product. For services, this is communicated in terms of the psychological end result of a successful process or solution. I can't stress enough the importance of having your pictures professionally taken, properly sized for the Internet, and easily downloadable. Apply your own experience. Which do you prefer and trust with your patronage, sites with muddy "home-grown" images or sites with professional images? Spend the extra money on professional photography and you'll be greatly rewarded.

Tip #3 - Choose background colors carefully

White backgrounds are popular for a reason. They're clean and make viewing pictures and reading text easier. On the other hand, it may be important to match the company's primary darker, bolder branding colors to the site. If you are limited to darker color choices for a background, take extra care. It's much more difficult to successfully pull off a darkly colored website. Not impossible, just difficult. Lightly shaded backgrounds offer greater challenges as well, since you'll have to carefully coordinate the primary element colors with the background color in order to provide a pleasing effect.
On a related point, be absolutely sure to "webify" your company's logo to mesh with the site's background. A logo that looks as if it was pasted onto the web page (I've seen some on a colored background with a white "box" around them!) screams "we don't care enough to look professional!"

Tip #4 - The font matters

<<>>Increase the elegance and professionalism of your site by using one font (or at the most, two) throughout your whole site. This will aid in visual continuity and readability. Avoid the creative urge to scattershot the site with many different (or even similar) fonts since it will make the site look amateurish and cause visitors to be confused by what subliminally will appear to be conflicting content. Use a clean, clear type style like Helvetica, then create visual interest by using different sizes, weights and styles of that font. One caveat: Avoid using italic in body text, it's hard to read. At all costs avoid script or handwriting fonts, especially in body text, as they're extremely difficult to read.>

Tip #5 - Avoid do-it-yourself web design programs

Why become revved up about getting a new site online, only to show the world something that looks like you did it yourself? There are many programs that provide entry-level access to web site design, some of them for under $100. Unfortunately, the result often appears to match that price point. Proven professionals can take your site to the next level; just be sure you carefully review their client roster and portfolio (and check references!) to ensure they match with your web site goals.
Another do-it-yourself danger applies for companies that opt for in-house web design and development. While this can work, I've seen more cases where companies end up spending far more time and money by internalizing versus hiring outside consultants. Why? It's largely due to an internal staff's rationing of time between print, web and other projects. When emergencies come along, they take precedence and knock the web project off schedule. And an internal team is often limited creatively by the office's politics (a severe limiter of "out-of-the-box" thinking when it comes to design) and the "manager knows best" syndrome which can too often limit a creative team. The end result is most often a site by committee, a timeline by committee, and a project cost no one wants to own!

Tip #6 - Watch your competitors

The goal of leading your industry in web creativity, design and effectiveness can be accomplished in part through keeping a constant eye on your competition. If they do something new, or initiate a new site design, what can you learn from them and what can you do better? Also, keep an eye on innovative companies rated highly in Web site evaluation sites (like Visit these sites to see what inspiration can be gained from top designers and web marketers. See how others are meeting business challenges through the web so that you can better understand how your unique web business can improve the rate at which people visit, improve the ease of their navigation, improve the likelihood of their taking positive action, and to increase their time of browsing through your site.

Tip #7 - Be careful with link placement

Relationships with partner companies, or advertising money which comes from banners, are valuable. But too many banners or ads end up detracting from your carefully crafted design, scatter your site's marketing focus, and can even introduce motion or colors incompatible with your site's theme and mood. More valuable to you (unless you're a portal!) is keeping your visitors in your site as long as possible, and keep them returning to your site through a careful attention to fresh content and a positive web experience. If you're obligated to post links and banners, consider doing so only at the bottom of pages, or in a special links page.

Tip #8 - Simple beats complex

From words on a page to how many pictures and colors, clutter is rarely the best way to go. Clean and simple navigation is also of major importance, with direct navigation from any point in the site to another, being the ultimate goal. Above all, you should want your visitors to use the site navigation - never the browser buttons - to move from page to page. Point the visitor in a specific, desired direction (optimally to result in a contact or sale!) instead of leaving the browsing of your site up to the viewer's whim.


Finally, and this is less a design tip than a general rule, never promise what cannot be delivered. Since the Web is an instant gratification medium, whatever is clicked, no matter how well designed, should provide what was promised. If you lead someone forward with a visually stunning presentation and a compelling promise (stated or implied), deliver as quickly as possible. Nothing irritates viewers more than a web site that looks great but can't quickly deliver. All of which proves that in Web design, common sense is everything? but it only counts when put into play.


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