Professional design of websites is crucial, particularly as everyone is an expert when it comes to critiquing web designs. Many people believe that the way they interface with a website is the same as everyone else does, but people approach websites in individual ways.
Five opinions to avoid
In general, there are five types of people to watch out for when designing your website.
Emphatic opinions These people do think that their way is the right way. They are usually egocentric and often are your boss! They will tell you that the sign-up button needs to be bigger, and in red, and in the centre of the page. Unfortunately, they are usually very hard to dissuade. Not only because they pay your salary and conduct your performance review, but also because they can only be persuaded by unquestionable facts. If you let them have their way, your user might feel forced into doing something they are not yet comfortable with.
Strategy: Try to anticipate their suggestions by researching thought leaders' opinions, white papers and back up what you are saying with as many facts as you can find. Google analytics will provide insight into how your users interact with your website and usability testing will show you where your customers are actually clicking to sign up. Usually it is an obscure link in the footer and not the obvious button flashing at speed.
Hard-core Salespeople Often the marketing or product managers, who have something to sell, want preference on the home page. They believe that their promotion is the hook that will sway the hesitant visitor and persuade them to become loyal customers. They usually want the latest sale up in a big orange block with a flashing 'click here' button or they want to clutter up your site with lengthy copy informing customers about the latest widget. If you let them design your website, they will cause your user to feel overwhelmed by the options available, unless you are a low-cost supermarket.
Strategy: For these people seeing is believing: try to get them to sit in on your usability testing and hear what your customers are saying or arrange a monthly session where you show them excerpts from videos taken whilst user testing. The fact they will find hard to believe is that, in nearly all eye-tracking studies done, big bold banners on your website are nearly always ignored. This is because users fear where the link will take them and that they will not be able to find their way back. Another thing to point out is that people do not read! If they do, they will scan, so keep copy short, to the point and strongly benefits-led.
Large Groups of people The committee or any large group of people huddled around A3 colour printouts, urgently scribbling their comments in the margins and loudly proclaiming their opinions for all to marvel at. The committee is your toughest opponent, because there are so many of them and, if you manage to get a word in, someone will feel obliged to refute it. I guess everyone just wants to feel as if they are contributing. If you let them design your site, they will take a bit from each of the design concepts and have you merge them into a collage that will make your graphic designer head for the door.
Strategy: Listen carefully, note everything down that is being raised and afterwards, in private, you can sit with each person and talk him or her through why the suggestion is perhaps not ideal for what you are trying to achieve and why. The best thing is to avoid 'design by committee' in the first place! Get everyone's input, then get the project owner to sign the project off (after extensive iterative user testing) and then take it to beta.
Visually inclined Graphic designers are capable of designing work that is beautiful to behold, but not necessarily easy to navigate. They will fight about things like font size - for them smaller is better; using fancy text with effects - that make your website heavy and which Google can't index - and they enjoy adding big Flash blocks filled with moving animation - that Google doesn't like and users don't like either. If you are a restaurant chain, they might create a beautiful kitchen for your home page, eschewing the traditional static navigation bar for something far more interesting. Unfortunately, customers do not find it that interesting after spending what feels like an hour searching through the site trying to find their closest store.
Strategy: Create a clear wireframe of what you believe is best, you can draw it by hand on paper to start with (paper prototyping), or even use PowerPoint. Show this to as many people as you can that do not work in your department (finance or HR are great for this sort of thing), refine it until your 'surrogate customers' know exactly where they are, and what they need to do. Then hand this in with your brief to the agency. Once they have placed the creative design over the wireframe, start your user testing from scratch.
Technically Proficient Technical folk, such as the company's web developers and programmers are an interesting bunch. They usually know your systems back to front, and should be consulted on your website early on, as they always pick up issues or raise ideas that are useful in the process, but should they be left to design your user's web experience? No, but they often are. What tends to happen is that whoever is briefed in the website forgets to design the boring bits, like error messaging, or validation messages. They also often forget to provide the developer with a flow diagram or technical brief. Therefore, the developer is left the unenviable task of filling in the blanks, which usually means they will design a DOS-style pop up and write copy filled with technical terms and three letter acronyms, leaving your customer baffled.
Strategy: Involve your techies early on, get their input and incorporate their feedback in the wireframe. Sit with a developer and design the flow diagram together, they know better than you what it should contain and what wording to use. If the project is particularly tricky, include a technical brief that has a systematic guide with screenshots and functional requirements.
Now that that the above five opinions are out of the equation, who should design your website? The person who should design your website is a user experience (UX) specialist. They will work with the above five people, gather all business and customer requirements, wireframe the design, identify surrogate users, test it with users, refine the design, send it for technical input and creative design, test again, refine again and finally, after coding and testing, make it live in a beta environment. This is probably the least painful way to design a website; it might take a little longer initially, but will reduce time spent changing the site, after it goes live.
It all boils down to one thing: do not let opinion direct your website's design. You need to use facts that are simple enough to garner, using web analytics and usability testing.
Remember, there never seems to be enough time to get it right the first time, but there always seems to be enough time to redo it!
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