"You don't understand the humiliation of it! To be tricked out of the single assumption that makes our existence bearable. That somebody is watching. We need an audience."
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Your website probably sucks. I say this with a high degree of confidence even though I haven't seen it. But wait, you're thinking, that's crazy-talk! How could someone possibly make such a blanket-statement about something they've never even seen?
The answer, my friend, is simply that most websites do suck. The vast majority are designed based on paradigms established in the late 1990's. They act as "online brochures" or static calling cards to credential their owner in some way. The website may be an amazing blend of art and function, but is it essential to the daily web-browsing routine of your target audience?
This article is about why your website is probably failing to attract and support the traffic you once so optimistically envisioned. If you think your sole problem is to be found in a mere code fix or SEO consultant, then the things I'm about to say may make no sense to you. If you think a website alone is the answer to getting your message out to the public, again, this may not be the article for you. And for those who think of websites as websites, you need to change your perspective or find a way to travel back in time to the year 1999.
For those looking for practical design tips and common mistakes, fear not. Such shall be posted at the end of this article for your consideration regarding your own web endeavors.
But first let me draw your attention to something referred to as "User-Centered Design" or UCD. This is not to be confused with OCD-oriented design which presumes the average web-visitor has an average attention span of less than 4 seconds and must be impaled on a flashy fish hook before-clicking off your site. UCD is a design philosophy that emphasizes the needs and wants of your anticipated audience.
I humbly submit that proper attention to UCD is dramatically more important than any other consideration when designing your website. f a user is getting what they want and expect from your site, they will be happy users. However good your SEO and other support marketing of the site, if the user isn't getting what they want from it, it will eventually wither and die.
Before delving deeper into UCD, I would be grievously remiss if I failed to mention the second-most important aspect of web design: marketing the site. I'm often confronted with clients who labor under the mistaken belief that having a good website is an end unto itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even "web savvy" clients make this mistake and rely on search engines to drive visitors to their site. When confronted with such unbridled optimism, I explain it this way. A website is like a television channel. You might have some of the most achingly cool original shows ever conceived by the mind of man, but how will people know which channel to turn to? A TV guide listing is a good start (i.e., Search Engine Optimization), but that alone isn't enough.
A good web marketing plan must include more than just a good SEO component. It must also include a comprehensive strategy including social networking, cross-promotion, and traditional marketing in print, radio, and television advertisements. Yes, I said traditional advertising. If your website caters to a specialty market (for example a client who sells equine jewelry for horse shows), then an ad in Saddle and Bridle magazine is a must.
But assuming even an excellent promotional campaign and SEO, if your website doesn't provide what the users want, you just might find your website going the way of MySpace. Classic examples of heavily-promoted websites that failed to deliver what their users wanted: Stage6, Digg, pets.com, and yahooauctions.com. All of these sites offered good services and were heavily supported with advertising. But in the end, they couldn't keep their audience.
Unless you're designing your website to deliver what your audience wants, needs, and expects, your website sucks. In the end, it will fail to deliver whatever hoped-for results you had planned. It may be pretty, it may function wonderfully, it may even be blessed with hundreds of thousands of initial visitors due to good marketing or the vicissitudes of the viral Gods. But if users aren't getting what they want, it's only a matter of time before you join the dot.graveyard.
So how to design for UCD? First and foremost you need to remove yourself from the equation. It's not about what you want to communicate or the things you think they want: it's about what they think they want. You already have a preconceived notion as to what your audience wants. You are literally too close to the trees to see the forest from the outside. It's imperative to hire a professional who understands the importance of UCD and who will spend the time getting into the mind-space of the audience. You need someone who really understands how the audience thinks and how that translates into user-interface and content delivery.
Once the user-experience has been defined, you must understand this is only the beginning. A one-time only visitor to your website is next to useless. You want repeat visits, loyalty and word-of-mouth. These things have to be earned by delivering more than your audience expects: it's delivering what they need and that translates as a constant flow of new information, involvement, and support. An entertainment website that isn't updated daily is as useful as last week's newspaper. Fresh and relevant content is essential to staying alive in today's marketplace.
If your website isn't providing fresh content, pertinent updates, and in-tune with the evolving needs of your audience, then your website sucks. You might argue that a well-maintained blog may be the answer, and sometimes it can be.
In today's market convergence of web, television, and radio, a daily update of new content is essential to longevity. No longer can a company feel secure with a one-time only investment in a good website. They need to budget for the care and feeding of the site. If your online investment ends at the launch of your website, then the only thing you've purchased is a product that will be stale and obsolete four seconds after a visitor has clicked on it.
What strategies do you have in place to keep your website alive and relevant? Do you rely on SEO or a basic need-driven customer base for your website? Or do you have a growing base of loyal web visitors who consider your website a daily essential? Have you found the secret of a self-sustaining turn-key site that requires no updating or maintenance to be successful? Share your experience here with what's worked and not worked for your site. Inquiring minds want to know.
Now, for the Big List of Basic Do's, Don'ts, and Always for today's web design
- Don't have a intro or splash page that can't be skipped.
- Don't have music. If you must, for heaven's sake include an "off" or "mute" option.
- Don't assume SEO alone will bring the masses to you. Explore strategies to go to the masses. Social networking, YouTube channels, and traditional print media in targeted periodicals should be considered.
- Do be user-friendly and easy to navigate.
- Don't impose an artificial veneer or template. Reflect the "look and feel" of the product or message. Your design can be boring so long as the content is not.
- Don't over-sell your content.
- Do drive users towards an objective.
- Don't rely on users to figure out the navigation: keep it obvious.
- Don't load your website with gadgets. There was a time when "hit counters" were the "in" thing. It was like shouting to the world, "Hey, see, I'm popular!" Now it just says, "Hey, I live in 1998."
- Do avoid splash pages and over-use of flash.
- Do avoid "ad" and "Banner" clutter.
- Do include social networking links.
- Do check for cross-platform browser compatibility.
- Do design your website to be viewed from mobile devices.
- Don't look like an advertisement!
- Do avoid animations on intro pages: they will take time to load on slower connections.
- Don't use pop ups or ads from advertisers you can't control.
- Do use CSS style sheets.
- Do learn more about UCD: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User-centered_design
Todd Fluhr is a freelance writer and multimedia designer. A self-described "Shockwave Rider" of technology, culture, and creativity, he has been involved in the interactive entertainment industry since the early 90's. He hopes to find time to sleep some day.