Design I: Making your site pretty can get ugly

It is the first thing people think to change; the first thing people notice; the first thing people complain about; and it is the last thing that should be changed - website design.

Redesigning a website isn’t a simple matter. People tend to think that if they just change a few colours, the font, and add a photo, their website will be a winner. But unless there is a clear understanding of the site’s purpose and the desired audience, the site will not be a success – and that is never pretty.

“Companies are increasingly embracing the idea that design is a key element of strategy” according to a recent artlicle in Business Week. The article highlights the upcoming redesign of Yahoo, which, though it can be considered a successful site and is ranked 8th in Business Week’s list of 50 top performers, could be better. remains cluttered and scattershot, almost schizophrenic. If looking at a company's home page is like reading its palm, Yahoo's tells the story of a company trying to be everything to everyone. There are headlines, celebrity gossip, e-mail logins, search -- even Web hosting for small businesses. Is it a media company, a services company, or a search company? Says John Zapolski, a former manager of several design teams at Yahoo: "You can't immediately tell why Yahoo is the best at anything." Ouch.

So how can you learn from Yahoo? It’s as simple and as involved as developing a business strategy for your website.

Business Strategy

Vision, mission, objectives, goals, strategies and tactics aren’t just a collection of words dusted off at the beginning of every year or for every communications’ plan. They need to be understood if they are to be realized and goals need to be measurable. Whatever your strategy, before implementing any project you need to know what your critical success factors are so you know how to achieve success and measure it. For websites it is tempting just to fall back on web logs and page view metrics. However, more and more companies are coming to believe in the importance of understanding behaviour. How are users using the site and how do you want them to use it?

Defining the site’s purpose

Why do you have a website? Does your answer(s) align with your business strategy? Does your site have measurable objectives? Who is accountable for its success?

There are four basic objectives to communicating information: to inform, to entertain, to promote (indirect sales) and to sell. Your site may have one or more of these objectives in which case you need to prioritize and define different areas.

Your goals need to be smart — specific, measurable, accessible, reachable and timely. To have a goal that just states “to communicate with employees/customers” isn’t sufficient. How will you know if you are communicating successfully? Is it through use of the site? Employee Satisfaction survey results? Online sales numbers? What is it that you are communicating? How often? Do you have weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual goals that need to be reached? What happens if they aren’t reached? Who is accountable? How are you promoting the site? How are you measuring your promotion efforts?

These are just some of the questions you need to address to develop your goals for your strategic website. You also need to have a strong understanding of your users.

Understanding your users

It is important that you have a good understanding of your audience.

Websites may have been initiated for a variety of reasons but at the end of the day it is the user of the site that determines if the site is a success. Demographic information like age, sex, education, economics, and geographic region, will provide you with some basic guidelines but the more detail you can collect the better able you will be in addressing your users’ needs. In order to understand your users and the issues they face, data can be collected using qualitative (interviews and focus groups) or quantitative (surveys and log analysis) research. A mixture is recommended as qualitative information will give you details and depth in understanding issues; quantitative will provides statistical data for baseline comparison (comparing results over time).

Research questions should relate to corporate objectives. Understanding corporate goals and getting a clear picture of current issues will enable you to develop questions to bridge the gap between where you are to where you want to be.

Once you’ve collected sufficient information on your users and have analyzed the results you need to confirm your goals and outline tactics to fill any gaps.

Your tactics in fulfilling your website strategy also need to include an assessment of your resources —content and digital assets, staff, as well as technology and functional requirements.

Content requirements

A site content audit is highly recommended prior to redesign. If undertaking a new site then an assessment of the material you have available needs to be completed and a list compiled of new content that needs to be written including digital assets (graphics, images, documents) that may require treatment. Research on your users will reveal what information they want and need to access, the frequency they need to access any content and also the importance of specific content. This knowledge will provide the shape of your information architecture and layout of information.

Staffing requirements

Content authors and owners need to be defined so that content is maintained and updated regularly. Every site needs to have an executive champion – someone who understands the site’s strategic objectives and who is accountable for its overall success. Publishers, designers, and content authors should meet on a regular basis to discuss issues as well as to ascertain whether or not the site is meeting the strategic goals. An editorial policy should be created so that all staff involved with the site understand the standards and follow the site guidelines to maintain consistency and cohesiveness. It is highly recommended that an editorial committee be struck to provide a point of contact for people involved in the site. Both the intranet and Internet have unique challenges but providing clearly established roles and accountability there is less opportunity to get bogged down in internal politics. (See Goverance articales for more iformation)

Technical requirements

Technology should support business and user requirements and should ‘scale’ to support future requirements. Most companies started with simple websites with static HTML and FTP (file transfer protocol) but now they recognize the need for more users to be involved. Some considerations include number of users managing new content, publishing and workflow; collaboration; application access; file management, etc. You may require a content management system, a document management system, a portal, or other technology to support your requirements. There may also be specific features that the business and users need access to – tools, dashboards, reports etc. Knowing your business strategic objectives as well as the day to day requirements of your users will enable you to create a list of functions and features you require in your technology.

Once requirements are clearly defined you must incorporate how success is to be measured.

Taking Measurement

Measurement is a must. A measurement plan should include weblogs or metrics programs such as WebTrends or Urchin analyze key user data including:

  • Page views
  • Visits
  • Unique visitors
  • Referrals (what URLs did the user come from)
  • Entrance pages
  • Exit pages
  • Top sections, pages, downloads, etc,

Weekly, monthly and annual comparisons are important for updating and tailoring sites according to user demand. HITS are not business metrics – they’re server performance metrics and can be very misleading.

In addition to log analysis, periodic user surveys (coupled with focus groups and usability testing) are good tools for gaining valuable insight into what users want and need from your site.

Design Strategy

Once you have an understanding of your users and your business requirements and know how you’re going to measure success you can build your design strategy.

Your design strategy should be reflective of your business and communication objectives:

  • What is it that you want your website to do?
  • What do you need it to achieve?
  • What do you need to emphasize?
  • What are your organization’s brand rules and limitations?

Design should incorporate and be an integral part of your branding strategy. Standards and guidelines need to be developed for consistency and effectiveness. After all, if everything on your site is a different colour how can you emphasize what is important?

Applying strategy

Now that you know what your site’s purpose is, who your audience is and what you want to achieve with your site you can put it all together. You want to emphasize content that will get your users to do what you want them to do – learn, be entertained, become aware, and/or buy. You need to establish measurements of your users’ behaviour to determine if your site is achieving all it can.

Design isn’t simple. It will need to be redone if it isn’t reflective of business requirements that take your users into account and have defined success measures. So if you want your site to be pretty, first make sure it is strategic – then it will be pretty successful.

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Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10 years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.