design

My dad’s New Year (ok, Hogmanay) tradition was to clean the house from top to bottom, and then make lentil soup. I think the theory was that if you enter the New Year with your house in order and your soup on the stove, you have as good a beginning as you can have.

(The other part of his tradition was a laser-guided trip to the wee off-licence round the corner, where he bought industrial quantities of Tennent’s Lager, Whyte and Mackay whiskey, and ginger ale. And several teeny bottles of Ball’s Advocaat and Babycham. There’s my Celtic Twilight history. Ah well. :-) )

Anyway. I haven’t managed the soup making but the hall’s all freshly vacuumed and there’s home-made lemon tart ready to take to our New Year gathering. Nothing to do but wait. There’s the beat of a moment between now and next year. I love that sense of warm possibility.

The post I’ve been meaning to write here was about voice. I hate to admit it, but not every great business has a website to match. In fact, I see some businesses who (from here) seem to be doing perfectly all right, yet have rather horrible websites.

Visual design isn’t everything.

Yet, if I examine the websites that make my teeth ache, I usually see two things that are very, very important.

First: Great web-based businesses provide things that their audiences want very much. Could be a product or a service. Whatever it is, it’s highly desirable and the audience will put up with a lot to get hold of it.

And second (this particularly applies to the coaches and consultants out there): Successful online enterprises have a strong, confident, unique voice. A great voice will overcome the less-than-perfect visuals.

So, when I look at a website, I look at the visual design, but I also examine the content carefully. We’re drowning in websites. So many voices, so many options. People struggle with visual design, but they really, really struggle with their voice.

A good look is a great starting-point, but it’s useless without mission and conviction. The uncertain voice is easy to dismiss, because there are so many other things out there just like it. The clear voice is hard to define, but you know it when you read it.

Of course, finding your voice is easier said than done. But I think it’s the key. Once your voice and mission is clear, everything else begins to fall into place.

So that’s my New Year sermon. I’ll raise a glass to you and your enterprises, whatever they are. Find your vision, project your voice, and wrap it in a way that brings your audience running to you.

Have a great New Year.

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Crowd, by MissCrash, via DeviantArt

Yes, it’s time to talk about what user experience types grandly refer to as ‘user journeys’. The word ‘journey’ does sound somewhat major, but don’t get caught out: some of those journeys are the pixellated exquivalent of popping to the corner shop for a pint of milk, rather than crossing the Andes by hovercraft.

As site owners, we mostly try to steer people towards the Grand Journeys that we want to promote and we utterly neglect the small everyday journeys that are also important. A good website will handle all of the journeys, more or less elegantly.

Let’s brainstorm. (Big piece of paper)

Why do people come to your site?

  • to check you out
  • to shop around for The Kind of Stuff You Have
  • to find out how much Your Kind of Thing costs and how much the postage is
  • to buy your Big Thing, obviously! Yay!

…OK, now the boring stuff…

  • to find a photograph of the managing director
  • to download a report
  • to find a phone number
  • to look at your press release archive

…and the painful stuff….

  • to find something for their homework assignment.
  • to argue with other commenters about your last blog post
  • to see if you’ve got any jobs going
  • to find a vaguely valid email address
  • to find out your address so that they can show up for their meeting with the Finance Director/come to the December Health and Safety Committee meeting/come for a job interview/protest outside your offices, accurately.

I could go on.

Many of those tasks are not very interesting to you.
Many of those people are not really of much value to you (pfft, students).

There are customers and prospects in there, it’s true.  Hooray! They can stay! But there are also suppliers, colleagues, bosses, competitors, jobseekers, students, and what you may call shameless freeloaders.

Aaarghh.

It is tempting just to chat to serious prospects and customers waving actual money in your face, but you really have to do more.

How to tackle it

Let’s group those user goals into categories. I’ve come up with 5 for the list up there, although there are may be a few more to represent every type of website. Down below, I discuss how you might want to handle these different types of journey on your site.

1. Standard business courtesy -> Make it lovely

Emails, address and phone number.  Opening hours. These matter a lot to your people, so make them easy to find.  I’ve always thought that the postal address/map/directions page can say a lot about an organisation.  It’s easy to make these pleasant and creative, introducing people to a sense of you and your organisation.

The absence of some of these details also sends cues to website visitors. If you are selling physical products and do not list a postal address, you will be deterring some customers.

Your Page Not Found error message is also a place for brand-related hilarity, or whatever the IT department decides to put there.

2. Non-core requests ->Package it

This is the busywork that can take up a lot of your time. You may not be able to remove it altogether, but you can allow the site to handle a great deal of it.

For example, if you never use recruitment agencies, you can state that on a page.  You can use frequently asked questions, you can have a press release archive, or you can make up homework packs for all the schoolchildren who are endlessly asking about your green policies.

3. Reading, commenting, sharing -> Design for right action

How you design these really does depend on your deep goals.  Your business blog might be a window for your ideas, largely meant to impress prospective customers. Or it may be more of a salon, or a highly interactive community.

Your style will determine some of the reader reaction, but you can also design for the type of interaction that you hope for. So if you want people to share your pieces with other, make it easy to share. Simple.

4. Window-shopping ->Provide the detail

This is one of the most important functions of your website: attracting people in, getting on their shortlist ready to be involved with you more in the future.

This means giving people the detail needed to make a good decision. It’s also likely to mean writing and designing your detail with a particular audience in mind, not trying to cater to everyone. For a physical product, it means great quality images and good descriptions that don’t neglect important details.

5. Buying -> Make it simple and pleasant to buy

There is a lot to say on this topic alone. For now, I’ll focus on one thing: Make the online transaction as lovely and rewarding as the thing that you are providing, so that they are likely to come back.

This takes time and work and not a little research. But the rewards are great.

More on these last two points, later in the series.

The thing is: know exactly what your visitors will want from you, including the stuff that doesn’t especially interest you. Then create a site which offers nice pathways for all these different categories of use. Yes, some users will take priority, but a good site will cater for all of the people with an interest in your work.

Previous posts in the series can be found here:
Part 1: Website to Wonderful, Makeover Edition
Part 2:
Usability, or How not to make your visitors’ eyeballs bleed

 

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