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Design by committee

by Bernie Johnson
27 Jan 2010
21min read
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Design by committee

Following is a Q&A from Marketing Magazine’s recent Design Issue, with Adrenalin Media Director, Bernie Johnson.

How important is engaging a user experience expert when developing a website?

User experience experts bring an objective perspective to the information architecture and design process and, as such, play an integral role in developing a website.

All too often in the online creative process, the vested interests of either the design or brand teams prevail and end up dictating the final look and feel of a website. This often means usability considerations are not given due attention – the result of which can be extremely detrimental to the success of a website project and, ultimately the ROI generated.

The role of a user experience expert is to dramatically increase a company’s competitive advantage – they do this via structured information architecture and usability models that impact both a user's perception and their interaction with a brand online.

Intuitive functionality, branding, usability and structured content are essential to the success of any user experience model. User experience is really the same thing as customer service. If you provide users with an intuitive, aesthetically pleasing experience - and offer them accessible information - it not only helps to increase return visits to your website, but it can have a profound effect on generating positive brand sentiment whilst significantly reducing bounce and abandonment rates on a website.

What integration with social media are you seeing in web design?

Social media integration has been occurring in website design since the advent of RSS feeds and blogs in the late 1990’s. More recently, however, many of the larger social media players such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr have allowed live content to be published directly to a website using the numerous APIs and XML feeds available. This enables seamless integration of social media into a website design, as the social content is effectively managed like all other content on the website.

The most commonly used types of social media integration include:

Links and dynamic content feeds to social networking profile pages

It’s become the standard for many companies to include links to their social networking pages (Facebook/Twitter/Linked In) from their main website. More recently however, we have seen social networking audiences given the capacity to contribute to the conversation about a brand experience directly on the website through a social feed. It's also important to remember that if you integrate your feeds into your professional website you don’t forget that they’re showing up there. Current and potential clients will see exactly what you’ve written or posted, along with contributions from people that may not be so favorable in what they say about your brand.

It's recommended that the social feeds aren't just dropped randomly into a left-hand column on your website. You need to take the time to really integrate it into your site and build a creative aesthetic around the feed. Look at the page elements currently in your design and decide what will work best around your integrations. Just make sure the tweets, videos, or whatever else you’re integrating are going to be relevant to your website visitors.

Use of Social Media for content

People no longer wish to be spoken to with company rhetoric, they want to be part of the conversation and even drive the direction of what’s being said about a brand they are passionate about. Integrating a social media feed directly into a website illustrates a company’s willingness to listen to their customers. From a SEO perspective, the benefits of integrating social media content directly into a website are enormous.

Tools like TweetDeck allow for real-time monitoring of the "chatter" amongst participants in the social space and, more importantly, offer an opportunity to respond to any customer frustrations quickly and efficiently. Flickr and YouTube embedded Flash players are also common these days, saving development time and costs (for website owners) associated with having to purchase / build a custom media player for displaying photo or video content.

Which content management system(s) do you use or recommend?

With the advent of Web 2.0 and the growing importance of social media, Content Management Systems (CMS) have evolved over the past few years to become Website Management Systems (WMS).

You should choose a tool to manage your website which is a scalable and feature rich, all-in-one website and content management system. The right tool will allow you to have complete control of your website, customer and and campaign management from a single online interface. Standard features of the latest Website Management Systems include:

  • Drag-and-drop content management and editing
  • Rich-text WYSIWYG control
  • Video player integration
  • Website versioning and rollback control
  • Social media integration (live Twitter reporting, RSS, blogs)
  • Search Engine Optimised content output
  • SMS alerts for content updates
  • Dashboard for campaign analysis and visitor profiling
  • Functionality to produce a mobile-friendly version of your website

Recommended commercial Website Management Systems include SiteCore™, Komosion™ and FortisWMS™.

Is it better to outsource web design or bring it in house?

Website design is not a responsibility that should be given to the junior graphic designer. Website design is a very specialised field, requiring an innate knowledge about the principals on usability, search and online behavioral patterns.

People spend more time interacting online with your brand than they do through any other channel. As such, you need to ensure your brand resonates as strongly online as it does in all your other marketing collateral.

The sheer volume of websites online, all competing for share of voice and airtime, dictates that there is a huge amount of “noise” that needs to be cut through. It is so important that your online branding and aesthetic is consistent with all other channels if cut-through is to be achieved.

Utilising creative resources at your digital media agency will ensure the design team has familiarity with your client’s brand objectives and, more importantly, with the customer’s online behavioural patterns. The end result is often a creative solution which is more closely aligned with the needs of the end-users.

What are some exciting things happening with website functionality?

One of the most important developments in recent years is the utilization of the AJAX framework to create a much richer experience for end-users. AJAX has meant the myriad of page reloads needed for website content refreshing not longer exists – the user can now interact with the website content and controls much more seamlessly than before.

Recent developments in Rich Media tools have also opened up new possibilities for online advertising. Users can now interact with specific ad-units in real time and consume media in ways never before possible. The ubiquity of the Flash and Java engines has meant that users can be offered an entirely new level of real-time engagement – instead of just passively watching advertisements online, they can interact with your brand through a widget, Google gadget or iPhone application.

Augmented-reality is also another new and exciting development in website and mobile functionality. With augmented reality - graphics, audio and other “sense” enhancements are superimposed over a real-world environment in real-time – essentially virtual data is blended with the physical real world. By using the compass, camera and GPS systems on an iPhone or Google Android phone, you can see things like the location of Twitter users and local restaurants in the physical world, even if they are hundreds of kilometers away.

What is the best way to communicate site maintenance or updates to your audience?

The days of an “under construction” page are long gone.

Unless there are major structural changes made to a website, the end user should never need to be told about site maintenance. Any maintenance should be fully tested before being released to a live environment, so that changes to the website operate as expected.

The concept of online usability - and building a user-friendly website - dictates that any navigation or functionality changes made on a website should be intuitive and simple to interact with; without the need to inform an audience that maintenance has been carried out.

What are some features that have begun to date in terms of web design?

The emergence of Web 2.0 brought about the use of big glossy buttons, and though these will continue to remain big (or get even bigger!), the gloss will fade. The use of glossy buttons grew exponentially, to the point where it started to become annoying and quite an eyesore! As we move forward we'll see buttons and call-to-actions that are still very prominent and attention grabbing, but not overly glossy to the point of being tacky.

Something else that is fading fast is the practice of left aligning websites. The same goes for spanning the layout to the full width of the window. More and more websites these days have a fixed width and are centre aligned. The reason for this is that resolutions are becoming larger, which allows fixed width centred sites to remain in the middle of the screen, in line with the users natural line of sight.

As we head towards Web 3.0 with even more focus towards consumer-driven content, and smart information architecture, we will begin to see more web design elements begin to fade away.

What do you think of incorporating flash elements – yay or nay?

Flash definitely serves a purpose in web design, but the key is to use it only when and where it is needed. Flash is quite often used for elements that don’t necessarily require it. For example, image slideshows or transitioning of website elements. There are many JavaScript libraries such as jQuery or MooTools that can do these effects and more. Considering everything comes pre-compiled, they are very easy to implement on your website. Another advantage to using JavaScript over Flash is that your content remains SEO friendly and can also be seen on mobile devices such as the iPhone.

For cases such as videos, complex animations, or rich media banners, Flash is the answer. With powerful video and 3D capabilities, users can create elements that are both highly engaging but also cross platform compatible. Flash also allows for complex applications to be integrated into the website, such as calculators, interactive surveys, as well as augmented reality with the help of webcams.

How do you optimise web design for SEO?

The primary focus when designing a website so that it is optimised for SEO is to ensure the creative page layout conforms to W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards-compliance – basically this is a internationally accredited guideline for building websites so that they render the same across different devices and platforms.

Gateway pages (or Flash introductions) should never be used and the design of a website should allow for extensive use of cascading style sheets (CSS), which ensure good website structure is maintained. There should be an extensive use of headings throughout your design to delineate sections of text and the most important content should appear as close to the top of the page as possible.

Images and Flash should not be used for navigation and headings – all navigation elements and headings should be text-based so that they can be indexed by search engines (search engines cannot read images).

The design should incorporate extensive use of internal linking and navigation and include footer links at the bottom of every page which contain links to keywords and content.

Social media feeds (such as Twitter) and blogs should also be incorporated into the page design as should video content which, when optimised, will be indexed to appear in search results.

How can marketers lower costs of a new website or website updates?

This can be done in a few ways.

  • Establish a relationship with a digital agency that understands your business and customers. It is like finding a trustworthy mechanic you know will give you real bottom-line value and tailor options based on your budget.
  • Identify your target audience – Segmenting, Targeting and Positioning. Ask yourself “Who do I want to be visiting my website?” Like any marketing efforts, it’s imperative that you go through the process of segmenting (what groups or industries do I want to reach out to?), targeting (who exactly within these groups will visit my website?) and positioning (what is the branding and messaging I want conveyed on my website to these people?) Online is no different to traditional marketing in the need to first identify and assess your target audience.
  • Know what you want and clearly identify your objectives. Project blowouts and scope creep can be avoided by simply outlining the project specs with your digital agency. The more information defined the less that can be left to interpretation, guesswork and potentially additional costs.
  • Pick 5 of your favorite business websites and list the things you like about them. These don’t need to be sites from your industry, but it’s a great way of articulating to your agency exactly what features, functionality and look and feel you’re after.
  • Pick a budget that’s realistic The old adage that you pay for what you get is no truer in website projects and the digital industry.

How often should a website be refreshed in terms of design?

There is no hard rule, however, with the rapid pace of technological change online, after 18 months your website will most likely start to look tired and outdated.

The great thing about standards-compliance websites is that if your website is originally designed and built correctly, you can re-skin the site without the need to undergo a ground-up rebuild.

Do you have any examples of successful site design that you can relate back to ROI?

Guthy-Renker - Proactiv Australia 2009 (www.proactiv.com.au)

The client brief involved a rebuild of the Proactiv Australia website to take advantage of new technology advancements and offer a more engaging online shopping experience for customers. Key objectives of the 2009 project were to increase conversion rates and increase average order value for online purchases on the Proactiv website.

Design improvements aimed at maximising ROI included:

  • Optimised landing page design with Web 2.0 focus – clean, uncluttered pages and intuitive navigation
  • Provision of clear call-to-actions on each page
  • Big bold button design and extensive use of white-space in page layout
  • Provision of secondary, “safety valve” call to actions (such as “Live Help” and “Click to Call”)
  • Ensuring all form designs were clean and simple

The new site needed to allow for extensive scalability and be flexible enough to accommodate the multitude of campaign variations, A/B testing, promotional activities and general website enhancements/modifications which the client needed.

In order to ensure the project was approached objectively, Adrenalin Media carried out extensive research and requirements analysis with the client. Creative industry benchmarks were also identified, with the objective of ensuring the site eclipsed best practice.

Intuitive navigation and usability was incorporated into the website design, as was the ability to enable simple “point and click” checkout process for customers. The website was designed with XSLT/CSS and minimum W3C accessibility standards in mind, ensuring cross browser / cross platform rendering was maintained.

The platform was also architected for seamless integration with a new website management system, which represented a single administrative portal from which Guthy-Renker website administrators can update and maintain website content, campaigns, A/B tests and product details.

Since the Proactiv website launched in August 2009, performance results have far exceeded any expectations held by the client. Key metrics include a 17% increase in Average Order Value, 46% increase in upgraded/larger sized Proactiv kit being purchased, 58% increase in customer upsells and 16% increase in conversion.

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