There is no faster way to reassure a potential client or customer that your business is twenty years behind than to present them with a terrible website. GIF files and clip-art from the Nineties, blocky design and the most difficult-to-navigate cluster of pages possible will tell me that you have no interest in the following:
- Your company’s image
- Modern technology
- Making everything your company offers accessible to those they want to grant access to
- Common sense
Keep customers on your site
I’ve rung the common sense bell at least once before, but I’ll give it another good old ding-a-ling anyway. In 2012 – you know, before Google’s Glass project renders all websites obsolete and we simply live behind a screen attached to our heads – your website is the most important first impression you’ll ever get to make. Compare it to your opening few jokes in a stand-up comedy routine – the first joke sets the tone for the rest of the performance. Similarly, the amount of immediately available, well-presented and easily-navigable information on a company site can make the difference between a one-off visitor and a regular user.
‘Bounce rate’ is a webmaster term that gets bandied around a lot – it simply means how many people are going to find a page on your site and then leave, rather than navigating around to see more interesting stuff. Usually, most people tend to come to a page for a specific answer, or to research one thing in particular. This means, funnily enough, that every single page on your site has to be informative – people should learn something every time they read a page on your website. You should not, under any circumstances, decide to just waffle on about your company or your products. Keep people interested, and you’ll keep them on the site.
People also go to websites to buy products and services. Should your site be selling something, then it’s not a bad idea to have a look at how easy it is for the average person to actually do that. A clear price, a well-designed shopping basket system and an easy-to-navigate catalogue will do wonders for people’s willingness to shop at your site. Don’t hide prices or postal charges, either – you wouldn’t do it in-store, so there’s no reason at all to do it online. Small print and hidden charges aren’t going to make anyone trust you or your site, and poor feedback in a public forum is – you guessed it – bad for your company image.
Personalisation, community, and plain old looking good
One of the things that I really enjoy on a website is the ability to really personalise my experience depending on how I’ve interacted with it in the past, but I find it’s a double-edged sword. For example: when I’m using Amazon, I’ll find that my logged-in homepage is full of items related to the stuff I’ve shopped for. However, if I’ve recently been browsing gifts for others, most of the items the site presents to me are now completely irrelevant to my interests. At the same time, I do feel like it’s attempting to show me stuff I’m interested in, and while I can see through the “Buy this! Give us more of your money!” sell on the site, it at least lets me know that the site is paying attention.
Another aspect of websites I like is a strong community. Not all companies will be able to make this work, but again, Amazon does it well with user reviews and discussion threads. Some commercial websites are actually built around the idea of community and discussion – see Etsy for a great example. If it does work for your site, however, then you will have to motivate people to get involved. Custom titles for those who post a lot, a reputation system, even allowing people to voluntarily moderate (although I recommend giving them rewards or considering just paying them – free labour should feel awkward to anyone).
Most importantly, however, is that your website does not look bad in terms of its actual aesthetics. You’ll notice that as of 2012, a lot of successful sites tend to be quite clean and minimalist in their appearance, and technology is often the same. As a result, cluttering up your homepage and other pages with information, sidebars and info-boxes could well tire someone out if they’re just trying to navigate through it. Make everything feel spacious. Here are some good examples.
There are many ways to test your site, the most thorough being to run strictly controlled user tests. Alternatively you could simply to unleash five (Jakob Nielsen reckons ‘five users is enough’) really picky, pedantic, annoying, easily frustrated people – five of myself, basically – on your site and see what comes back. People who click everywhere, who look at your source code because they’re nosy or jealous of your good design (again, me). Whenever you create something, you need to get people to try and break it to see where the cracks appear. Making sure those areas are fixed and reinforced is going to help once the site itself launches. So good luck, test hard, don’t design a site for someone surfing in 1994, and for God’s sake realise that people might want to hang out on your site. Don’t be afraid. The future is clickable.