More Digital blog

16

May 2012

The MoreDigital Guide to Communication: Websites

Posted in Books and Guides, Business tactics | 0 Comments

The MoreDigital Guide to Communication - website section header.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.

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21

Nov 2011

Is it worth learning webmaster skills as a business owner?

Posted in Business tactics, Technology | 0 Comments

A lot of online businesses are run by a small team of people – and in some cases, just one person. That’s a lot of responsibility, but with hired help for coding and building the site, creating something that practically runs itself is going to prove to be an advantage in the long run. But sites will break, and not having the right skill-set to fix anything can really let you down in 2011.

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” states the Joker, in The Dark Knight. Odd place to source your advice, but I couldn’t agree more. If you’re doing something for free – i.e. fixing someone’s broken HTML – then you better be getting something great in return, or you’re costing yourself time you could be a) sleeping, b) making money, or c) not doing endless amounts of people favours with no rewards. But sadly that also means that those who are computer illiterate and trying to run a site will often run into difficulties – specifically, ones they can’t fix without forking out for a second salary.

Learning basic skills doesn’t take long at all – HTML and CSS are not impervious to the almost beginner – and even learning how to set up and manage a WordPress blog is going to help when it comes to making sure the small business you’re trying to get off the ground doesn’t falter in the early stages. After all, you don’t want to have to run to an IT-knowledgeable friend or relative (or worse, expensive freelancer) when you could be Googling and problem-solving.

The Google aversion is probably the source of 90% of the tech problems I hear. It’s so simple to Google your answer, and people are vocal and knowledgeable enough to have written about it years before you’re wanting questions answered and problems solved. Sometimes I ask questions on Twitter despite knowing I should be Googling, but it’s this knowledge – that the info I need is out there, waiting to be read, that means all is not lost if those I know personally can’t help me out.

Being a self-starter is all about being driven and committed, and making sure you can accomplish what you need to in a self-reliant manner is part of that. Starting a business means saying goodbye to the nine-to-five, and if you think any different then you’re kidding yourself. In the beginning, everything is down to you, from the accounting to getting the office internet connection set up. You don’t turn up for eight hours a day and claim a salary each month.

Sound daunting? It’s not – learning how to craft sites, deal with Paypal and forgo paid themes in favour of your own CSS artistry can actually be an enjoyable and empowering experience. It certainly has been for me – I know that after learning, Googling, asking questions and making mistakes, I can take a great site idea and actually build it into a working prototype. For every person who’ll call you a “noob” or claim you’ve no business, well, running a business, there’s someone who’s willing to walk you through the basics. Don’t get left behind – be one of the people leading the way.

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21

Sep 2010

Dealing with change

Posted in Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments


Graph courtesy of blog.hubspot.com.

It’s not every day that big websites go through a major overhaul of their layout, and if you’ve seen IMDB‘s profile layout recently, it’s gone picture-heavy and facts-light until far down the page. This, personally speaking, is a nightmare. Finding crucial information becomes difficult, and it makes the website seem celebrity obsessed and Facebook-esque.

But what can we do? Kim Krause Berg argues over at searchengineland.com that major overhauls and changes to anything from layout to security can be a good thing, but I disagree. Let me grace your vision with a few hypothetical scenarios for large sites with many users, and what a major change to their site could do to the traffic, and even their revenue.

Business A is a leading online store of books, DVDs and music (no prizes for guessing what the “A” stands for…), and its layout has remained largely the same for around a decade. All of a sudden, it changes and looks like something you’d see on an iPhone, all slick scrolling widgets and little text. New, younger users will take to it more, but most will feel it feels less secure and less mature, and as a result begin to shop somewhere that focuses more on the product’s value than the aesthetics.
Business B is a site for a financial advice company that focuses on pensions and life insurance. Their site is updated from an old but functional, formal style into a Flash-based presentation that appeals to a younger audience (noticing a pattern, here?). Cue a lot of people who were happy with the pre-Web 2.0 style wondering what the point was.

And why the re-design? To get with the kids. From experience, unless you’re a rap star, you’re not going to be 18 and looking into a personal financial adviser – most clients are older, I’m reliably informed by my financial-adviser correspondent. So, who are you really marketing to? In addition, the 2012 Retail Distribution Review will only allow for fixed fees, so costs will likely grow to compensate for the loss of commission-based financial products.

Pointless site updates are numerous, and I think unless you can justify it in terms of performance statistics (accessibility, load times, bandwidth), then what’s the point? You’re putting a new cover on an old couch, and expecting it to be what convinces people to sit on it. But we all know once we’ve sat down, it’s still as hard as the old one and the same spring is still stabbing into your leg, so you stand up and walk off.

IMDB’s re-design was a sticking point for me simply because they took a mature, fountain-of-film-knowledge look, and turned it into a glorified poster and celebrity gallery for around 800 pixels in length. Why? To appeal to a generation who prefer to watch rather than read, and look rather than study.

We’re a generation of iPhone Apps, YouTube and Facebook, and sometimes we can’t even read unless it’s shown to us on a Kindle. IMDB’s “IMDB Pro” subscription seems a moot point on a site that seems to conform more now to teen layouts than actual film executives or actors using the site for networking and their online resume.

Kim also states that many people responded in a hostile manner to Sphinn’s removal of the voting system. Re-designs are sometimes needed, but to remove a vital part of user interaction on a community-driven aggregate site seems borderline suicidal. What would happen if Amazon removed their star-review system, or Digg decided that it would post what the staff thought was good?

Sometimes all you want is a new sofa, but before you know it you’ve bought a £3,200 chaise-longue and a set of French windows, and suddenly your mates don’t have movie nights at your house, any more. Choose your design decisions carefully, because loyal members are a stubborn and shallow bunch, and they’re also the people regularly throwing their wallets at you.

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28

Jun 2010

Fidget with your widgets

Posted in Blogging, Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 2 Comments »

A while ago, I was searching for a way to make some money with an older domain of mine. There were a ton of options, and all of them seemed good as money or traffic generators. Some stood out – everyone who’s ever looked at the online side of their business and thought “I could make this work for me” has looked into Google AdSense or affiliate programs. More recently, we’ve delved into an even better way to make your site the best possible one-stop-shop for visitors. These would be the Batman utility-belt of the consumer-savvy web-designer: the widget.

It does what?

Widgets are ingenious little fellows that you settle into the sidebar or various other digital playpens of your web-pages. They do all sorts of things, from providing lists of useful links and recent posts, to offering you DVDs based on the article you’re reading and allowing you to Tweet what you’ve just read. It’s a fascinating wealth of opportunity – do you offer Twitter functionality on the homepage, or on press-release pages? Do you allow users to add your CEO on Facebook? Do you need a meta/login widget? The choices are endless, and it’s all too tempting to get so many  that your website begins to look less like a coherent online representation of your products and services, and more like a scrapbook.

If you’re running your site through another site-building engine and built-in CMS, like WordPress and their .com and .org solutions, then you’re in luck – many widgets come as standard for .com. If you’ve opted for the self/externally-hosted .org option, there are countless communities across the web who make and upload their own, mostly for free. It’s as simple as installing a small bit of software on your computer – plug in the plug-in, and in no time at all you’ll have additional functions for new users.

It’s important to make sure you’re choosing the right ones – I know it’s tempting to get loads of widgets that let users do just about everything, but there’s a fine line between using a sharing plugin (digg and reddit, for example) and allowing users see which of their cousins are on Facebook right now. If you’re a social media company, the latter is fine, but if you’re an Independent Financial Advisor (IFA) with 30 years of industry experience, then this may not be the ideal representation of your attitude to online business presence. The widgets you use are as representative of the company’s tone and style as your choice of t-shirts vs. suits for big global conferences, and the wrong choice can make your business’ web design look slack or uncaring.

Let’s take an example – if you’re a site that does custom kitchen design, then there are a fair few ideal widgets that would come in handy. First, you could offer them a widget that displays the latest galleries you’ve uploaded to Flickr, as a means of offering them a “recent work” section that retains better functionality than an in-built gallery. They know Flickr, they may even use Flickr, and by applying the same brand name to your site as they do to their own lives, then you’re putting the business on a level that makes it seem more human and more appealing – key to ensuring your business spreads and evolves via word-of-mouth, if anything.

Tactical widget deployment

You’ve also got the option of placing them everywhere, and if not placing them in the correct sidebar, then why not taking it a step further, and creating your own? Of course, it requires programming, time, money, and a hundred other considerations – but then again, what doesn’t? It’s no more difficult than organising the business’ tax declarations when April rolls around, as you can contract it out to a programmer and designer in much the same way as Barry the accountant is contracted out to you to sort through the endless restaurant-based “team-building meetings” receipts on your expenses list for the year.

Of course, then there’s the various options that go with that – do you make a WordPress widget? One for all websites? One for the iPhone (an App, strictly speaking, but we’ll discuss those next week) or the Mac’s widget overlay? It’s a tough choice, but I’d again state that it depends on your business. Personally, if I ran an investment firm, I’d want an iPhone-compatible website that ran widgets allowing people to connect via LinkedIn, and possibly even one tracking the stock market and another crawling finance feeds from global papers and displaying them for people to scroll through as they explore the site. All of this would be free, easy to install and afterwards make the site, its design, and therefore the business look clued-in and web-savvy enough for the visitors to have faith in them as they make big investments in a new, scary, more-digital-than-ever environment.

It’s also worth considering their source. If you’re not aiming for commercialisation and want to remain professional, ensure the widgets are for functionality only, and have no secondary agenda. This rules out the Amazon Associates widgets, for one, which may be a slight dent in your plans for monetising a site. However, it also means that you’re not associating yourself needlessly with a vendor of goods that is world-renown, as any poor performance on their part is therefore tied to you – though only if you’re working in a private-sector, b2b environment. If you’re a big, outrageous blog about celebrities and big hair, then by all means, ensure Amazon’s recommendations widget has Hair: The Musical‘s DVD release displayed proudly on the sidebar. If you’re not, stick to news.

My personal pet hate is the ridiculous amounts of sharing widgets on the bottom of each page, as I feel most of them are so seldom used that their existence on the page is, for all intents and purposes, pointless. But that’s just me – everyone’s got their own tastes, and it’s easy to appreciate why they’re on the page when they’re well-chosen and well-placed. So if you’re appealing to your resident widget-fidgets, then go in guns blazing, and allow them to log how many bullets you’ve fired in that little box on the right-hand side of your site at the same time.

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21

Jun 2010

Use your head

Posted in Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

It’s here; the final frontier. The Big One. The moment everyone’s been waiting for – Web 2.0. Hold on, what’s that? It’s already been and gone? Well, I’ll be damned. I guess my text-only, black-and-grey page with endless raw URLs and no .gif files is going to do down fairly badly. As are all the business sites who are still refusing to embrace the amazing impact web design can have on their traffic, business image and message in a world that’s all about the online.

It’s a tricky business, reorganising and redesigning a site. If it’s essentially an address and a floating logo, it’s no big deal to have it prettied up on the sly while you keep working away in the office. But if you’re always blogging and dealing with customers through it, it’s the equivalent of a White Van Man’s MOT – he can’t get work without the van, but the van can’t work without the MOT, and he can’t pay for the MOT without the work that comes from owning the van. You follow? Losing a site can be like losing a limb, even if it’s only for a week, but the benefits are huge. Everyone needs to do everything they can to stand out in the digital popularity contest that is 2010′s World Wide Web, and if you’re not flashing your widgets, you’re going down.

Pruning the hedges

First off, you’ve got to look at the aesthetic side of your website, and whether it’s really as good-looking as all its siblings in the same industry. If you’re an IFA and offering a bare-bones Blogspot domain as a means of communicating with your clients, sitting alongside your biggest competitor who’s fully Flash enabled and has Facebook and Twitter integrated into the footer, then it’s likely most people will gravitate to the one that allows them to play Asteroids while the site calculates their service fees. You’ve also got to factor in the realistic prospect of optimising your site for a multitude of different browsers, some of them no bigger than the iPhone’s resolution. Not everyone’s on dual-monitor setups; most are going to be on home laptops, netbooks, and smartphones, so think about this when you’re designing.

I know I’m promoting Flash and Apple’s wonder-phone (Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, well done Steve Jobs) but the point still stands. There are a lot of people looking for multi-browser and even multi-platform sites becoming the norm, taking it as far as utilising internet campaigns in order to reach their goal. It’s long-term, sure, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take part. Look at the way most businesses are communicating via social networking – most of these operate through smartphones and are optimised for Macs, netbooks and Chrome (the SEO expert’s choice, in my opinion). Giving them the ability to double-check your figures against that press release you just tweeted is a seriously positive bit of functionality.

It’s also worth checking out what you can do with your GUI. If you’ve got a landing page full of adverts, sidebars and endless widgets, most people aren’t going to picture you as the most informative site in the world. If your website looks like this rather than this, then you’ve got a serious problem. In fact, make sure you click the first link – we’ll go forward from there.

From what we can tell, it’s a political news site, though why it’s called Haven Works is unclear. It’s also a complete mess; I asked a web designer friend of mine to take a look and make some suggestions. He stared at it for a few moments, and I turned to him as he sat, pensive, looking at the mess of HTML and horrible, clashing colours. “Strip it out and start again?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Some sites aren’t salvageable, and if yours looks anything like that monstrosity, let me offer some advice: delete. Wipe everything, get a basic WordPress site running as a temporary replacement, and seek help. Now, that probably gets a fair amount of traffic simply because of the amount of aggregate articles and traffic it absorbs, rather like the Blob. But it’s not something you’d visit unless you, like myself, are passing it around to your friends and loved ones as a “get a load of this” site, and that doesn’t rake in the customers.

Behind the scenes

When designing a website, a lot of people seem to forget it’s not just shoving a bunch of stuff together in MS Paint and clicking on it. A lot of code and very heavy maths can sometimes go into very slick websites, and programmers work alongside designers to make this happen (though most designers have a wealth of HTML and CSS skills at their disposal as an unofficial industry standard). Breadcrumb trails, clean source code and good loading times are all factors that are managed by people working in hosting, administration and coding, and not the people who’re putting that sun-glare effect on the side of your logo.

Breadcrumb trails are also seriously important – if you’re looking to optimise for social media, think about the length of your URL. www.news.com/18472 is great if you’re wanting people to fit it into a tiny Twitter window. However, it’s not very easy to just reel off verbally, and you might be better off with www.news.com/this-just-in instead. The difference? Not much. Most people use Tiny URL and similar online services when linking to your content anyway – even we do it, sometimes. The point of a clean breadcrumb trail is that it looks nicer. Having domain.com/category/subcategory/subsubcategory/article-929282822 is just sloppy and makes your business’ approach to its web presence look the same. However, if you clean that up and simply give each page its own page without a wealth of parent pages or categories, then you’re more likely to have people remember where they were, and continue from there, if they’ve forgotten to bookmark. Humans can remember “this just in” on a predictive-search browser like Google Chrome. They can’t remember an eight-digit number they saw last Thursday.

My point to you is this – there’s a lot that goes into coding a site, building it up and making it look good, and these are a few points a lot of people (like good old Haven Works) seem to miss. This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me on this topic, though, you’ve been warned. Next week I’ll be tackling widgets and sidebars, and heaven help anyone in social media who’s staring at this sentence with glazed-over eyes. Here’s a tip for popular web-design techniques – if you don’t know it – get it. If you don’t get it, the people who do and their users won’t get you.

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