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design & marketing blog

Straightforward design, marketing, and technical advice for making your marketing communications more effective.

Web Design

April 24th, 2008

Graphic design is the first thing that many Web site owners and managers think about when they seek out the services of a Web developer. There is no denying that the graphic design element of a Web site is important, in fact research shows that design has an immense and immediate effect on your visitors. Within moments, about 1/2 of those visitors will make a judgment on the credibility of your company based solely on the quality of your graphic design. So design is immensely important, just like a foundation is important for a building. The foundation must be solid and it must come first but without the building on top it acheives little.

    Google screen shotWithout design being part of a holistic strategic approach to communication, it becomes impotent. A site with no design will trump the most artistically original site if the former has quality content and offers intuitive and easy to use solutions to its target visitors needs. The classic example is the most visited and arguably most successful Web site in the world: Google.

    Web sites are a lot like people, their success is ultimately based on the value they contain, not their outward appearance. This is vital to understand so that design is put into its proper place. Web design is still important, it just has to be the dressing for content of real value.

    Google is like one of those geniuses who are so recognizable and brilliant that they can get away with wearing an old t-shirt and jeans to deliver a key-note speech. It’s fair to say the brilliance of most of us is not as common knowledge.

    Web design is the same, once the foundation of quality content is present, professional and usable design is an excellent catalyst to facilitate communicating the value of your site. In my next post I’ll get into some specifics about our philosophy and methods for designing Web sites that are modern, appealing and clearly communicate the values of your organization.

    What you should know about Web design

    November 5th, 2007

    Web design, when compared to printed design, has some unique pros and cons. A big “pro” is the flexibility of publishing to the Web. A printed marketing piece is designed once and published—most organizations don’t find it plausible to go back and reword a paragraph after 10,000 copies have already been printed.

    With Web publishing it’s relatively easy to have a Web developer make changes after the initial publication and the cost is nominal. Content Management Systems like our own WebSite 2.0 take this benefit a step further by allowing even those who aren’t trained web developers to easily login to their site and make text and graphic changes.

    On the “con” side of Web publishing a big challenge is insuring your target audience views your publication as you intended. Each type of Web browser interprets how to display any given page of HTML code—for example Internet Explorer may display a page of HTML differently than FireFox or Safari. Noticeable discrepancies can manifest even within different versions of the same browser. So, a site design tested only with Internet Explorer 7 may look great in that browser, but look like a mess in another. While this is a challenge, the risk can be mitigated by testing the majority a site’s design and layout on the most popular browsers which are reported monthly by W3C and presently consist of FireFox, Internet Explorer 6 and Internet Explorer 7.

    Not only should a Web sites appearance in popular browsers be considered, but also the individual operating environment that any given user may set themselves should be taken into consideration. For example, if the default font size is set too small by the designer (a common occurrence in my observation) users may be inclined to increase the text display size in their browsers. When this happens the browser will reformat a Web page to fit the larger text. It’s prudent to first choose a readable text size and then to design a site to look presentable when text size is kicked up a notch or two.

    Another important consideration of your site should be the size of monitor (i.e. the pixel resolution) that your target audience is likely to be using. There are two basic types of design to accommodate this: fixed width and liquid or floating width. There are a lot of considerations when deciding which route to go, but in general, business sites are most often fixed width (as you’ll notice by surging through Fortune 500 sites) with liquid width sites typically being to best suited for sites with lots of text copy…reference sites, academic sites, or blogs for example.

    Business oriented sites often fall into two categories. The first, to take fresh prospects through a sequential process of establishing your credibility/trustworthiness and persuading them to become a customer. The second is accommodating existing clients who are retrieving information, executing transactions, making a payment, viewing schedules, etc. The best practice principles of persuasion and usability lend themselves most often to fixed width design because fixed width designs allow more control over the visual presentation quality and encouraging concise bill-board style statements and discourage verbose copy that statistics show most people don’t read and find counter productive to their goals of being on a site.

    Sometimes, there is an impression that the “white space” displayed to left and right of a fixed width design is undesirable. While each situation is unique, this empty space is often a benefit when attempting to communicate to a Web audience. A computer monitor full of text/graphics dilutes messaging by creating clutter. As Steve Krug points out in his classic, Don’t Make Me Think, one of the most common roadblocks to creating persuasive and effective Web sites is too much copy . . . he advocates designing Web sites with a “billboard” mindset—concise, appealing messages that tell the target visitor what they need to know without having to wade through clutter.

    The white space, which coincidentally is only noticeable on displays larger than the site was optimized for, can in fact create a very desirable mechanism to funnel your prospects attention to the most important statements about your organization. That’s why you may have recalled seeing those full page Wall Street Journal ads, that some deep-pocketed corporation paid a large sum for, that are mostly white space. It’s draws a reader who is being overloaded with pages of information like an oasis in the deserts and captures their full attention.

    At the risk of this post becoming verbose itself, I’ll stop here and post more on this topic in the future. As I’ve done before, I highly recommend that anyone responsible for a professional Web site read the aforementioned book by Steve Krug. It’s not a book about the technicalities of Web design, but provides an invaluable executive guide to understand the fundamentals of an effective and profitable Web site.

    Dancing Bologna

    August 18th, 2007

    I just ran across an article that I have to share, the Last Dance of the Web Bolognanew window. What is Web bologna you might ask? According to Dan Century, the name given for the witty young man who wrote this article, it’s “superfluous and garish web design elements that marketing departments love, but the average customer will ultimately loathe.”

    Like spam, Web bologna is a different type of intellectually insulting processed product that we get served up on occasion whether we ask for it or not. But instead of coming through email it comes at us from the pages of web sites.

    Now in Dan’s definition of Web bologna, he says that “marketing departments love” it. I’m not sure what marketing departments he’s talking about, but I can guarantee that this marketing department is top on the list of bologna loathers. As a matter of fact, I’ve recently vented my disgust of a newer evolution of Web bologna (the “Site Pal”) on this blog.

    I think a key principle of life that applies to this topic is that just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done…e.g. if one can belch one’s name, that does not mean that it’s a good idea to do so when meeting potential customers.

    So aside from just being plain cheesy, what’s so bad about bologna? It’s bad because it exists on the opposite side of the spectrum from good usability—the design principles that have been researched and proven to facilitate visitors to your site becoming customers. In other words, bologna takes away from the whole purpose for a business to have Web site. As a side note, to learn all you need to know about usability, pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s classic book, Don’t Make Me Think.

    I encourage you to take a read through Dan’s humorous article. While much of the bologna Dan mentions in his article is extreme and from the past Internet era, the same misguided mindset of “this looks cool, we should put it on our Web page” still exists today with newer technology and tactics.

    Evaluating Low Web Development Bids

    March 23rd, 2007

    How much does a web site cost? We get this often and it’s a fair question. Regardless of all the sales and marketing propaganda about needs, emotional purchase triggers, etc., the cold hard fact remains that most purchase decisions are constrained, and often decided, by immediate budget parameters.

    Our standard practice is to never throw out a price….it’s kind of like asking “how much is a vehicle?” Well the prices range from $250 for a used moped or $50 million for Caterpillar 797B 380 ton earth mover—it all depends on your
    goals and the budget with which you have to work.

    So what about low bids? They conjure up a conflict of emotion in most people—joy, greed, elation, then caution, suspicion, resentment. Well from an insider’s perspective as low bids relate to marketing and web development here’s my honest advice:

    First, always be leery of companies that just throw out a low price without much encouragement. Be conscious that with web and identity design your purchasing a lens through which the image of your organization will be projected to the world. I doubt if many of us walk into Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest pants and shirt available to prepare for a big meeting. The same forethought should be given to any bids that directly reflect the image of your organization.

    Assume the worst and prove your assumption false by researching the question, “Why is this bid the lowest?” There is a reason. Did they not take into account all your needs? Are they implementing a loss leader sales tactic? Is their quality sub-par?

    A low bid is always relative, you must consider the qualifications of the other bidders. For example I could send out a web design RFQ here in the Treasure Valley and get responses ranging from $500 from a high school kid to $50,000 from a marketing firm with a big national portfolio. All bids would meet the same technical requirements but obviously there is a lot more to consider than that. To avoid the impossible task of evaluating too broad of options, take some time to qualify your pool of bidders before submitting your RFQ.

    In a pool of comparable quality bidders, low bid is not always bad. The good reason that someone is a low bidder is because they’ve developed highly efficient repeatable processes and are that much ahead of their competitors. I don’t want to be so bold as to say that we’ve completely reached this idealistic state, but our entire business strategy is built around the concept of creating a new market; a market in which we have no competitors who offer our level of quality our price ranges. We can’t claim any credit for this strategy—it came out Harvard Business School and has been shared with us commoners in one of the best business books of all time, Blue Ocean Strategy.

    So the important points are this—try to narrow the spectrum of your bid pool and spend serious time evaluating the proposals from the bidders you do choose. Base your decision on objective considerations instead of the more emotional price factor. Keep in mind, the lifetime cost-benefit of your choice and the image your contractor will reflect on your clients and prospects. Low bids are not always bad, they just have more to prove.

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