Many business owners think of website design in terms of logo, colors, images and fonts—but “design” covers a whole lot more than just visual appeal. To help our clients understand the big picture view, over the years we developed Altitude’s Five Principles of Intelligent Website Design. Follow and you will be well on your way to the website you need—not just the website you want. (Hint: pretty pictures and fancy fonts come last.)
Principle One: Your website is not a brochure.
A website should be a hard-working, information-gathering, credibility-raising sales tool—not merely an electronic brochure. Long before you start debating blue background vs. green background, decide on the goals of the site. How will it portray your company? Think branding. How will it advance your business objectives? Think conversions. How will it enhance all of your marketing efforts? Think integration. How do you want your visitors to respond? Think calls to action. All of this brainstorming happens first—before one pixel is laid down in Photoshop or any line of code is written.
Principle Two: Form follows function.
Websites should be designed with specific goals in mind. In other words, the form it takes should follow out of the functions you want it to serve. The term “information architecture” as we use it is the overarching organization of a website—the path by which site visitors find the information they want and execute your calls to action in the fastest, most intuitive manner.
Before you worry about the graphic design—colors, fonts, images and other pinstriping—make sure you identify all the information elements that are needed on the home page and subpages. Create a “wireframe” first—essentially, a blueprint of the website—that is informed by the goals you’ve identified for the site (Principle One), such as branding, integrating with other marketing efforts, gathering leads, driving sales, encouraging downloads and tracking PR effectiveness. Only after the wireframe is approved should graphic design begin.
Example: A prospect asked us to develop an aggressive PR campaign—press releases, trade articles, speaking engagements, awards, the whole nine yards. The VP of Marketing wanted to use the site as the primary measure of the effectiveness of the PR efforts. Unfortunately, the site was little more than a pass-through portal for existing clients to log in to a backend system. To accomplish his goal, some significant programming changes had to be made.
We recommended adding updated brand messaging to the site. We also suggested putting conversion goals in place—a new contact form directly off the home page with leads passed to the business development team to be qualified and converted. The prospect wanted to be positioned as a thought leader, so we recommended calls to action to download white papers and case studies. And to leverage all the good press we were generating, we recommended a news and events section.
Here’s the catch: Their website was brand new and the CEO was unwilling to spend more time, money or effort to rework the site, despite its tremendous practical shortcomings. It was immediately clear that form had not followed function when it was designed.
Principle Three: Analytics determine information architecture.
A key component to Intelligent Design is using existing visitor data (assuming its available) to inform new development decisions. While there are dozens of website analytic packages out there, Google Analytics (google.com/analytics) covers it just as well if not better than any of them—and it’s free. If Google Analytics is not currently installed on your website, get it done—now! It’s as simple as creating an account and inserting one line of code.
Example: We were working with a custom home builder on a new website. We took an element that was buried three clicks deep on his current website and moved it front-and-center on the wireframe for his new site. The client asked us why. The reason was simple: Google Analytics showed us that this particular feature was the most heavily trafficked part of the site other than the home page itself, and was also where visitors spent the most time. Intelligent Design says to make it easy for site visitors to get to the information or features of the site they really want. And because this was such a popular feature, it begged to be enhanced with the ability to share the content through social media channels—Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Principle Four. The website mirrors the brand.
Now—four principles in—we get to the actual visual components of design. Your brand is the visual, verbal and emotional attributes that define your company and set it apart from the competition. If your company is positioned as technologically advanced, the website design should mirror that. If you are selling a high-end product, you don’t want a website with a 1990s design. If you are a value play, stick with a more basic design. If your company culture is funky and irreverent, mirror that in the design. A website design that is disjointed from your real brand image causes customer confusion and impedes growth. Even if the image you project is aspirational, your website design can help level the playing field with larger competitors and vault your business into a position of prominence and strength in the marketplace.
Principle Five: Don’t let the leaders who know nothing about design dictate the design.
We saved the toughest for last. And it doesn’t take a lot to explain. We’ve seen this happen all too often. If you’re a non-creative-type CEO, recognize the strengths of the people working with you. You still have the vision for the company. You set the strategy. You determine the goals for the website. But don’t get into the weeds and start dictating image selection, font choice and such. Focus on running the business. If you’ve hired the right people to redevelop your website (and I don’t mean your CFO’s teenage son!), trust them to do what they do best.
If you are the marketing director responsible for getting a new website built, have the conversation upfront with your CEO: Who needs to buy-in? Who has decision-making authority? Who just needs to be heard? Get everyone bought in early in the process—during planning and goal-setting. If the information architecture and the wireframe are done properly, design will follow the brand. But paying deference to someone who knows nothing about good design principles is a recipe for wasted time and wasted money—resulting in a website that ultimately underserves both the site visitor and your business objectives.
Intelligent Design dictates that marketing, design and programming work together—but each to their own strengths. (Marketing types have been known to come up with schemes that cause tremendous difficulties during programming. Likewise, many a CEO has been known to murder a good visual design.) When the three work together, that’s when a successful site—as judged by your customers’ action—comes to life.