Non-Negative Web Design and Branding


Perhaps at some point in your social life you’ve had the experience of dating someone like Sarah. Sarah was a wonderful girl I met through an online personals service. We talked on the phone a few times before we met, and I was really looking forward to our first date.
As I sat across from Sarah at dinner, I realized she was as pretty as she was sweet. Long, soft hair, deep brown eyes, warm smile, lovely figure, stylish outfit – everything I could ask for in a woman. But…there was that zit. Right on the tip of her nose. It was…huge. I couldn’t take my eyes off it – I tried, but my eyes kept going back to her nose. Really, I tried. But it kept tugging at my attention. Not only was it the only thing I could see, I was only half focused on what she was saying. The worst part was, she knew it. I felt terrible.

Web design has often been compared to meeting people. In both situations, we make up our mind almost instantly whether or not to pursue the relationship. Yet too often, the focus of designers is on “how can I get the user to like my site?” Having worked as a technical writer on many web development projects, I’ve partnered with many designers, each with his or her own bag of tricks for getting a user’s attention and engendering positive feelings about the site. Unfortunately, most designers pay scant attention to the flip side of the design issue – how to avoid turning users off. That, in my opinion, should be the most important concern of any web designer.

Web usability experts, especially those who are coming from top digital marketing strategies company, have understood this for a long time. Designers who take the time to read Nielsen, Krug, Spool, or any of the other gurus in this field, will appreciate the consistent message. Users are not won by your design genius, they are lost by your design incompetence. Like Sarah, your site can be ravishingly beautiful, but it only takes a small design misstep to lose your user in those critical first few seconds – forever. Web designers, like medical students, must learn this critical lesson: first, do no harm.

The best advice I can give to any designer willing to listen is, “keep it simple.” Jakob Nielsen had this to say in a recent interview: “There’s always a tendency for people to make things too fancy.” Nielsen’s simplicity-obsessed design theories have been questioned, and rightly so, as the proliferation of broadband connections and high-resolution monitors make rich, multimedia experiences more feasible. But I’m still with Nielsen on his basic point. Just because you can add a feature to a web page doesn’t mean you have to. Each additional feature adds something to the user experience, but it also adds to the potential for confusing and distracting the user.

Your design must be simple because your marketing message must be simple.

“You need this. We have this. We would be a good place for you to get this.”

“This,” of course, is not the product or service you are offering; it is the benefits of that product or service to your target audience. For example, Toyota is not selling cars. It is selling value, dependability, and safety. Maserati is not selling cars either. It is selling luxury, style, and high performance. The design of both and are similar in some respects, but both sites communicate their respective messages effectively. More importantly, both sites are “simple” – not, perhaps, in Nielsen’s extreme sense of the word, but in the sense of resisting the temptation to “make things too fancy.” Neither site has an obvious “zit” that interferes with the message.

I’ve rarely met a designer with the ability to be self-critical and objective. This doesn’t bother me. What does trouble me – the main reason I wrote this article – is the difficulty most designers have with accepting constructive criticism. In my collaborations with designers, I’ve frequently expressed my responses to their site designs in a tactful and encouraging way. The reactions I get generally range from thinly disguised contempt of how a layperson such as myself would dare to criticize a professional designer, to patient but patronizing explanations of how the design feature in question was carefully chosen to achieve a certain purpose.

If you are a designer, although I may never have the privilege of working with you, I hope you’ll not only take any criticism of your design seriously – I hope you’ll actively seek such criticism. Show your site to non-designers, especially people in your target audience. Remember, sometimes “web page zits” aren’t obvious and glaring. Sometimes they’re more subtle, such as a color palette that evokes unintended responses. Sometimes a site might be well-designed in itself but poorly integrated with the company’s offline branding. Another pair of eyes – several pairs of eyes, if possible – can help identify those tricky design issues.

Don’t expect people who look at your site to offer solutions – that’s your job. But when they recognize problems, do your best to avoid defending your design. Instead, ask yourself how you can use their input to improve the site. This type of informal site testing might be frowned upon by some usability experts, but you’re almost guaranteed to get something of value if you invite the feedback of others and keep a truly open mind.

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