Posts Tagged website design
Is your homepage really the most important page on your site? Yes and no.
Yes it is
Your home page is your shop front, and often the first thing people see when they visit your site. It’s a big opportunity for you to capture their attention. But not that big.
Research (see reading links provided below) shows you have a very short amount of time to capture attention on the web before the visitor backs out or goes somewhere else. Between 8 to 10 seconds, in fact. So make sure customers can get what they have come for, quickly and easily.
If you don’t know what your customers want when they visit your site, find out immediately. Why do you have a website?
Don’t waste time with “Welcome to our web site…“, the history of your company, or explanations about how your site works. No one will read it anyway. Cut to the chase and make it easy to find your catalogue or list of services.
And don’t be fooled into thinking just because your webstats show your homepage is the most visited page, it’s working. Google gives more priority to a company’s homepage, so people will most likely find it first. But then they can do two things: visit another page on your site, or leave. Check your bounce rate on your homepage and try to find out if your homepage is working for you or against you.
No it’s not
At the same time, the homepage is not that important. Like a shop with many entrances, your home page is not the only way people can get into your website.
In general, most of the visits to your site will come from search engines, in New Zealand mostly from Google. Using Google, people will find all the other pages in your website, and will very likely bypass your homepage. They may land on a product page, right in the middle of your site, or they may discover some page you had forgetton about and hadn’t updated the prices on in twelve months.
How can you plan for this? Here’s a simple test: imagine being transported, Star Trek-like, randomly into the middle of a large shop. You’d want to get your bearings quickly, right? Whose store are you in? Where are you in the store? Where’s the service desk? Where’s the door?
Now run this test on your website. Pick a page somewhere in your site and see if you can get some context as to where you are. What can you do from the page? Where can you go?
Better yet, run this test using real people, not your staff or best mates. Get honest feedback about what it is like to use your site. You’ll be amazed what you will learn, and the improvements you can make from that feedback will give you a better website and more business.
Links for more reading:
- Home page design guidelines
- How long do users stay on web pages?
- 50% of visitors leave after 8 seconds
- 8 second to capture attention (3.3MB PDF)
- Your homepage is your store front
Today we have a guest blogger, Karen Simmons, Company Director. Karen wrote to us after reading our Preparing for Take Off book. Here’s her story:
“There is certainly a lot to think about when developing a website and we found this out when we were getting one made for our previous business. Unfortunately for us, we hired a Web Designer who was recommended to us by a web developers’ industry group and our experience with him was frustrating and disappointing. After six months, he had not delivered what we had asked for and what he told us he would. Sadly the amount we had invested with this web designer was wasted and we had to start all over again.
“By contrast, the next company we worked with were great and they put together exactly what we asked for. They were a delight to deal with and really listened to us when we discussed our business and the experience we wanted to present to our customers via our website. We received many favourable comments from customers in New Zealand and overseas about our website, and they particularly liked the fact that we regularly updated it with new information on what we were up to, which kept them coming back.
“Developing our first website was a real learning curve as there were so many points to consider in that we didn’t just want it to look good, but it had to serve the purpose that we wanted it to for our customers. We are confident that we achieved that.
“We had a retail shop about 18 months ago and with the recession hitting, decided to move our business home. It was the best thing we could have done and we realised then that our website was the window of our business and a great way for people to see that we still existed.
“We have now sold that business and are moving onto a new one. We will be putting together a new website for this business and will use your book as a tool to ensure that we endeavour to develop a website that gives our customers a great, informative, easy to use experience when they visit our new website.
“Great to know that you are providing a service that takes an outsiders view of a website. We agree with you that often the person developing a website doesn’t see it from the way a customer might.”
“Once again, thanks for your thought provoking book.”
— Karen Simmons, Company Director
The strongest new trend evident was the rise of so-called ‘ethical marketing’.
For several years the number of sites in the NZX50 appealing to the social and environmental conscience of investors has been increasing. In BIWA10 half the sites use either social or environmental responsibility as a plank of their investor and customer relations strategies.
Appealing to the conscience of investors is not a new trend, but recent events, including the crisis of world banking and continued concern over climate change have made major corporations even more keen on ‘green-washing’ and related strategies.
Of the 25 sites, ten specifically featured only ‘social responsibility’ (including sponsorship and charity initiatives), while eight featured only ‘environmental responsibility’ (including sustainability initiatives). Seven sites included both these elements.
Significantly, this was especially true of new designs. Of the 15 new site designs in 2010, 12 included either or both social and environmental initiatives.
Clearly, this trend is now seen as part of a successful approach to online investor relations. The PR benefits are clearly seen as worth the investment in adopting these strategies which are not directed at maximising profit, but rather at attracting investment.
‘Social media’ are not yet important in NZ online investor relations.
The BIWA10 was the first time that we surveyed the NZX50 sites to see how many were using Facebook, Twitter and blogging to enhance communication with investors. We found that unexpectedly, despite media coverage of these new tools, only eight sites in the NZX50 use one or more of these ‘social media’:
- five used Facebook
- four used Twitter
- and three were blogging about corporate affairs.
The use of social media is not related to a high BIWA score. The companies using these tools to communicate with investors are not those who are already maximising their web presence to communicate with this audience. In other words, listed companies in NZ have yet to successfully harness the communication power of these new interactive strategies.
Some companies clearly used social media to communicate with customers (rather than investors), but this happens outside the corporate sites that we are surveying. Only when they are used for targeted investor communication will these tools become more widespread in the NZX50 sites. And this will only happen when listed companies become more accustomed to focusing their online strategies on communicating with potential and actual investors.
At present, given the number of NZX50 listed companies with below-par websites, it’s only fair and reasonable that they should avoid social media. Until they succeed in mastering the basics of online communication, a move into the riskier waters of Facebook and Twitter will only expose their shortcomings to public scrutiny.
Well now we’re looking at the end of the year, it might be a good time to consider what we learned from this year’s Best Investor Website Awards (BIWA2010).
New sites continue to do better. The most obvious thing, which shouldn’t be news but is, is that newly-designed sites in general are better than older ones. This was not always the case. I was disappointed in 2008 to discover that of the sites that had been redesigned in the 2007–08 year, only half had improved their ranking.
So in 2008 a site that was redesigned had the same chance of being either improved or made worse. The outcome, rather than being a sound investment in improved user experience, was the same as a simple coin toss.
This year 80% of the redesigned sites have retained or improved their BIWA rankings. Each year more and more of the new site designs show an improved experience for the investor audience. In other words, if a listed company recently paid for a redesign, this year there was four times the chance it would be improved for users rather than made worse. That makes paying for a new web design look like a fairly solid bet, if you want to enhance the experience your actual and potential investors have in using your site.
I think that this turnaround is a product of broader understanding about user-centred design within the NZ web design industry – which is good news, if a little overdue. It seems that our efforts at Wired to agitate for enhanced understanding of users and their needs is bearing fruit – or are at least in tune with the times, since probably it’s not ALL our doing!
‘The Gap’ is widening – I’ve been arguing for the last couple of years that the NZX50 is gradually splitting into two ‘bunches’, like a cycle race. The leaders have made an effort to design online information for the investor audience, and those in the trailing bunch have still failed to understand the point of this.
Following on from my earlier point about new designs being better, this year six of the Top 10 company sites feature new designs. But by contrast, in the Bottom 10, there are still three that have new designs which are frankly still not up to scratch.
The overall spread of BIWA scores between top and bottom was only 39 points in 2008 – but in 2010 this had increased to 54 points. And while the best and the worst are moving further apart, the overall average score of the BIWA remains much the same around at 66 out of 100. But don’t be fooled! This does not mean that there’s an even spread of scores from top to bottom. There really is a ‘gap’ opening between the top 10 – whose average score increased this year by two points to 82.5 – and the bottom 10, whose average score decreased by three points to 46.2.
And what is the message of all this? Any listed company wanting to enhance the online information it offers to investors should seek the advice of web designers with experience in understanding the investor audience. Because these guys are going to give your investors a web design suited to their specific needs – and that’s what your competition is doing, which is why your investors are increasingly likely to expect it from you.
In my work as a user experience consultant I’m often asked to review sites that customers are concerned about. One classic cause for concern is that a site for some mysterious reason is so far down the Google search results that it might as well not exist. There’s a whole industry of charlatanism around ‘search engine optimisation’ – the alleged science of improving a site’s rankings.
I don’t claim to understand how Google ‘really works’, but I know a few things. The contents of headings and the initial paragraphs of body text is very important. Google’s search tools will analyse these to identify keywords to assists in ranking sites, and they’ll become aware if terms are repeated too often. My best advice is to carefully craft these words especially on your homepage, to reflect what you site is really about and at whom it is aimed.
So why do some sites do especially badly at this? I saw a classic example of this recently in a site I was asked to review. This had been designed by some ‘Flash Harrys’ in the corporate branding game, and it certainly smelled like a pile of money. At first glance the homepage content looked pretty good, the keywords I was looking for were all there. Then I performed a simple check – I put my cursor on the page and tried to select some text from the first paragraph. No go – nothing – nada – nyet, Kapitan…
Why could I not select the text? It wasn’t text at all, it was a picture of some text. Not the same thing at all, Veronica.
Google’s software endlessly trawls the internet reading text and following hyperlinks between sites. If it’s not actually a hyperlink, or formatted text, Google’s digital elves can’t read it – so it may as well NOT BE THERE.
My clients had paid good money for a site where all the principal content pages looked like pages of relevant text but were in fact images of text. As far as Google was concerned it was a site without content, and that was why it was ranking very low on the search results.
So my hot tip for evaluating your own website is – if it looks like it has a lot of unusual formatting overlaying text and images, logos and other branding devices – check that the written content really is text, and that there really is a heading at the top.
Try my cursor-selecting trick, or click ‘View > Page source’ in the browser window, if you can’t read the page content anywhere in the page source code, chances are it isn’t text at all. And in that case your site is ‘search engine sub-optimal’ – and if that worries you, you need to get it fixed – and fast.
Because increasingly – if your business can’t be found on the net, it can’t be found at all.
I’ve recently completed a review of a prototype e-commerce site for a corporate client. Every time I do a job like this I learn something new about the silly stuff web developers do because they think about system and interface design more than they do about user needs.
This time I picked up a couple of classics which I’d like to share with you, because they establish some key rules of user centred design. Things you don’t want to try at home with your own shiny new site.
Number one – where should you put the user registration page?
Now this one sounds totally obvious, but so I don’t sound like a total smarty who’s never locked his keys in the car, I should point out I’d had about six sessions evaluating the site before I twigged to this issue.
One of the key tasks of this site is the user log-in. Retailers seeking to order from the site need to log-in to access the e-commerce functions. Now there were some problems with the design and location of the Retailer log-in link, which I duly dealt with. Then I suddenly thought – what if you don’t have a log-in, how do you apply for one?
I had a look round, and realised I couldn’t see an application form anywhere – but I was darn sure I had seen one at some point. So I checked every pixel of the Homepage and the Contact us page – nothing at all. I checked a few other possible but less likely spots. Grrrrr! Nothing. Then I had an idea – I clicked the Retailer log-in link, which took me to a page where I could enter my log-in to open a shopping cart. And there was the application form. I knew I’d seen it somewhere, and here it was – in the last place in the site that I thought to look…
Go on, you do the maths.
It’s an invitation to register as a user, and it’s in the last place I (a representative user) had looked. Not the second place, or the third… the last place. So it’s a serious usability issue. It made me feel stupid… and web users really hate that.
Why did I feel stupid? Because the registration form was behind the link you click to log in. Who clicks that? Only users with log-ins, actually. So the very people who have no reason to click this link (users who don’t yet have a log-in) are the very ones who must somehow guess that this is the thing they must do. Furthermore – it’s accessible only by that one link in the top navigation. It’s a page you’ll never get to from any other page, or from a text link, or by using the search function (read on to find why you can’t search for it).
So take a deep breath and repeat after me: “if you want users to register for a log-in, make the link really obvious”.
The Homepage is a good spot for this, because lots of folks go there; and so is Contact us, because it makes sense on a semantic level – requesting a log-in is a kind of contact initiated by your users. So that’s where they’ll look.
Number two – when is a search box not a search box?
This is another classic that shows how web designers can get tricked by their knowledge of a site’s back end. Users never make decisions based on back end knowledge, because many of them don’t know where the back end is, they just see graphic interfaces, and to them that’s what sites are.
It’s not dumb, it’s human. We understand what we see in the light of our experience – our mental schema. If users’ experience doesn’t include how interfaces and databases interact, then as far as users are concerned, that interaction doesn’t happen.
This is illustrated by what happened when I tried to use the Search box on the B2B site I’m talking about. I was looking of that pesky log-in registration form, and I tried searching for a few key words, such as ‘registration’ and ‘log-in’ (all the different spellings, actually: login, log in, log-in…). I was mystified, no results at all, did this darn thing even work? Now that’s a usability issue of sorts, if the thing’s actually busted… But then I had an idea, and I searched for a key product category, and – bingo!
This search box was a blank text box, with the heading ‘Search’ written on the left side, and a nice clear button on the left labelled ‘Go’ (I personally prefer omitting that heading and putting ‘Search’ on the button: but whatever, I was just trying to start the engine on the pesky heap by this point, I didn’t care so much what kind of tyres she had).
But what I’d realised was indeed a usability issue, and it was related to that heading by the box.
This one wasn’t a real search box at all, not one that used a search engine to interrogate the text contents of the web pages. No, this was a ‘Product search’ box, one that only interrogates the database of products that sits behind the site and underpins all the e-commerce functionality.
Calling it ‘Search’ tricked me into thinking I could use it to look for page content like annual reports, or directors’ names. The developers all knew it was actually a database search, because they built the blasted thing – so from their perspective, it didn’t need an explanatory label – ‘everyone’ knew what it was.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!
The site’s users absolutely needed to be told this, so they could use the search to achieve their goals quickly and easily. Otherwise they were going to waste time like I did, and either eventually realise their ‘mistake’, and feel like a bunch of Homer Simpsons told to take their pick in a roomful of shovels – or they were going to ring or email customer support (perhaps in their hundreds, if all went well with the site launch) and report that the Search was broken.
And that will cost money, and then it won’t be the customers whacking their foreheads and grunting ‘Doh!’ It’ll be the web developers who are doing that – the ones who knew what kind of search it was in the first place.
Visual design conventions are extensively used in web design as a ‘short hand’ to indicate functionality. We don’t usually give much thought to this. Yet it is central to our ability to design websites that work intuitively – so users ‘just know’ what they have to do.
I was recently evaluating the usability of a new online application when I identified a serious usability issue, which is common to many web pages – how do we signal the presence of ‘click and drag’ functionality?
The tool I was looking at was intended to build online ePortfolios for students. This is a common requirement of online learning sites, including staff training sites. Users need to be able to easily create a mini site where they can display examples of their work, create online CVs, and write learning blogs to demonstrate such things as progress with internship tasks.
This application was very clear and intuitive – until I got to the stage that allowed me to design my own page by setting up columns, and adding functional items such as text boxes, video links, RSS feeds, and photo galleries. In the top half of the screen was a set of tabbed areas that contained widgets to create these functions in ‘my page’ – which was represented by a blank workspace box in the lower half of the screen.
I realised I was meant to select the functions at the top and then add them to my workspace below. But how? Much clicking and swearing ensued. First I concluded that I was just an idiot who couldn’t work out what to do next. But I had managed every other part of the process up to that point. Sadly the help topics hadn’t been written yet (that was my next job). After a while I decided that since I was literate and a frequent web user, the page must be broken. I was about to email the developer to report this, when one last grumpy stab with the mouse saved me from humiliation. I had accidentally moved one of the widgets in the tabbed area.
EUREKA! The idea was that users would select the item they needed, such as an electronic ‘album’ for a picture gallery, and click and drag it down to add the function to their work space below. So simple – so what was the problem? After some reflection I realised that it was caused by the lack of visual clues on the page. No other part of the application had used this model of functionality, and since there was minimal explanatory text on the pages (and up to that point this had been no problem) – I had no warning that the ‘functional paradigm’ had shifted.
Then I realised that there was no universally-agreed visual sign at all for this functionality. Clickable links are shown like this – no one has to write the words ‘click here’ if the text is underlined (doubly so if it’s blue). When we use Windows Explorer to organise files using the ‘click and drag’ method there is no visual clue on the page, we just know from experience that it works that way. And in other applications, when we see two vertical panes, one with a sort of ‘tree’ or nested hierarchy the other with a list of files, then the chances are you can click and drag stuff from one pane to the other.
Maybe if the two parts of the screen had been side by side, I’d have guessed faster what to do, but then my work space would have been less than full width – which is a problem if I’m designing its graphical layout. I actually haven’t come up with a solution to this – other than advising the developers to insert some text with those three little words ‘click and drag’. But if anyone reading this has an answer, feel free to share it with me!
All companies want their customers to love them, and most companies expect those customers to learn about them from their websites. So why don’t more companies design websites that place customer experience at the heart of the design process?
Van Duyne, Landay and Hong, in their book The Design of Sites, have identified nine design ‘myths’ that get in the way of doing just that. These are false arguments which are often advanced as reasons why we don’t all need to make the effort to design websites for our customers.
The truth is, if we don’t all make that effort, we are all wasting our time and money even having a website – and we’re asking all our customers to waste their time visiting it. But the counter-arguments in favour of making the customer-design effort are simple.
Myth 1: ‘Good design is just common sense’.
Yeah, right. If that were true, pretty well all sites would be well designed, whereas our experience strongly suggests otherwise. This myth leads us to think that we all know what everyone needs and wants. Wrong. Knowing this about your customers comes from research, not lazy assumptions.
Myth 2: ‘Only experts create good designs’.
Once again, many rubbish sites are designed by ‘experts’. The question is – experts at what? Anyone can learn to understand audience requirements and implement them in a web interface – if they understand why and how to do it!
Myth 3: ‘Web interfaces can be redesigned just before the site goes live’.
Well, no, actually. The key to good interface design is knowing what features your customers need and want, and how they will use them. If your site isn’t built with the right features as its ‘skeleton’, no amount of shifting the deckchairs will stop the ship from going down with all hands.
Myth 4: ‘Good design is costly and takes too long’.
The trade off is spending a little up front in audience research and development, versus spending a lot later on in help desk calls, returned merchandise and web maintenance and costly redesigns. You’ll also be spared designing functions you don’t really need to support tasks that real customers don’t value. The relevant proverb is ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.
Myth 5: ‘Good design is just cool graphics’.
Every good site must look good and by doing this show its customers that their experience of the site is valued, but this is not enough. The site must also support customers’ needs, must communicate the information they seek and give a context in which to carry out their tasks. This isn’t done with ‘cool graphics’.
Myth 6: ‘Web guidelines will guide you to good designs’.
Guidelines will help get the detail of the design right, but they can only address the way the design is implemented. Guidelines will not tell you what features to implement, what structure to use, nor the flow between pages – this comes only from understanding your customers and their needs.
Myth 7: ‘Customers can get out of trouble with a Guide or Help’.
As a last resort, if your customers know that what they want is in your site and nowhere else, they may persist in difficulty long enough to use the documentation you have provided. But if you expect them to have to use these things, they will desert your site in numbers and at speed – web users expect intuitive sites that explain themselves clearly and simply. A site that needs a book to explain itself is not a good one.
Myth 8: ‘Market research tells us all we need about customer needs’.
Of course market research is helpful, especially to discover customer attitudes and intentions – but more important than what they say is what they do. If you ask 50 customers what features your site needs you’ll sink under the combined weight of their laundry lists. If you observe five customers actually using your site, you’ll know right away what they really value in terms of content and functions.
Myth 9: ‘Quality assurance teams make sure websites work’.
Site functionality is important, broken links and search functions will impede use of the site. But software testing is purely driven by technology concerns, not customer satisfaction. A fully-operational function that no one actually needs is not a measure of success, it is a waste of time and money. ‘Just because it ain’t broke, don’t mean that folk can actually use it’.
These ‘myths’ are often advanced as reasons why user-testing and customer-focussed evaluations are a waste of resources. These counter-arguments make short work of the ‘nay-sayers’ – and show why putting your customers at the centre of the site design process is so essential to your business success.