Even if webdesign has long evolved into a distinct discipline, print designers and paper-era agencies still get a lot of web design work. This post is for them, but I know many professional web designers who could use a reminder, too.
It’s a list of ways to avoid the most common and the worst mistakes designers do.
To be fair, most of the mistakes have their outspring in clients’ confusion about what websites can and should do, and what they should look like. We as agencies, designers and devlopers, however, have a responsibility to help our clients understand their needs before we start wasting their time and money.
Be clear about your purpose
If it’s not entirely clear how a website is going to contribute to fulfilling your client’s goals: Stop! You’re wasting everybody’s time and money. You don’t have to sell something from your website, or be into direct response marketing to have clear and meassurable goals for your online presence. You don’t even have to collect leads.
And, no, you can no longer use the old “brand building” excuse. If you have a target audience, and something to tell or sell them, there’s almost certainly a way to measure how well you’re doing. You can monitor your own site, social media or the Internet as a whole for traffic, backlinks, mentions, engagement and sentiment, fans and followers, influencer scores, etc.
To do: Articulate clear objectives (in writing), choose a metric and a tool to measure progress.
Plan for traffic
If you don’t know where your visitors will come from, it’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t – come, that is. Commit to a strategy for getting traffic. If you’re planning on getting traffic from social media, you’re going to have different priorities than if you’re primarily planning to be found through search engines. And if you’re looking for referrals, or you’re buying advertising, or even if you want people to type your address directly into the browser, you’ll need to design for that.
To do: Decide on one or two main strategies for attracting visitors, and articulate what those require – both from the sites design, content and functionality, and from the people charged with maintaining it.
Research functionality first
While everything can be custom-made, it can get expensive. However, much functionality and tons of tools are offered as open source code or by third-party vendors. Being aware of these tools – how they’re limited and how they go further than you had imagined – might save you a lot of work, time, hassle and money.
To do: You know what you want the site to do. Ask someone, or look up online, how that’s usually done, and decide whether or not that’s good enough for your purpose.
Throw out the boilerplate
You may need About Us page, the Contact Us page ad the Front page whose only useful feature is that it links to other pages. You may need your navigation to go across the the top or down the left. Don’t be so sure, though. Think deeper about what the visitors actually need and want from a website. Start designing from a blank slate, not a preconceived notion of how things should be.
Also, remember that the front page isn’t necessarily the first page a visitor sees. Links from other sites – including search engines and social media – often point to pages deep in the hierarchy. Almost every page, then, is in some sense the front page.
To do: Sketch out how you are going to lead people from arriving at the site, to completing the goal? If you had only a single page with a single column (as long as you like) to work with, how would you do that?
Design for mobile first
Not only will it force you to focus on the essentials, and strip away distractions, it will hopefully remind you that the website will not look the same for everyone, no matter what you do. The site will look differently on a desktop computer, a tablet and a mobile phone. It will look differently from screen to screen, and from device to device. More than just a look, you are designing an experience.
Different phones don’t just have different screen formats. They also have different limitations, both in what technoogy they support (iPhone and iPad famously lacks support for Flash) and in performance (even over once-fast 3G, loading a slideshow or video can be a painfully long wait. That doesn’t mean you should never embed a film (far from it!), but that you should keep in mind that the benefit has to outweigh the cost.
To do: Decide on the mobile experience first (even if it just redirects to a page that promotes an app, or a page that says that the site isn’t accessible from mobile phones).
Add another dimension
Websites can and should have a lot more moving parts than print design – and not just slideshows, contact forms and links that change color on mouse-over. Elements can move relative to each other as the visitor navigates the site, and can change based on information about the visitor, and her context – where she is in the real world, and where she is on the site.
It allows for a lot of fancy and unnecessary bells and whistles, but also for amazing tools and enhanced experiences. It can be anything, from making sure the site navigation doesn’t scroll off the screen, to adding tools that provide valuable services right there on the site.
To do: Ask yourself “what is the single biggest thing we can do to help the visitor get the results she came here for?” Do it, then ask again.
Design for change
Unlike a brochure, a website isn’t finished when it’s published. It should be easy to make changes to it. Unless you’re ready to give the client guidelines that say otherwise, your design should work with long headlines and short headlines, blue pictures and brown pictures.
Done right, it’s good business, too. A client will get annoyed if the website needs a redesign and the code must be changed every time the message changes. Chances are they won’t hire you again or refer you to others if that’s how they feel. The same client will probably applaud you, however, if your design includes graphics that are meant to be changed regularly, and it gives you the perfect alibi to follow up with the client. While the end result and total price tag doesn’t necessarily need to be very different, one feels like a flaw, the other like a benefit.
To do: Try your design with content of varying length and style, and jot down a list of criteria for content. Recognize when your criteria is getting unreasonable and impractical, and change your design accordingly.
Talk to experts
Your client might not want to hire a separate web designer, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t at least talk to one. The internet changes faster than most things, and unless you want to spend resources staying on top of technological development, possibilities and trends, a quick meeting to talk through the challenges and opportunities of an assignment, will be a good investment in quality assurance and customer satisfaction.
To do: Schedule a quick session with your favorite web strategist before you start your next webdesign project.