So you've opted for professional web design? Then you certainly don't want to waste the monetary investment you've made by not similarly investing some time and thought when it comes to communicating your requirements and ideas about the website itself.
Web design tips: Getting the most from your web designer
Talking to the web designer
- What should your website look like?
Obviously, the vaguer you are, the less helpful your suggestions will be. A good starting place is to look at other websites with a similar subject matter. From these, you can either decide what you like, or, through a process of comparison, realise what you don't want and thus partly recognise what is actually important to you.
Other interesting avenues of approach come through associative thinking: consider movies, books, music and artwork that you think convey the sort of 'feeling' you want from the website. Tell your web designer about them: maybe he can capture some of that je ne sais quoi! Expand your expectations of your website from just a 'look' — maybe it can be a 'feeling', or also a 'sound'; can you get your visitors to imagine the smell of the website? If you are selling flowers online, you may want them to!
- Communication is key.
This is an adjunct to the point above, but do not be afraid to go into detail for your web designer. Even if he disagrees with some of your stylistic or organisational choices, everything you suggest will communicate more of what you want your website to be. Details about how it should behave tell us a lot about its real purpose and about what makes it unique, just as the style of a piece of writing can tell us something about its larger meaning.
There is, of course, a caveat to this advice: if you go beyond suggesting and into dictating; if you only talk and don't listen: then you aren't communicating any more, you're only yelling. You're paying for your web designer's time and yes, he is your employee for the moment. But remember that you are paying him because he is a professional: he may not be an expert in your field, but he is an expert at online presence. It's precisely the fact that you are an expert in your field, which the website is about, and he is an expert in his field, which is designing the website, which makes it so important to meet in the middle when it comes to discussion of the site itself.
You have homework!
- Content rules the internet.
You may have read it before. "Content is king / everything / why they come." Fortunately, this is true. It's what makes the internet useful, and it's why search engines like Google that pay the closest attention to well-ordered and original content are the most-used, and most-useful. Unfortunately, it does mean that you are going to have to do more work for your web site than simply writing an 'About Us' page and hoping web-surfers google your exact company name!
The best web designers will write copy (i.e. words) to go on your website, and they will make it grammatical, attractive, punchy, and all that good stuff. But even the best professional designer can't learn your years of experience and then translate that to the screen. You have an insurmountable advantage: you really know what you're talking about. This means that you should be creating lots of content for your website. Why? ^^^^^ — because "Content is king"! If Googlers search for specialist phrases which are relevant to your business / charity / cottage-industry / photo-album, they should get hits for your website! If they're not, that means that all of your experience in this specific field — all that experience that differentiates you from the rest of the site-owners on the internet — is going to waste.
This point cannot be overemphasised. The more work you put into the website, the more you get out. You aren't paying your web designer to be an expert in your field: you're paying him to a) tell you what I've just told you; and b) translate those great bits of information, articles (like this one), specialist notes, tips and loads of details, into meaningful (and searchable!) places on the internet that will make your website very special and very popular.
Zen and the art of website design
- Less is More, More is Less — please, let us find it!
The slightly cryptic sentence above is trying convey one of the most complicated and difficult-to-accomplish aims of web design. A website needs to be attractive, but simple. It needs to be rich, but navigable. It needs to be dense, but comfortable. But, failing all else, the most important thing is:
KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)
I don't mean to insult you (or any client), but that's how the saying goes, and the fact that an insult is right there in the saying probably tells us a little something about how annoying it is when web designers get this wrong. If you have a choice between 'attractive / rich / dense' and 'simple / navigable / comfortable', always choose the last three. Your web designer should always seek the perfect balance, of course. So this section is almost a tip directed more at him; but you can help him by remembering the following tenets of good website design when telling him what you want:
A website is not a book (usually!)
Lengthy content is good in the right places (like this article, if I say so myself), but make sure your visitors want to see it before you foist it upon them. Why do you need to keep your initial payload of information simple and concise? Because:
Web-surfing is a series of choices
When you pick up a book to read, you have chosen to read it. From then on, every page you look at will be in a sense a reward, some kind of payoff for that choice. As a result, you will pay attention — if you aren't, why would you bother reading the book at all? (English literature course assignments excluded here.) Websites aren't like that. Every website's homepage is a choice: Is this where I want to be? Do I want to spend time here? Usually, the answer is "No." If you can convince a visitor otherwise, you are 80% of the way there. But before you've made them want to pick up the book and buy it — don't force them to read it!
Your website is not the psychedelic sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Ye Olde Bad Days of Web Design
This is linked into the 'Zen' section above, because it's about being simple, or being stupid. Web design has come a long way since the early days of the internet. 10-color webpages are largely a thing of the past. Please do not try to resurrect them: they died for a reason. Photos are great; well-chosen and fairly subtle colours (for menu backgrounds etc) are usually fine. Mustard-yellow text on a tiling background of blood-red autumn leaves = bad idea. Your web designer should never let you convince him to do this. If he does it on his own initiative, run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. Look at Google; Amazon; eBay. Yes, the latter two have some colours, but all three sites work with white backgrounds and black text. Google is the cleanest of the lot, and we all know the internet has been kind to them as a result. Messy is fun — for about five minutes. Run.
- The black magic of navigation
Navigational links and tools are usually pretty boring and simple, and as I've stated above, that's usually a very good thing. The reason it's a bit of a 'black magic' is because sometimes, navigation can be improved by making it more interesting, more fun, and even more usable at the same time.
The sliding CSS-based menu-tree approach
The AJAX-based background-loading interface
This is the newest navigational innovation. It's the way navigation on Google's Gmail service works. You can usually tell that an interface is AJAX-based when you click on a link that sends or receives new data from the website, and only the data loads — the page remains the same. AJAX is the younger (and smarter) sibling of DHTML (Dynamic HTML), which could show and hide page elements already loaded at download time, instantly. The difference is that you don't need to have already downloaded the AJAX elements. The web code gets the new data 'in the background'. Pros: This can make interfaces faster (instantaneous sometimes) and prevents having to scroll back down after posting a form, for instance. Cons: Data is unlikely to be indexed by search engines, so anything you put in there better not be some nugget of wisdom a googler might search for in the hopes of finding your website! AJAX takes time to develop, pretty much proportional to the time it saves your users when it's operational! It's only suitable for some applications. Talk through the possibilities with your web designer to see if the dividends are worth that investment of time, given your unique situation.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Concerns?
- A quick word
This deserves its own article (and it'll get one), but for now, just relax, and read everything written above. If you can talk with your web designer and check off all the boxes above, you'll have a website that search engines and surfers alike will really appreciate.
More coming soon: but for now, good luck, and please get in touch with any questions or suggestions!
Written by David Midgley, Senior Designer, Ice Cool Code Ltd