As companies reach the end of their fiscal year, we get a lot of inquiries regarding potential budgets and project costs. Clients want to build a better web presence, or update the visual design for their company or brand. Most importantly, they need to sell their desires and budget needs to someone upstairs.
The purpose of this post is to lay out some of the key web development and design areas we see most frequently needing help, in order for you to better shape your annual design budgets.
Some organizations have a culture that accepts the “living” nature of the web. They know it’s constantly in flux, and the company leadership knows they need to create annual budget space for their online presence. Others still struggle with thinking of their website as something beyond an expense (rather than an investment - this is understandable, especially if you are bootstrapping your company). Some even shoehorn their online presence management onto an intern task list, thinking it is a menial job that anyone can do “in between real work”.
For a website, the overarching goal should be one of "Is it meeting our customers needs?”
Companies that want to invest in their visual branding should keep in mind that aesthetics are only one piece of the design pie. For a website, the overarching goal should be one of "Is it meeting our customers needs?” This concern alone should be what is guiding your web goals. Visual aesthetics should come after developing solid content and information solutions for your customers. When it comes to your general brand look-and-feel, consistency is key. We will talk about this more in a bit.
Focus your resources
Regardless of your organizations culture, or whether or not you have an ecommerce site or simply a hub for your company info, blog, and social media connections, there are some basic areas you should always expect to be working on regularly:
1. Building better content
If your content is not converting visitors to buyers, or providing some kind of value through information or community engagement, then it is probably driving them away. What differentiates you from the crowd should be clear and to the point, and should entice users to click through to “read more”, sign up for the mailing list, or both. If you happen to be a small startup, focusing on your “features and benefits” copy should be a high priority. You may need to examine your blog content, and make sure it’s the kind of info users are searching for. If you have an ecommerce site, your product copy should be focused on how your product works, and clearly outline key benefits for the user. Don’t just fill the space with marketing hyperbole-- you want to take time to craft relevant information and tell a story.
The more value your content provides, the longer customers will stay on your site.
A site with good content will have a strong foundation to build on. Our approach is always “content first”, and this determines everything from how info and pages interact with each other to providing the structure for your social media and marketing efforts. The more value your content provides, the longer customers will stay on your site.
2. User experience
Your website is a member of your team, and often your first and most effective customer support specialist. If a user has a bad experience on your website, they may not come back. For the uninitiated, User Experience (UX) roughly encompasses the overall experience (which can be both physical and emotional) a user has when they engage with a site’s architecture, information, functionality and visual aesthetic.
Good UX design involves research and planning. The goal should be to understand users’ behavior, what influences them, and how they engage with your site and it’s content. As a result, they should have an experience on your site that is painless and provides value.
Some key areas to think about:
Navigation - Does it make sense? Is it complex and following a logical hierarchy? On bigger sites, updating navigation can be a big job. The bigger the site, the more important it is to ensure your users are not lost. Don’t assume they will dig for what they are looking for. Most likely, if they can’t find it within one minute, they will go somewhere else.
Load times - A sluggish site is a great way to lose users. Google researchers show that page load times more than 400 milliseconds (a blink of an eye) can cause users to leave the page they are visiting
Responsive design - Your site should be available at all times on all devices. A responsive site is “device agnostic”, and this is important when mobile devices are quickly becoming the first place a user may encounter your website. Hint: On your own site, shrink your browser window from the lower right corner. If the content shifts in place and adapts to the new window size, it is responsive. Now, look at that same page on different devices to see if it is adapting accurately.
A messy house is no place to host guests.
Regular maintenance and calibration - Regular audits should be part of the annual schedule. Looking for things like plugins that need updating, broken links that may need a redirect, and missing images are basic issues that may need attention. Keeping categories and tags organized and focused, and making sure your image sizes aren’t slowing things down are also important to look for. These are all small issues on their own, but together can have a big impact on how your online home is perceived. A messy house is no way to host guests.
Your site should be a clear component of your brand. Through the visual elements, tone of voice, and relationship to your other brand assets it should instill trust and confidence in your users. Is your site inline with your identity style guide (more on that later)? While how your site looks is secondary to how it works, the underlying value of good visual design and it’s relation to a strong brand are very real.
Your website should visually fit with, and support, your other brand assets.
Design is a critical strategic asset that can provide your business competitive advantage, help reinforce customer trust and loyalty. Your website should visually fit with, and support, your other brand assets. Ideally, a design strategy will exist for a business from the very beginning. But it’s never too late to develop a solid identity, create a style guide, and/or unify your company’s visual elements.
3. SEO and Accessibility
Our view is that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) packages sold by a lot of marketing agencies are a bit of a shell game. That said, if you’re not on Google you don’t exist, so the need for a sound SEO foundation and strategy that supports your business model is itself a very real thing. Again, if you are creating content that is based on what you know your users are looking for, you’ve done a lot of the work already.
When it comes to working keywords into your content, keep in mind that your users are searching for you on their own terms, and not necessarily using the same words that your industry may use to talk about itself. Get to know what your users are searching for, and how they’re thinking about your product or service. Doing some keyword research, gathering direct user feedback, and using tools like Google Analytics and can help with this process. This way of thinking should extend into your other channels (Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc) as well. Above all, the purpose of keywords is to help users find your content, and should never be obtrusive. Blatant “keyword stuffing” diminishes your credibility and is just plain tacky.
In general, page content and blog posts should contain at least one (relevant) image. Using too many images or trying to mess with the layout (i.e. by using an HTML table to place them where you want them on the page) can make your pages load slowly and look wrong on smaller screens. There are some very good reasons to make well-written content your primary concern:
- Pure text looks good on any any device, loads fast, and can be zoomed in or out without pixelation (important for people with vision problems).
- It's accessible to the visually impaired via a screen reader program, and can be automatically translated to other languages.
- It's easily indexable by search engines. The content is structured with HTML tags that indicate the order of importance of the information.
- Social media strategy and reach
The key to a successful social media practice is to first be authentic, and secondly, not make it merely a checkbox on a to-do list. Your social media strategy should fit within the limits of what is reasonable for you and your team to manage, and is at the same time effective for your business.Trying to provide content for every service under the sun will only lead to burnout, and nobody feels confident in finding a business or brand that has inactive social outlets.
The key to a successful social media practice is to first be authentic
Above all it needs to be structured, consistently maintained, and given proper priority to get anything out of it. And please, whatever you do, don’t give the job to your admin assistant or intern.
An authentic social presence means being aware that you are there for your users first. "Being where they are" means being there for them, on their terms. Provide valuable or interesting information that is relevant to your users. Answer them respectfully when they complain or ask support questions, and ALWAYS follow through.
4. Visual Identity and Style guides
Regardless of the kind of project we are doing, we will always begin by looking at a client’s identity. For better or worse, your identity is the representation of your company; the thing that first carries your brand message out into the world. On a project level, it introduces us to the kind of visual framework we, as the creative team, have (or not) to work with. Perhaps your identity hasn’t taken a visual form yet. Maybe it’s only stated in the company mission. Either way, having some definition of “this is who we are” laid out in advance will really help give shape to any design project.
One area we see companies frequently struggle with is visual cohesiveness. Maybe they are starting from scratch and need a whole identity system developed and implemented. Perhaps they have a great logo, but the website colors and details feel unrelated. Maybe disparate typefaces are used throughout print collateral and on their website.
The visual pieces of your brand or company need to be consistent, yet flexible enough to be able to create impactful communication. Budget-wise, visual cohesiveness should be prioritized within the context of everything else - content creation, copywriting, and social media activity. The development of a style guide can help inform all projects going forward, and save time and money by providing a clear visual roadmap for future employees or vendors working with you.
A style guide is a document that can be anywhere from one to hundreds of pages long, depending on your needs. It’s goal is to outline and structure your public-facing voice, including everything from logo-use guidelines to print and web color designations, fonts, website buttons, link colors, etc. Once developed, anyone should be able to reference it and shape their project with clarity, and your identity will maintain consistency wherever it shows up.
Remember, this key is to prioritize budget resources based on need. Don’t do everything at once. We are happy to go through any of this with you or your organization, and help you determine which areas would be most beneficial to focus on first.
If you are on the hunt for a designer, developer, or agency to help you build something awesome, read "The one thing your designer should do for you." It was written to help guide folks make good decisions when hiring creatives.
Got questions about this post? Leave them in the comments below, or introduce yourself via our contact page. We'd love to hear about your project and see if we can help.