Our business websites need to convey a reasonable amount of gravity, of course. But is that any reason for their graphic design to be boring? I’d certainly classify the majority of business websites as just that (and to be honest, I’d find it hard to argue that our own isn’t boring, from a graphic design point of view).
Unfortunately for all of us, our visitors don’t just look at business websites. They’re used to seeing some of the most leading-edge stuff which the web has to offer, on a daily basis. Without knowing it, they will be comparing us to that, and a graphically dull site is one from which it’s much easier to hit the back button.
I don’t think your next company website tweak should try to copy the most avant-garde stuff that the web has to offer. But it’s always worth looking at the best websites out there, just to stop yourself getting complacent. And who knows, you might even pick up the odd idea which really could be appropriate on a business site. Take a look at Original And Innovative Web Layouts on Smashing magazine for a start.
What does your website look like when printed out? Printed out on paper, I mean. Because however archaic that sounds, it’s something that people often still have to do, especially in a business environment – and particularly when researching or specifying products. Your prospects and customers will be printing pages off your website all the time. Sadly, what they print off might not be doing you any favours.
Go to a product page on your website and print it out from your browser. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back.
Good. What does it look like? Is it a nice, well formatted printout that you’d be happy to send somebody in the post? Or does it look like a photograph of what appears on your computer screen, complete with (now useless) menus and links? Is the type nice and legible, or does it clearly come from a source not designed to be printed out on paper?
The chances are that you might need a print stylesheet. This is generally accepted to be the best way to tackle the problem of converting web pages to paper. It automatically reformats the page to a more print-friendly format when someone hits “print” on their browser. The alternative solution is to have a separately formatted “print version” page (which can be plain text, HTML or PDF), but that requires a separate version of the page to be maintained, and for the reader to spot the “print version” link on the page before hitting the “print” button.
Any competent web designer will be able to add a print stylesheet for you (ask me to point you towards one if you don’t know any). It’s just an addition to your site behind the scenes, and won’t affect the normal operation of the website in any way. There’s a good background article here and some terrific hints which your designer might thank you for here.
A new, although not conceptually innovative, technique is coming to web design, and it might be something you should consider as a development to your website, especially if you have quite a few pages which scroll down “below the fold”, as they say. It’s called “sticky navigation” and it makes a lot of sense. Imagine you’re using, say, Microsoft Word, with all its menus and buttons across the top of the page. Now imagine you scrolled down the document, and those menus and buttons all disappeared off the top of the screen. That would be unthinkable, right? But it’s what happens with web pages. As users scroll down your pages, your navigation across the top (and indeed down the side) will probably disappear off screen, out of sight. This is avoided with the use of “sticky menus” across the top, such as in this example (scroll down the page and watch the menu at the top as you do so).
The web designers’ site Smashing magazine has a terrific article on the subject called Sticky Menus Are Quicker To Navigate which starts off with a usability study demonstrating a clear preference for this system from users.
Don’t expect your web designer to be able to implement this on your site overnight. Putting navigation at the very top of the page might not be what you want, and may involve design compromises. Some sticky elements get, well, stuck as the user scrolls down the page, so they need to be coded and tested well. And there might be issues with mobile devices. But this is one design improvement which can be applied to existing sites without requiring a complete redesign. You might like to think about it.
Yesterday I mentioned how some users might not see your website the way you assume they do, because it displays differently in certain browsers. But how do you investigate what it looks like in specific browser versions if you’re unable to install them on your PC, or if they’re not available any longer? Fortunately there are a number of tools which professional website designers use, and many of them are free. Wayne Ansell, our tame designer (“some say…”) uses Adobe Browserlab, but of course, other services are available. This article from Smashing Magazine reviews a whole selection of them.
Smashing magazine recently looked at a more effective way of structuring and designing websites in an article called Stop Designing Pages And Start Designing Flows. I’m sure we’d all agree that designing a website around the customer experience is a desirable strategy, but one which few of us have done. Instead, we structure everything around our company and its offerings, as if the customer didn’t exist. What this excellent article suggests is that we try to identify what customers want from our website, and provide that in clear, unambiguous steps.
For example, customers who don’t know the company, but find the website from a Google search for “blue widget manufacturers”, will probably be taken straight to a product page. My guess is that the flow will be that they’ll make a quick assessment of the benefits of the product, then want to read a bit about the company, then go back to the product for a more thorough investigation. Finally, they’ll want to contact the company.
Now, it’s unlikely that you’d want to provide that whole sequence on one page. With at least one part (the company background) being common to all products, it makes sense to lead them to another page for that, but doing it with one click so that returning to the product page is only one back-click away. Then you provide the contact details at the end of the product page.
You can devise a whole set of potential visitor flows in this way, and then put them all together to create a site structure built with the customer in mind. It’s a lot better than the normal way, which is basically a graphical representation of how you described your company to a web designer, without even considering the customer.
Read more: Stop Designing Pages And Start Designing Flows on Smashing magazine