People who commission websites, like you and I, must be in awe of web designers. That’s the only way I can explain the way that we allow the look and feel of our sites to slavishly follow the styles that are in vogue, and which just happen to have lots of up-to-date, off-the-shelf templates which designers can use and save time. You can date the majority of websites simply by looking at them.
Some of the features which have come and gone weren’t great. Take links and buttons, for example, which I mentioned last week. Once upon a time all links were underlined blue text. If you’re under 30, you probably can’t imagine a web where everything looked like this. Then designers started experimenting with different colours (confusing), removing the underlines (design at the expense of functionality), buttons (which worked, in moderation), animations (which made everybody sick), rounded corner buttons (cute), shadows and 3D (which went out of control), flat design (as a reaction), and most recently, ghost buttons. These are the type of buttons which just have the text in a translucent or transparent box.
Now doubt is being cast on the effectiveness of this latest trend. Research has shown that stronger contrast between elements reduces the time taken to find information. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who uses the proven technique of Common Sense. But the lesson to learn is that we should not be afraid to question website designers. Make them explain why they’ve chosen a particular way of doing things. In many cases, their only answer will be because Noupe or Smashing have told them that’s the trendy thing to do at the moment. And that’s not good enough.
I laughed when I saw Should I Use A Carousel? and I suspect you will too. I won’t give away the answer. However, if you’re an unashamed convert, or if you’re forced to have a carousel slideshow on the home page, then do read Ten Requirements For Making Home Page Carousels Work For End Users (If Needed) on Smashing Magazine. Test your own carousel out against the ten usability requirements specified at the end of the article, and if yours doesn’t conform, ask your designer why not. If sorting it out is expensive, ask yourself if you really needed it in the first place, and if you filled it up just ‘because it was there’. If the messages are all necessary, think about the quick and easy alternative of having smaller, individual panels showing all of the time.
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.