The Purpose Driven Website

The blank canvas by xinem

the blank canvas by xinem

Starting from zero with a website can be intimidating. Certainly, you can look at similar sites and competitors and get ideas for design, purpose, etc. Without experience, though, design seems so subjective.

What makes a web site’s design successful? For small business web sites, good design is never subjective. If the site achieves its goals, it’s a successful site. And a site can always be more successful in achieving its goals.

The fatal flaw in web site design is that too many sites are not designed with these goals in mind. In fact, you can break down most web site designs into three categories:

Ego-Driven Design

Have you ever found yourself telling a web designer, “This bar needs to be a darker shade of red – that’s my signature color!” Have you had a designer insist that the signup form needs to be pushed down because the logo image isn’t big enough? Take heed – your site is a victim of ego-driven design.

When you’re just starting out with your site, it’s easy to get caught up in this. You have little information to drive your design decisions, and you’re trying to get the site to match your brand. As a small business owner, your entire company is a reflection of you and your personality, and you want to make sure your site matches that perfectly. Your designer also has a lot at stake – they have a vision for the layout, line, color and other design attributes that will help make their portfolio pop. It’s easy to get caught up in the details.

Here’s a reality check: Craigslist. You’d be hard pressed to find a site that’s less attractive by modern site design standards. It breaks almost all of the rules – no graphics, no real color scheme, blocky layout, nothing but links. It looks like it was designed in 1997 and no one ever bothered to revisit it. For the most part, that’s actually the case.

On Alexa, which ranks websites according to the amount of traffic they receive, they come in at about #37 out of millions. The goal of Craigslist is to get as many people as possible to post classifieds while helping as many people as possible find what they’re looking for, and the site succeeds in spades. Their design is a reflection of a pinpoint focus on this goal alone.

By no means am I suggesting that you have an ugly site – Craigslist is also popular because they’ve been around so long, so they don’t really need to impress first timers too much. But, if you find yourself needling over the design details of your site, take a break and re-evaluate the design from the perspective of its stated goal – making money. If a design element has no discernible affect on that goal, it’s not worth sweating.

Customer-Driven Design

In the process of figuring out whether a new design meets the site’s goals, you may begin asking yourself what your customers expect out of your site. You may even do one better and get some of your customers involved in the design, asking their opinions and, perhaps, hosting focus groups. You can get a lot of valuable information this way and, in the absence of any other information, it may be the best way to determine whether a site’s design is on track or not.

Your customers know and – hopefully – love you. They have already bought from you in the past. They usually know a fair amount about your services and products. And, when they look at your site’s design, they’ll see it through this prism. If you optimize your site’s design to their needs and suggestions, you’ll serve them well. But you can’t address all of your customers’ needs. You can’t even ask each of your customers – some are too busy to participate in a focus group, some simply don’t care enough. And, if you optimize a site’s design for your existing customers or even your targeted customers, are you leaving out customers you can’t even anticipate?

If you can get customer feedback on a design before launching your site, take advantage of it. But don’t drop everything just because of one or more customers’ comments – keep in mind that their goals may not necessarily be the same as yours.

Results-Driven Design

A lot has been made of the marketing power of the web. While it does allow companies to reach entirely new markets for a fraction of the price of other methods, that’s not really where its power lies – its in the ability to measure just about every aspect of the marketing effort. With the right set of tools, you can track a user from the moment they arrive on your site all the way through to the conversion – every page and image they see, every link they click. It’s a numbers geek’s dream.

You can use these same numbers to track how effective your site is in converting visitors to paying customers. You can analyze click paths that lead to a conversion and better promote those pages that lead to the most conversions. You can also prune or improve those pages that aren’t converting as well as you expected. Not sure whether a new design is going to work better than the old design or not? Take advantage of “split A/B testing” – serve the old page to half of your visitors and the new page to the other half and see which one converts better.

If you’re starting from scratch, you don’t have any of these numbers. To get any truly meaningful results from your site’s statistics, you should have at least one month worth of stats – preferably three. But your designer can still rely on the studies, reports and best practices available on the Internet – many for free – driven by actual numbers to help drive their design.

Some of these resources include heat maps that visually show the areas of a page most viewed or most clicked on by visitors, A/B test results that demonstrate the most effective placement of page components like navigation and advertising, and word lists that can help persuade a visitor to take the crucial next step.

Once you’ve established your own numbers, you can begin measuring the true effectiveness of your site. Though these studies are helpful for getting started and can trigger ideas worth exploring, they are rarely one-size-fits-all solutions. Nothing beats actual results with actual visitors to your site, and you should analyze your number frequently to uncover opportunities for improvement.

Watching your web numbers can be as exciting as watching a sporting event, but don’t focus on the numbers alone. Look at the trends the numbers are showing – which days of the week typically get the most users? What is your week over week, month over month and quarter over quarter growth numbers? With experience, you’ll discover your own set of key performance indicators you can use to quickly measure your site’s health and know how to quickly react.

The ideal design methodology is one that take into account some amount of all three of these design types. You want a site that successfully reflects your company’s brand, is open and responsive to customer feedback and is optimized to convert visitors into paying customers. Consistently review the success of your site and sanely change its design and content to improve the numbers. When you’re faced with a tough design decision, though, only one question matters – which choice better serves the goal of your site. That single minded focus on your site’s goal will serve you well.

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