Monday, July 26, 2010

Web design warning signs: #1 - Not putting the customer first

In business, I'm a big proponent of the "customer comes first" concept. So are customers – most top companies have a reputation for placing customer interests foremost.

Unfortunately, in web design, too often the customer – the end user for whom your new site should be a key resource - comes last or even not at all. Consumed by trying to make the new site as hip or cutting edge as possible, many designers create beautiful websites that fail completely at servicing the customer - either taking too long to load, presenting confusing navigation or not having the right subset of options. This is the result of the number one warning sign when dealing with Web designers - NOT ASKING YOU ABOUT NOR THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER.

Your website - at its essence - is simply a place to engage your customer and meet their needs. A good Web design firm will ask you about your customer very early on in the process. They’ll ask questions like, “What do they do on your site? Why are they there? How sophisticated are they? What tools do they need to best find information about your products/services? What branding, imagery and messaging do they best respond to?”

One of my favorite Web design terms is “use case”. If you want to read a complex definition, check out Wikipedia’s Definition. But for me, it’s a fancy term to describe the different objectives of the people who use your site.

Take an online banking website, for example. As a business owner, I use my online banking site for a number of functions: I check my personal checking account balance; check my business account balance; place stop payments on checks I’ve written; transfer money to pay credit card bills; send domestic and international wires; or research mortgage rates or refinancing options. Each of these can be considered one of my use cases.

An essential way to begin any Web project is to ask and list, “What use cases are we trying to serve here?” If you are redesigning a banking site, you’ll have the ones I listed above and about 40 others to consider. Luckily, for most sites you’ll only have about 10-20 use cases, from “read company news” to “shop for products” to “find a store or distributor”. To develop your list of use cases, think about each type of individual who will be using your site and then identify all of the behaviors they’ll exhibit when they get there. Don’t just think about your different customer segments but also others who interact with your company, such as suppliers, employees or investors.

Like a great company, a great website always starts with the customer. Make sure your Web design firm is on the same page.

Read the full series: Top 10 Web Design Warning Signs

Sunday, July 25, 2010 named to 2010 list of “10 Great Media Sites” by BtoB Magazine

For the second year in a row, one of our flagship websites has been included in BtoB Magazine's annual list of "10 Great Media Sites". This year, was recognized as the top site in the business-to-business Trade media category, alongside leading media companies in other categories, such as the Financial Times, ITWorld and In determining the list, sites were evaluated in a number of areas, including appearance; organization and navigation; search functionality; video and other multimedia content; and community/social media (Web 2.0) features. BtoB received a record number of nominations this year, with more than 60 sites submitting applications. The award is a testament to our Fire team's hard work developing the site over the past 5 years.

Check out the coverage:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Web design warning signs: #2 - You are presented with only one design option

No matter how good a design firm or designer may be, they should always present you with multiple design options for the look and feel of your site. Too often, a designer will fall in love with their first attempt. And while it’s not a bad thing for a designer to feel passionate in support of their design, they may be coming at it from a different perspective that doesn’t match your objectives (and why do extra work for no reason?). They’ll pitch their design aggressively and advise you that it’s not necessary to consider other comps because their design is already “perfect”.

Unless they’re going to give you a discount because they nailed it on the first try or their name is Cezanne, have them give you a couple of other mock-ups and make sure that they are reasonably different – not just moving a few blocks around within the same look and feel.

Creating a couple of design options forces the designer to think creatively about the different objectives of the site and overall usability. It will also challenge you to think more broadly about the pieces of your new site and how they come together; often, you’ll want to borrow options from multiple different designs. What you’ll find is that no matter how good the first design may be, you’ll gain insight from the process of evaluating multiple designs that will positively impact the site in the long run – even if you ultimately end up going with that first design.

Good Web design firms understand how a healthy design process works and will present you with multiple options right out of the gate. However, we recommend always specifying the delivery of multiple design options in your Web development contracts to ensure your designer knows what they’re on the hook for.

Here is an example of a successful design process from a recent project at Praetorian. Below is a set of designs for the homepage of a video library for law enforcement departments. You can follow the process:

Three Initial Comps:

Refining and Combining... Two New Versions:

The Final Version:

Read the full series: Top 10 Web Design Warning Signs

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Web design warning signs: #3 - Focusing on the latest technology without addressing fundamentals

Web design companies often sell you on the big picture and latest technology. And you really can’t blame them. They are trying to differentiate themselves against their competition and establish themselves as thought leaders. This could include the development of user personalization features, complex data capture or reporting, widgets, social network integration, iPhone apps or flash-based tools.

Good web design takes work – whether that be understanding the customer, creating clean, logical code or optimizing sites using sound SEO practices. Keep in mind that for Web design companies there is little margin in simple web sites and even less in the minutiae that goes into good Web design. Design firms make most of their money on the upfront design, or more complex data and eCommerce-driven projects. Just as a car salesman will try to sell you on top-end features and options, so will a Web design firm try to heap on a number of technological bells and whistles you may or may not need.

A significant Web design warning sign is if your design company focuses too much on the latest and greatest features and technology without first demonstrating a command of the basics of good Web design, which includes many of the items we discuss in this series: usability, navigation, SEO, relevant use cases and quality content. Complex sites take longer to develop, increase the risk of downtime and are much more costly to maintain. In some cases, they can negatively impact usability, navigation or even SEO – especially if they don’t match your audience’s needs and level of sophistication. For example, if you are going with a more complex web site, be careful how often and where you use Flash or JavaScript. Search engines have trouble spidering content displayed by both technologies.

We’ll talk more about assessing your online needs as we conclude this series, but always make sure to carefully think through which feature sets will meet your customers’ needs as you consider any Web project. It’s important to take a phased and informed approach when moving from simple to more complex features, making sure you’ve fully considered the cost, benefit and potential drawbacks of more advanced Web technologies.

Read the full series: Top 10 Web Design Warning Signs