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Web Design Roundtable

Posted on 10.18.2006

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Whether publishing a newsletter, managing an online business or working as an affiliate, a well designed site can become a holistic experience for a visitor — earning trust and, most importantly, repeat visitors. A poorly designed site can have trouble converting visitors into customers and damage a brand as fast as the click of a mouse.

Web design is also an ever-changing environment. New technologies, updated browsers and the public’s wandering eye all have a way of forcing designers to constantly evolve. It’s important for designers to stay sharp and pay close attention to changing client needs.

Website Services Magazine is proud to present the following discussion from four top-flight designers in the thick of the Web design world. We compiled 10 questions for these designers, hoping to gain some important knowledge about the design field — from a designer’s perspective, a client’s perspective and somewhere in the middle. The questions were then emailed to each designer and we patiently awaited responses. We weren’t disappointed.

What follows is a lively, informative and forward-thinking discussion about pressing issues that every designer must face.

The Website Magazine Roundtable Designers:

Joe has 25 years of experience as an award-winning creative leader and he directs all creative operations for Avenue A | Razorfish in the Northeast. Current projects range from Ford, JCPenney, Mercedes-AMG, and BMW to L’Oreal, Condé Nast, XM Satellite Radio, and Kodak. Joe was also recently named a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences.
Cameron directs Designkitchen’s information architecture and technology teams in the development and execution of their interactive design and branding solutions. He is widely practiced in programming, software engineering and advanced mulitbrowser platforms. Cameron has been instrumental in launching major initiatives for Life Fitness, Hu-Friedy, Carrier Corporation, USG, Motorola, Perkins+Will and Bally Total Fitness.
Jennifer has been designing Web pages since 1995, and has maintained sites of over 5,000 pages on a large corporate website, small business websites, and personal Web pages and blogs, as well as several intranet and extranet sites. She has worked with nearly every Web technology including XML, CMS, HTML, PHP, Perl, C, and Java. She also writes daily design weblogs at About.com.
Fluid co-founder and Chief Experience Officer Andrew Sirotnik drives the company’s award-winning online interactivity strategies. Sirotnik, in his current role and formerly as Fluid’s Creative Director, draws on over 15 years of experience in interactive design and rich media to serve a host of premier global brands such as Reebok, The North Face, Beringer, Design Within Reach, Avery, and Timberland.


WM: What makes a Web design great?

CF: It’s when you can look at a website, think it’s cool and appreciate what you’re seeing — whether it’s the content or design — while the technology works seamlessly in the background. Being able to marry the technologies that drive the Web seamlessly into the design so a user doesn’t recognize what or how it was created is something to strive for. This is an interesting time for design on the Web. The strides made with technology in recent years have made bandwidth less of an
issue, so it is relatively easy to create large, compelling interactive pieces — and there are some very exciting interactive pieces out there. On the other end of the spectrum, you still have a call for minimal design using raw XHTML. And these sites can look fresh and dynamic as well. Some blogs have the most minimal modern design elements in them and they look fantastic.

AS: Great Web designs are meaningful. They use design and technology to create experiences that meaningfully connect a consumer with their brand and products.

JK: A great design combines usability with style to make a site that works for the customers who will be using it and is
visually appealing.

JC: Great websites are intuitive and compelling, and they faithfully deliver the promises of the brand they represent.


WM: In your experience, what are some of the most common problems in professional Web design?

CF: Prioritizing design over content. If the design rules the content, then you have simply lost the entire point of the website. A pretty site just doesn’t do it anymore. People are looking for better ways to deliver content. There are too many sites out there that look great but you can’t find the point — or rather the value of the product or service is just not evident to the user.

The Information Architecture (IA — providing a blueprint for the site, gathering insights about the client’s business objectives and target audiences and incorporating that information in the overall design) itself is the first piece in design that people should concentrate on. How is the user getting the content and how is the content being delivered? Understanding the audience for a website can have tremendous impact on the IA and, ultimately, the content itself. Does the content need to be written to serve everyone, or should it be tailored to specific audiences?

The design should compliment the IA but never rule it. I see numerous websites that simply look fantastic, but after you spend 30 seconds on them, you start looking for a search engine to get you to where you want to go. That tells you something.

AS: The problem we frequently see today is a focus on function, while looking past the importance of a satisfying shopping experience. Shopping today is social entertainment. Consumers love, and expect to be gratified at the point of decision.

In-store retail design is a great reference. If retailers designed their stores strictly to usability guidelines, they would essentially all be the same. Instead, they strive to differentiate at all costs — creating immersive, highly branded and entertaining environments for shopping. This forges a deeper relationship between their brand and the customer without sacrificing the basic mechanics of commerce. It is only logical that we will see online customer experience follow this trend.

JK: The biggest problem that a designer has to face is the sheer number of ways that their design can be viewed. Web design is like other design fields, it can be very subjective. And, many designers forget that the look that they worked so hard on for weeks might be completely unpalatable to someone else. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just doesn’t work for that person. To be a good professional Web designer, you need to be able to work through that type of situation.

Additionally, you can design a site that looks beautiful on Firefox and IE 6 and then have it completely crash when your customers view it on a Treo. It’s incredibly frustrating.


WM: What is your process when designing a site for a client? What should a client bring to the table? What questions should a client ask a designer that many are not asking?

CF: To start, you have to understand the technology platform that the site will be sitting on. You cannot create a great design if you are unaware of how it is going to be delivered. The technology will crucially impact the design, and if you want your website to work well, understanding and designing around the technology is the most important factor.

Next, you have to solidify the IA based off of the client’s business objectives. If a client wants to come across on a brand level as quick, fast and hassle-free, then it doesn’t make sense to have a 10 button navigation, even if they have enough content to warrant it.

If you understand the technology and the IA, then designing around it and working with a team you can trust will result in a great looking, functional website that delivers on your client’s goals and objectives.

A design team should be asking, “What is going to make this successful for you and your business?” Being able to capture a client’s thoughts and objectives, and use them to design the website is one of the single most important factors during the process.

Also tied into this but almost always assumed is site analysis software. If you take this on at the end, as an afterthought, you’re going to get those generic results everyone is familiar with. However, if you get the client thinking about the data they want to capture from the beginning, it can be built into the website in order to take full advantage of the all the options the analysis software may have. That way you can ensure that you’ll get results that you can use.

Using the right tools will allow you to analyze every step a user takes in the process of experiencing your website. This can be looked at on an individual level or a group level. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that once a site is delivered, the engagement shouldn’t stop. Work with a company that is willing to analyze the site, tweak it and hone it so that it works better for them over time. That’s the great thing about the Web — unlike print you don’t need to publish a second edition
to get a newer version out there.

Finally, I would actually like to see clients challenge the design more. They put so much trust and faith into the design team that they often just look at a website superficially. It is very rare that I find a client challenge a designer as to why they used certain line work in one area, or why the background pattern is multicolored, for example. Aside from the obvious, “I don’t like the color green, please get rid of it,” making the designer answer those types of questions can give the client a clear idea of who they are dealing with. Are these people for real or just faking it?

AS: Fluid focuses on five key areas when beginning design:

• understanding the client’s brand
• researching the competition
• interacting with actual customers
• dissecting the analytics data
• clearly distilling the business case for the website redesign (i.e. the metrics against which the design will eventually be measured).

I think the single most important question a client can ask when evaluating a partner is for client references. There is no substitute for getting a first person narrative of another client’s experience.

JK: I like to get a plan together with the client. If they have ideas for how they want the site to look, I want to see them as early in the process as I can. I’ve found that many people have seen something on another website that they really love, but they don’t want to show me because I might think they want me to copy it. Also, I have found that many clients have a look in mind, but haven’t thought at all about what content they’re going to have on the site. I believe that design needs to work with the content and the development to create a site that really works for everyone.

JC: The three most important things a client should bring to the table are:

• A robust demographic and psychographic understanding of the various cohorts, segments, or users of the proposed website.
• A clear “wish list” of the metrics that will be used to measure the success of the website.
• High expectations, along with a spirit of openness and creative collaboration.

Clients should ask the members of their creative team the following:

• What do you, personally, hope to get or learn from this assignment?
• Can I see your personal portfolio?
• What’s the project you’ve enjoyed the most in your career, and why?

WM: Some websites look great, but are difficult to navigate. Is it more important to design for aesthetics or conversion? Why should a website owner be concerned or not concerned with having a “pretty” page?

JK: If a site is pretty but doesn’t make any money, it will fail. Maybe not today, but it will. Conversion is important. Aesthetics are important too, but the one thing I’ve learned is that no matter how beautiful you make your site, someone is going to utterly hate it. I design for usability first, then aesthetics. In many situations, people see things that work
as pretty. And frankly, if I were trying to make a sale or get a page view, I would much rather that they click the “buy” link than be mesmerized with the style.

JC: Generally, users spend less than one second forming an opinion of whether a website’s design is “good” or “bad,” which directly reflects on their perception of the brand the site represents.

Usability and navigation are more considered experiences. Sites are either intuitive or not, in their ability to allow users to complete tasks. Usability also reflects on brand perception, which is why at Avenue A | Razorfish it’s impossible to pose design and usability as mutually exclusive. All websites should be both beautifully on-brand and intuitively usable.

AS: There is no excuse for a website not to be visually pleasing, interactively engaging, optimally performing and 100 percent usable.

WM: With so many millions of websites on the Internet, how do you keep your designs fresh? Where do you find your inspiration?

CF: It is always good to take a look around the Web and see what everyone is doing in all realms of design — corporate, small business, personal, hybrid and experimental. But only do that to see what’s out there, not for what you can do on your own website. If you are trying to find an excuse to use cool widget #2 that you found on some other site, then you have a problem.

Surround yourself with creative people from all areas. You need a creative strategist who understands the company, creative IA that breaks boundaries, a creative design team and a creative technology team. Using that team to push the edge of the design and technology will always lead to original work. Mimicking what you see on “cool design” websites is a good way to eliminate all the previous work your team has done for you.

AS: Fluid’s approach is founded on intimately understanding the customer. Our best innovations stem from interacting with real consumers in interviews, focus groups, early prototype testing and usability reviews.

We structure our project workplans around this core pillar, testing early and often — everything from concepts to paper prototypes to simulated click-throughs. Even development is structured iteratively so that we can test working features and continue design as long as possible into the build process.

JC: Our inspiration comes from a profound commitment to deeply understanding the unmet needs of our client’s customers and
using those needs as touchstones for innovations.

WM: How do you control your overhead? What new stock options are out there and are they helping with the cost of design?

JC: New stock options are dramatically helping many smaller companies who have fewer concerns about truly proprietary imagery. Their options include sites such as stock.xchng, istockphoto.com, Stock Expert, or even Flickr. Using those options, one can pay two dollars for stock that could otherwise cost $200 - $1,000 from a more conventional stock agency or five times that amount when staging a photo shoot.

JK: I make sure that my team and I stay as up-to-date as possible on new technology and ideas in Web design. I feel that a lot of overhead comes from Web design teams being forced to hire outsourced professionals in various fields because they don’t have the time to learn the technology themselves. I would rather have someone I’ve already hired learn how to do Flash or CSS 3 than have to hire an “expert” sometime down the road.

WM: To what degree should a designer be concerned with search engine optimization (SEO)? What are some of the most direct and efficient ways to design a site with SEO in mind?

CF: All public-facing websites need to keep SEO in mind, but I’m not sure a designer needs to be completely wrapped up in SEO. It is good to understand the basics but there are so many things the technology team can do beneath the design to help fuel SEO best practices. The most important components of SEO are occurring down on the technology tier. Making sure a spider can get to all the content in a website shouldn’t be a concern of the designer. Even if the design was one flat image, there are still things that can be done to make it appear as text to a spider.

One exception to this rule is Flash components of websites. Yes, there are many ways to make that content available for indexing but it almost always requires creating an entirely new, hidden site under the Flash layer. If there is one big issue with Flash, it is SEO. If you have a 10 page website in Flash and you make that text available to be indexed on the technology tier, there are still issues when getting a user from a search engine to the correct page. Costs can start spiraling.

JK:
I don’t think the designer should be particularly worried about it, as SEO is a process of the content developers. The only part that a designer or developer might have in the SEO process is making sure that the page is accessible to search engines and the relevant content comes as close to the top of the page as possible. I do this through CSS and standards based design.

JC: Designers should strive to take users beyond traditional visual design and into an immersive experience that provides access to the information and features they need and want. Flash has emerged as one of the primary ways to deliver richer experiences, and at Avenue A | Razorfish we’re using new techniques that allow search engines to have visibility into Flash-based sites in ways they’ve never had before. One technique makes Flash sites more easily indexed by search engine
crawlers without encountering problems associated with cloaking methods. This technique provides readable HTML content that
improves natural search rankings but can be used within a rich Flash design as part of the visual interface. This increases natural search performance and keeps the site from being delisted by the engines for cloaking.

We have also started to use another technique to help solve so-called ‘deep linking’ issues within Flash sites. This technique involves the creation of individual URLs for unique areas within the site. These areas can be interpreted by the site so that it then delivers a targeted experience at a specific point within the design. This empowers paid and natural search to deliver more relevant results, bypassing the need to navigate through a Flash site to relocate information they have already searched for outside of the application.

WM: As a designer, how do you account for changes in technology? What challenges have been brought by updates to Internet browsers such as Internet Explorer 7?

CF: For each website, the designer will have documents that let them know what technologies are available for them to use. Being able to understand them and see examples is of the utmost importance. For example, a designer should understand AJAX before they try to design something using it. Having a strong technology team that can work with the designer during this process is better than anything a designer can get superficially on the Web.

Challenges, as they relate to browsers, aren’t much of a concern for the designer. Let the technology team sweat that out and offer changes to the designer for items that won’t work on specifically agreed upon browsers by the client. The nightmare of browser compatibility will only bog down the design and the designer.

JK: I believe it’s important for designers and developers to be as up-to-date on the current trends in technology as possible. Frankly though, I haven’t seen IE 7 as a challenge so much as a relief — it finally incorporates many of the standards that were missing from IE 5 and 6. The challenge as I see it will be similar to what we have now — where most people are browsing on non-standards-compliant browsers and we have to design standards based websites that work on those browsers as well as IE 7 and Firefox

JC: Keeping aware of technological changes is critical. But it’s equally important to maintain perspective and not become confused or overly influenced by changes that are simply hype or fads. Our approach at Avenue A | Razorfish is to stay aware of industry evolution, history and trends.

Technological changes can affect creative solutions on a variety of levels. New technology and platforms, such as blogging or video publishing tools, can allow for new opportunities and approaches to the overall solution. Other new technologies, like developer and designer tools, can allow for new visual, interactive, and stylistic capabilities, including Flash updates and new ways of image manipulation.

Innovative design is about incorporating all of these changes into new ways of design thinking and solutions. If designers don’t keep up-to-date and continue learning while keeping their skill sets and philosophies contemporary, they’ll quickly become irrelevant. That’s simply the nature of digital media, which is utterly driven by technology.

WM: A slick website can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but these days every business needs an online presence. How can small- and medium sized businesses compete and have a great looking site without busting their budgets? On a limited budget, where should a website owner commit the majority of their resources?

CF: Typically the “hundreds of thousands of dollar” website involves the technologies used rather than design itself. A design company should be able to understand all technology platforms and be able to tailor them for the company. A company that uses an enterprise system as its technology base has driven up the cost in that choice alone. Providing freeware/ shareware solutions for small websites/clients is key to any offering. Nuke platforms and portal software that can get a client all the features of a robust system without the cost is pivotal. Understanding the technologies behind them, particularly the presentation layer, will produce a site that looks like it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a fraction of the cost. Some of the coolest technologies out there are available for free. Enterprise solutions are good for the companies that require them and this is dictated by business rules more than design.

JK: Planning their site should be a top priority. Most small businesses owners seem to wake up one morning and say “I need a website” and then either build it themselves that day or hire the first designer they see or know. But most successful businesses spend time planning how they’re going to make their company work — they write business plans and find funding and so on. Websites are the same way. The more effort you put into planning the site, the better it will work for you in the long term.

JC: For some companies and clients, a smart way to cut down on costs is through intelligent use of open source software, like Mambo. Once you ensure your technology platform, you are then able to focus your budget on design. However, in cases where a technology platform isn’t as important, agencies should adhere to goal-oriented design — that is, understand the client’s customer needs. Not every site benefits from each new and exciting technology, especially if the site is for a small or medium-sized business.

Resources should be allocated by knowing what the user needs most. If a business is selling a high-tech electronics device, that business must prioritize its money on, for instance, high-end photography and product detail shots. If a PR firm is selling a specified knowledge base, it needs to center its resources on a technology platform that enables frequent updates, like a blog. In that case, simple, minimal design will be sufficient because customers are ultimately able to reach and
obtain the content they truly want.

WM: What sites do you frequent to stay up-to-date with industry standards? What are some of the trends in Web design and what does it mean for the future of design?

JK: Some of the things I’m excited about are the continuing move of separating design, content, and functionality within Web pages and interactive design tools like Ajax and Web 2.0. I think that Web design is going to become even more interactive between the site design and the customers’ needs.

My favorite blogs for staying up-to-date are:
A List Apart: http://www.alistapart.com/
Web Standards Project: http://webstandards.org/buzz/
SitePoint: http://www.sitepoint.com/

AS: I read the newspaper. The trends in Web design only matter if regular people find them valuable. Our best innovations come from observing real people navigate the real world.

CF: Not to sound cliché, but the future is wide open for design. There are so many happenings on the Web front, 2.0 being one of them. It is hard to guess exactly where design is going to go.

There is going to be a battle between high bandwidth mega-interactive sites and minimal text-based sites. While the screen size for the average computer is increasing, the devices delivering the Web are shrinking. Someone who truly understands the technologies that are delivering the Web might be better off than those who are wrapped up into one specific device, like the PC.

I do see a more minimal approach to design in the future. As users become more and more impatient with the time that they
have available every day, I think the design around the content will become less and less, whereas the design of the actual content and how it is delivered to different audiences within the same website will be much more important. If the content — be it video, audio, or just text — is the design, that might be very cool. How is it going to be done? We’ll just have to see. ■


 


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