Design: Experts in weaving webs

Why creating websites should really be left to designers

Once upon a time there was a powerful ‘being’ called the webmaster. The webmaster was the holy trinity of writer, designer and developer. Often from a network IT background, their role was more security guard than marketeer. The site’s design, accessibility and ability to change for marketing reasons was usually far down their list of priorities.

Hence, an internet filled with corporate, dated, monolithic sites.

Things have thankfully moved on and it’s now recognised that the design and development of a modern website requires many skillsets. UX (user experience) plus UI (user interface) design are key, as are front and back end developers, SEO, content writers, CRO (conversion rate optimisation), project managers and analytics experts. A dedicated team is required even though it may involve various departments.

A site is really about an experience. Fundamental to this is the site’s design. If you get the feeling a site has been designed by committee, or divided up for departments to manage sections – or designed by a developer- it probably has been. If you get the sense of being lost, overwhelmed or struggle to click or find content, more than likely a designer was removed from the process, most often when it went ‘in-house’.

Design Brief IBM

Nowhere to hide: Like it or not, sites which are not mobile friendly will soon be penalised by Google in SEO results. Leads and sales will be affected by the change which comes into force at the end of April. More focus on mobile means design will have an even greater role.

User (sadly, the term emphasises the impersonal side of websites) interaction defines the first and second point of contact experience (94 per cent of first impressions online are design-based). Just like the app that you use once and discard, a site with a bad experience is forever labelled as a no-go zone in one’s memory.

A site’s design/experience should not be governed by your IT department, your ageing content management system (CMS) platform, or your print brand guidelines. Note, a developer is not a designer. Many developers are hugely talented and clued into UX and UI but, if your site is not design led, you define it purely as technology and not as a brand experience. A design-led site with close developer collaboration is ideal.

Changes in Google ranking means a site that is not mobile friendly will be penalised in SEO results from the end of April. But just having a desktop and mobile site is not enough as Google will prioritise fully responsive sites (a site that is optimized for all devices – desktop, mobile or tablet). Much has been said about the need to have your mobile experience optimized, but bigger sites have been slow to make changes.

Now that leads or sales might be affected from lower rankings, we may see something of a millennium bug type panic among site owners. The tech giants in Ireland have hoovered up development talent from agencies, so expect a development bubble making it difficult and expensive to get what you need done.

A rise in giant smartphones (Dom Joly ‘esque) also highlights the role of design. More devices throws up user experience issues. The average thumb cannot stretch to the navigation at the top of a large smartphone screen. It may take many years for our thumbs to adapt and grow but we need to consider these new supersize users.

Mobile use can often be contextual so having your full corporate site on mobile does not always make sense. Consider your user experience carefully before you embark. Many mobile users just want a phone number or directions. Remember: user first.

Let us not forget about B2B sites. Such sites have always been results focused and traditionally they have been more of an online name plaque and corporate brochure. But as ROI and lead measurement have grown in importance for B2B marketers, their sites should be considered from the user’s and not the company’s perspective.

Does your site talk mainly about you or your customer? B2B websites have been about box ticking and including all the standard content. But with most corporate sites on a par, the need to differentiate from competitors and move closer to the customer rises. The experience starts with your site, so ask yourself is it just a filing cabinet?

Let us not forget UX v UI. These terms are thrown around a lot but here is the official definition. UX, or user experience, includes research, user testing, creating personas, information architecture, usability, prototyping. UI, or user interface, is purely about the design of the interface and overlaps with the overall site visual design.

The UX and UI roles may be dedicated roles or shared by web team members.

Both roles demand consideration. So, webmasters are history but who takes their place? The designer must lead – not a developer, sales guru or a marketing genius. By giving the customer a great design experience, they will always come back.

First published in Magazine April 2015.