Archive: Posts about Web Design
December 28th, 2010, 5 Comments »
Several times a week, I walk past a commercial office furniture warehouse. There is signage–a series of photos and text–running the length of one side of the building. If you get close to the building, you notice that several panels of the signs look noticeably ‘jaggy’ or low resolution. Other panels look normal. Here’s an example (and here’s another):
Somebody–the sign designer, and maybe the printer–failed at their job. They delivered an obviously substandard result. The owner of the furniture business probably:
- Hasn’t noticed
- Has noticed and doesn’t care
- Doesn’t understand that a better result is possible.
Understanding the How and Why
The third scenario is the one we encounter all the time when we teach web marketing workshops. The attendees are almost always non-technical marketing executives and small business owners. At some point during nearly every session, we hear this complaint from at least one of our students:
I asked my web designer to make a change to our site, and they said ‘no’. They explained why they couldn’t make the change, but I didn’t understand their explanation.
Sometimes the designer’s decision is the right one. But all too often, their answer doesn’t make a lot of sense. A few actual examples:
- “You can’t install WordPress on a Windows server. Launching a blog on a third-party site like WordPress.com is just as good.”
- “It’s impossible to add Google Analytics tracking code to your site.”
- “Drupal is the right solution for your small, simple site.”
I feel for our students. They lack the web designer’s vocabulary to fully understand the conversation. More importantly, they don’t have the technical acumen or experience to properly assess and question their designer’s decision.
In response, I’ll often try to simplify their explanation and provide the student with supporting evidence to counter the designer’s argument. Here, for example, is how you install WordPress on a Windows server. Or here are some reasons for running your blog locally instead of on a hosted service. Occasionally we’ll actually act as a student’s (or more often, a client’s) proxy and negotiate with the web designer directly.
Creatures of Habit
Why don’t these designers give their clients better advice? I’m not sure. Maybe they have out-of-date information. Maybe they don’t know how to deliver what the client asks for. Maybe they’re just lazy. Most often, though, they’re creatures of habit.
Much like web marketers, most web designers are self-taught. And, like any profession, only a smallish subset of them are eager to learn new technologies or keep abreast of industry trends. Just like humanity as a whole, they’re most comfortable with The Way I’ve Always Done It. This phenomenon is exacerbated, I think, by so many web designers being self-employed owner-operators. They’re not surrounded daily by fellow workers who might be sources of industry knowledge or alternative approaches. It also doesn’t help that the world of web design changes rapidly.
I find that a lot of designers’ reluctance comes where their skills brush up against related professions: search engine optimization, copy-writing, eCommerce and so forth. Often the client’s request isn’t directly related to the aesthetics or functionality of their website, but rather one of these other topics.
Web designers don’t have to be experts in these subjects, but they’re often the only web ‘expert’ a small business owner or marketing manager comes in contact with. It behooves them to understand some common best practices, so that they can make good decisions on their client’s behalf.
In writing this post, I’d hoped to write up a bunch of tips to help non-technical people with Negative Nelly designers. Unfortunately, “get yourself a better web designer” is the best advice I could come up with. What suggestions do you have?
Footnote: I should emphasize that this is not some passive-aggressive attack on any of the half-dozen web designers with which we regularly work. They’re all awesome.
5 Comments »
January 8th, 2009, 12 Comments »
I’ve been meaning to mention a recent web design trend: the side-mounted feedback link. I think I first spotted the link on BrightKit’s site:
Now that I dig into the links, I see that they’re all powered by and link to two customer services websites: Get Satisfaction and User Voice.
The link is ‘affixed’ to the right or left edge of the browser window and usually rendered in a contrasting colour. It floats above the page–that is, it doesn’t move when you scroll the page up or down.
This lends the link considerable prominence, and I’m interested to see if this eagerness for customer feedback spreads beyond sites using Get Satisfaction and User Voice. I’m also interested to observe whether there’s any consensus on the placement of the link–right or left side? How high in the browser pane?
I’ve collected a little list of sites with side-mounted feedback links on Magnolia. I’m up to eight at the moment. Here they are:
Thus far, there isn’t much consensus. Obviously the high on the left side is going to get more attention than low down on the right, but there’s no standard thus far.
Improved User Experience?
I’m no user experience expert, so I’m interested in opinions of this little innovation. I’m encouraged by this apparent trend toward a more prominent call for interaction.
Of course, the feedback link is analogous to the company’s phone number. It’s how a company responds to the feedback that makes all the difference. If a company representative never replies to your concerns, it doesn’t matter how big or visible your feedback link is.
I’d also be curious about other sites that have added the side-mounted feedback link. Write a comment if you know of any.
UPDATE: I just noticed that the Book Cover Archive has a similar floating link on the left side. It’s not flush with the browser edge, though, and is a link to the site’s home page as opposed to a feedback form.
12 Comments »
August 12th, 2008, 9 Comments »
When you spend as much time as I do exploring the shiny and the brand new in the technology world, it’s easy to forget that the middle of the bell curve is receding into the distance. I sometimes get frustrated when Normal Humans, who (quite legitimately) don’t know any better, make poor decisions about their web presence.
Take, for example, the Victoria Fringe’s website. It’s nicely-designed, and accommodates almost all of my Fringe-going needs. There’s one glaring exception: the online schedule. They appear to have just converted the offline, hard copy schedule into HTML and dumped it on the site.
As you can see, it’s sorted by venue. There’s one page for each location where shows are running. That’s possibly a reasonable option for the printed schedule. On the other hand, it may be evidence of a classic information design mistake, where the designer chooses a structure that fits their needs instead of their users’. After all, the Fringe sorts its volunteers, technicians and shows by venue. You’d expect Fringe organizers to think of the schedule in those terms, too.
However, users may want to browse or search the show listings in different ways:
- They may only be in town for a couple of days, so they only want to see shows for a particular date range.
- They may only want to see comedies.
- They may only want to see shows from out of town. All things being equal, traveling performers tend to produce better shows.
- They may want to search for performers they’ve seen in previous years (either by the performer’s name or, for bonus points, by the titles of old shows).
Happily, this is a problem that the geeks have already solved. We can think of each show listing as ‘structured data’–each listing (or database record, if you like) has an expected series of values–show title, performers’ names, venue, dates, times and so forth. It’s really easy to host this information in a database and display it so that it’s easy to browse, sort and search.
I’m not sure about front-ends for these, but free database services like Google Base or Dabble DB would be a natural place to start. Even if the user interface was a little clunky in the first year, or a little messy to look at, I’m betting it would be an improvement on the current approach.
The problem, of course, is that this looks like a hard problem for a Normal Human. We need more Common Crafts, who are expert explainers of the new.
9 Comments »
March 27th, 2008, 11 Comments »
Two weeks ago I stayed at the Sheraton Wall Centre for a few days. I made liberal use of their Internet access (priced at about CAN $12 a day, which is a deal at a four-star hotel). As usual, to sign up for their service, you had to complete an online form that popped up when you opened your browser. Here’s what it looked like (as always, click for a larger version):
Hilariously, the bottom half of the form is labeled “Ignore the Following Fields and Click Submit”. Then there are three fields, each labeled ‘Ignore This Field’.
Obviously this is a UI disaster. I’m sure there’s some peculiar explanation why the developer could edit field labels but not actually the form itself, but that’s not really satisfactory, is it?
There are actually two separate design disasters here. The less obvious one is the use of the software design term ‘field’. I don’t think the average hotel internet user understands that those blank areas are called ‘fields’. Most people just call them ‘boxes’.
11 Comments »
March 25th, 2008, 2 Comments »
Via Amber, I discovered the unusual design for Washlet.com, a site promoting a, uh, toilet. The site is more or less entirely comprised of little bits of video (note to designers: fix your title tags), discussing the pros and…well, just the pros, of their fancy new toilet.
The toilet-promoting monologues are hilarious because they’re so carefully worded. They never say the word ‘toilet’, and are constantly dancing around the actual nuts and bolts of our bodies and the device’s operations. I kind of feel for the poor actors–they seem so darned convinced of the Washlet’s awesomeness.
I’ve been watching the slow but steady rise of video-centric websites over the past few years. I actually don’t mind this approach at all. However, all of the information should be conveyed and easily available (and linkable) in text form. Why? Arguments for SEO aside, maybe I’m a verbal learner. Maybe I want to cut and paste a chunk to send to my bidet-obsessed friend. Maybe I want to blog about a particular product.
I actually prefer a hybrid model,with video naturally integrated into a text-based site. Coast Capital Savings and Steady Hand do this well.
I was reminded of an amusing Phillips campaign that I blogged about a while back, called Shave Everywhere. They’ve changed the content on that site, but the new stuff looks as good or better than the old.
2 Comments »
March 25th, 2008, 6 Comments »
Last month we ran a (quite unscientific) survey about web design and development for our client, Nitobi. For those webby types among you, we’ve just published the results. Here’s a pretty pie chart for one of the questions:
6 Comments »
January 18th, 2008, 5 Comments »
I’m pretty sure that everybody in the mainstream media now appreciates that the web is a pretty big deal. Newspapers and TV stations have finally accepted that future corporate health and wealth depends significantly on their web strategy.
Why, then, do I constantly find broken links and unhelpful 404 error pages on mainstream media sites? Here are two recent examples that I know about because I had blog posts linking to them.
- The Kansas City Star is a biggish paper, with a quarter of a million readers. You’d think they could maintain links to articles (broken link, just redirects to their home page) that are less than two years old. In SEO terms, their article on horse soccer would have easily beaten out my blog post about their article. They could have had the 2000-odd visitors who have hit my site searching for that term in the last 20 months. Given that one example, how many thousands of visitors are they leaving on the table because of broken links?
- Here’s a more heinous example. TSN used to have a whole section of their website at http://magazine.tsn.ca. My post linking to their article about CFL salaries has gotten about 25,000 visitors in the past two years or so. Those visitors should have belonged to TSN. As far as I can tell, that whole TSN Magazine section is gone, and there’s no redirects or 404-handling in place. 25,000 doesn’t sound so bad, but that’s just one article. Imagine that there are 100 articles missing, each which could have drawn roughly that many visitors. Two more zeros gets you 2.5 million visitors–a non-trivial number.
It’s possible that there are some wacky IntarWeb things going on between Morocco and these sites (Islamists don’t want me to read about horse soccer and CFL salaries!), but I don’t think so.
Broken Links Like It’s 1998
Given how desperate mainstream media companies are for web revenues, it’s shocking how often I spot broken links on their sites. I have no idea how widespread the issue is. It’s easy to imagine that TSN or the Star is missing at least 2% of potential visitors (and thus advertising revenue). If I’m running their website, that 2% matters. A lot.
Everybody has broken links. It’s a boring problem, and hardly rocket science, but corporations should know better. Their websites need to handle the error gracefully. Why, in 2008, is that still thwarting media companies?
There’s also a kind of social responsibility angle here. Every time somebody breaks a link, it has implications beyond their own site. Now I have to go chase down new articles on horse soccer and CFL salaries. In the meantime, searchers are being disappointed. That reflects poorly on me and the destination site.
5 Comments »
January 15th, 2008, 4 Comments »
Over at my day job, we’re running a little web design and development survey for Nitobi. I know some designer and developer types read my blog, so I’m hoping a few of you will take five minutes to complete the survey. It’s only 14 questions, and most of them are multiple choice.
As an enticement, we’re giving away an iPod Nano to one luck participant.
4 Comments »