Tangled Web

The seven deadly sins of website design—and how to avoid them.
by : 

William J. Lynott

May 1, 2010

Deciding that your store would benefit by having its own website was the easy part. The tough part is avoiding the nasty pitfalls that make too many websites money losers instead of money makers.

The first commercial websites were designed by early computer experts. These hardy pioneers were quite comfortable in the arcane world of computers, but woefully lacking in communications and marketing skills. The result was a flood of clever websites that accomplished little except make their sponsors look silly.

That’s mostly over now. During the past few years, Web design has evolved into a sophisticated combination of art and science. Today’s best sites are powerful marketing and communication tools.

Unfortunately, plenty of the old clunkers are still around. Worse, more are going up every day. Here’s how you can make sure that your site—whether it’s in the planning stage or is already a reality—isn’t marred by one or more of the most damaging errors of website design:

1. Failing to formulate a clear purpose for your site
That may sound obvious, but failing to define and execute a clear purpose is one of the more common website design errors—and one of the most costly. Do you want a website solely to establish an internet presence, with a single page providing basic information such as phone numbers and a general description of your store? Or do you want a complete e-commerce site with multiple pages, photos of your store and inventory, a description of your specialized expertise, and other data? Or something in between these two extremes?

Why are you going to the trouble and expense of creating a website? Precisely what do you want it to accomplish? If you can’t state your purpose clearly in a sentence or two, you’re probably not ready to dip a toe in internet waters.

2. Failing to communicate your purpose clearly to your site designer
If you hire a professional to create your site (and most store owners probably should), you’ll pay additional charges if you keep exercising your right to change your mind. Changes in basic design after the project is underway can result in wasted creative hours. Unless your designer has agreed to a flat rate, you’ll be stuck with a larger bill than you expected.

You can avoid this common error by taking time to sit down in advance with your designer to discuss your ideas. Sketching out layouts and text with paper and pencil can save hours of costly design time.

Don’t allow yourself to become an obstacle to completion of the work by over-managing, but don’t sit back and assume that you shouldn’t be involved at all in the creative process. Either approach would be a mistake.

3. Failing to understand that the most important element of any website is content
Web surfers are looking for information about your business and the products and services you offer. Such details as site design elements and colors should always be transparent to the viewer. Too much “design” in a website can be compared with wearing too much makeup. If it calls attention to itself, it has defeated its purpose.

A site cluttered with annoying gimmicks such as animations and graphics that do nothing to enhance your message will be a sure turn-off for most viewers.

Perhaps you’ve seen sites alive with dancing bears, cartoons, pulsating banners, and other irrelevant devices. If you’re like most Web surfers, you have little patience with that sort of nonsense. Such schemes may have a proper place on a high-school student’s Web page, but not on your business site.

Make sure that your designer understands how you feel about unnecessary distractions. Graphics that are primarily decorative in purpose should be kept to a minimum. In website design, less is more.

4. Failing provide a simple navigation system
Web surfers are notoriously impatient. Viewers who log on to your site want to see at a glance what services and products you offer, and what they must do to find other key information. If your home page and your navigation system don’t provide quick answers, many viewers will quickly move on.

Every page on your site must provide an easy and intuitive way to reach any other page. Internet viewers simply will not invest the time and effort needed to plow their way through a confusing maze of menus. The most popular navigation systems consist of bars laid out vertically on the left side or horizontally across the top of each page. Whatever system you choose, it must be consistent. At an absolute minimum, every page on your site should contain a “return to home page” link.

Remember: If you allow your viewer to get confused, you’ve probably lost a potential customer. Your navigation system must provide your visitors with enough information to make easy and effective choices—no more, no less.

5. Failing to provide an easy way for interested viewers to contact you
If your site is a full e-commerce site, this requirement may seem too obvious to mention. However, if it contains only basic information such as phone numbers and a description of your store’s products, it will be easy to overlook the need to provide a feedback link.

Prospective customers may have questions that you haven’t anticipated, or there may be problems with the site such as broken links. In either case, a quick-and-easy e-mail link will allow the viewer to reach you with the click of a mouse.

Caution: Once you set up a feedback link, it is essential that you arrange to have your e-mail checked every day and you respond promptly to every message. Many people regard unanswered e-mail messages as a personal affront. That’s not a good way to build your business image.

6. Failing to test loading time on an average computer
The short attention spans of most people today will cause them to move on quickly if your site takes more than a few seconds to appear on their screens.

Excessive use of large graphics, animations, and other devices that increase the file size of the pages on your site will increase the time it takes for the page to appear on the viewer’s screen. Many sites are elaborate creations with the potential to win design prizes from fellow professionals, but they accomplish little or nothing for the people who are paying the bills.

If you own a high-powered computer with a lightening-speed processor and a ton of memory, or if you have high-speed internet access, don’t use your own system to test your site’s loading time. Find a friend with an average setup. Then, if your site takes more than eight or 10 seconds to load, you and your designer need to sit down and decide what has to go.

7. Failing to optimize: Using search engine optimization (SEO) to help search engines find your site
Search engines on the internet allow Web surfers to type in key words such as “holistic medicine,” “mind and body healing,” a company name, or any other subject. Then, in the blink of an eye, the search engine scans the millions of sites on the Web and lists those that have meta-tags identical to the typed-in search term. Meta-tags are words and phrases that describe the contents of your website and the nature of your business, making it easier for search engines and interested viewers to find you.

Meta-tags aren’t a magic key to site effectiveness; however, they can increase the chances that your site will be included in the list that pops up when a Web surfer types in one of those words or phrases.

The use of meta-tags is a technical subject too complex to cover in full here. For our purposes, let’s just say you should discuss it with your Web designer to make certain she includes a full measure of appropriate tags in your home page.

If you’d like to learn more, log on to a search engine (the most popular is www.google.com) and type “meta-tags” (without the quotes). You’ll learn how search engines work, and you’ll get a long list of websites that can provide all you ever wanted to know about the subject. Once you’ve checked out meta-tags, type in a general description of your business. The result will be an education on the creative opportunities that await you in website design.

Steering clear of these seven deadly sins cannot guarantee a blue ribbon for design and effectiveness, but sticking with these guidelines will unleash the full power of your website, lifting it well above the majority of your competitors.

William J. Lynott is a veteran freelance writer who specializes in business management as well as personal and business finance. Visit him at www.blynott.com.