Good web design means different things to different people. Ask most folks about it and their responses will tend to gravitate towards matters of personal taste, as well as to the frequent usability and visual annoyances that accompany poor web page designs. Good designs are used to enhance and convey your message or offer; communicating its benefits and delivering a concise call-toaction that spurs prospects to make a positive and immediate purchase decision.
When discussing basic and advanced techniques for gaining a competitive edge with good design, however, many inexperienced operators place too much of an emphasis on deploying the latest technology, ready or not — rather than focusing on core ingredients such as accessibility and cross-platform compatibility, which often take second stage, but could produce a more substantial improvement of the website’s bottom line.
It’s a Balance of Form, Function; Careful With the Bells and Whistles, Be Up-to-Date.
Good design is not gimmicky — although good designs may contain many gimmicks.
It is the balance of form and function, offering enough eye candy to seem “up to date” but not allowing bells and whistles get in the way of the content. Flash-based websites are a great example, where viewers in their desktop environment may say “gee whiz,” but be totally nonplussed when trying to access that Flash design from an iPad, to no avail.
Typography is another often-overlooked factor in successful web design.
While you can’t go wrong by relying on time-honored classic font choices, such as Arial and Times New Roman, there may be better choices from a readability standpoint — and infinitely superior options from a creativity standpoint — but sometimes, such as with online font selection, less can be more.
Today’s web designers have significant advantages with the addition of font support to the CSS 3 specification, allowing websites to display fonts as true text (as opposed to a graphical representation) even though those fonts are not available on the user’s computer — with licensing concerns handled transparently in the background.
Used creatively, with legibility being the principal concern, font selection is one way in which a website can distinguish its look and feel at little to no cost.
Best practices for good web design include incorporating analytics such as bounce rates, user funnel and exit page data to identify areas for improvement; relying on split A/B testing to determine the true results of any modifications including whether or not they provided a net benefit or actually hampered your efforts. A/B testing removes the guesswork from the process.
Trying a split testing program is as easy as having half your pages say “join now” and the other half, “become a member” — then see which is most effective. Let’s use the former as an example, so the next round of tests is between “join now” and “enter here” — it’s a simple process of comparison and elimination, using stats to show which is best.
Experts have also long advised designers to “stay above the fold,” utilizing those very precious first-page pixels to push your offer, including clear benefits and a call-to-action.
Heat maps will show you just how little of your website the average viewer bothers with, including just how few visitors actually scroll down the page — information that stats reporting simple page views does not convey, but which is vital to advanced design.
If you don’t understand these concepts, then no amount of Photoshop skill will truly improve your web design capabilities.
The point is that good (commercially oriented) web design isn’t just about making pretty pictures, it’s about selling. To be an effective designer, you need to understand something about sales and marketing; how to identify and stir the prospect’s emotions; and how to get him to trust you and desire your product enough to open his wallet.
Understanding jQuery is far less important to good web design than are these basics.
Focus on navigation, remembering that good text links are the best way to go, if not the most attractive of user interfaces. Want to use fancy toolbars and the like? Be sure to offer a text-based alternative — and make copious use of internal linking between your pages to boost usability and search engine rankings.
While we're on the subject, search engine marketing is another arena in which good web design can pay enormous benefits. Factors such as standards compliance and load times impact search rankings, as does properly structured HTML that uses standardized tags such as <h1>, as well as newer HTML5 tags such as <aside>.
Good designers will leverage this knowledge, incorporating search engine friendly coding techniques along with opportunities for later fine tuning of pages for better ranks.
Psychology also comes into play, as does an understanding of the tastes and cultural sensibilities of your target audience.
For example, successful “legal teen” sites with black backgrounds are about as rare as successful BDSM sites with hot pink backgrounds — and likely for a pretty good reason.
Although this list of issues may seem daunting, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to higher-end web design.
Accurate site maps, robust search and content discovery functionality, social media platform integration, providing meaningful feedback and operational tips to users in response to common tasks and more are all part of the deal, as are customizable designs which allow the site to morph to suit different user environments — changing display parameters based on factors such as platform, screen size and browser choice.
Is this all too much to ponder?
Think about how YOU, as an experienced surfer, would want to access and consume the content you’re marketing, and then build THAT website. It’ll make a great starting point for your testing process, along with a great proving ground as your skills grow — getting that far along in the business forms a practical foundation for becoming a great website designer — whatever that means to you. And remember, you may want to hire experts to do your web design, but understanding these basics and beyond will help you get the most value from outsourcing — and help you to find the most qualified designer.