Good on you. Site looks fantastic. So what happened?
Worse than that?
Traffic decreased, sales dropped off..?
Welcome to the world of web redesign hell. I totally relate because this happened to me… and it was all my own dumbass doing.
My website shame
So backtrack several years. I’m a fresh-faced designer, still new to the freelancing game. Very wet behind the lugs but I know Photoshop, I’m well-versed in HTML and CSS and WordPress has become a thing so I’m developing my theming skills.
Business-wise it’s ‘success after a fashion’ which means I love what I do while eating most days.
Anyhow I woke up one morning during a particularly slow month and decided I deserved food every damn day, plus a better wardrobe and a holiday.
So I resolved to up my game and my first step was to go build myself a new website to wow the punters. After all I was the ‘design guy’ it came with the territory.
I made some important decisions upfront…
- I wanted a retro feel (with matching new logo.)
- I wanted brown/green with red highlights (yes I did)
- I wanted a new full width opening slider (they were all the rage.)
- I wanted motion: new CSS3 button effects and all.
- I wanted ‘cool & sexy’.
Important decisions made I spent the next couple months building out my creation, painstakingly labouring over each graphic element, each line of code.
When it was finally ready I launched my new super-sexy website and awaited delicious traction.
I’d like to say “nothing” but the truth was far more romantic: ‘traction’ gave my backend a dirty great love bite… which drew blood.
Organic traffic decreased, social interactions fell off, sales went down. everything dipped, lower than whale shit, except that horrible little metric that evil site tuners use to terrorise the witless… bounce rate, which jumped over Big Ben and did crazy somersaults along the Thames.
I was Screaming Lord Ouch and utterly confused as to how my lovely looking website had decided to bite me.
It dawned on me that I’d created a beautiful disaster, not quite “Cowboys and Aliens” but everything’s relative, and I wasn’t eating…
What doesn’t kill you puts wind in your funnel
But I’d been creating the wrong kind of ‘sexy’.
And not just for myself, for actual paying clients.
It wasn’t malicious, you understand, I thought I was doing the right thing by giving people what they asked for: a beautiful, hand-coded, pixel-precise digital design, my ‘creative’ interpretation of their highest aspiration… which sounds suspiciously like art. And fine if all you need your website to do is sit on a gallery wall with its ‘site of the day’ award.
My eureka moment wrenched my head clean out of my ‘designer ass’.
So now I had a new mission: avoid bad design. To do this I needed a clear definition of ‘good design’ and that was hard when there are so many conflicting viewpoints as to what actually constitutes ‘web design’…
Well design on the web is not like other design, it’s interactive for a start and never just one thing… hell it’s not even two things.
So here’s a ‘gotcha list’ of 28. Get these things right and your website will be better than beautiful it might even be useful…
1. What is your site about—do you even have a value proposition?
The number one glaring error made by even the most ‘high end’ amongst us. You have literally seconds to convince your visitor that they’re in the right place and that you’re the number one answer to their problem. So create a cast iron value proposition. Do this one thing right and you’ll be kicking the majority of your rivals into obscurity because they either don’t do it or don’t know how. If you need more, and I’m sure you do, I’ll shortly be writing a post dedicated to value props.
2. Who are you talking to?
If you don’t know the answer to this, you won’t have focused your messaging so your ‘target audience’ is effectively everyone, everywhere… I’m sure that, like me, you hate the phrase ‘target audience’—these are real people we’re talking about, many of them have mothers—so think of it like this: You’re trying to make friends, not with everyone, but with the people who share your values, delight in your vision and fundamentally agree with you. They also need what you have to offer. Your messaging, wrapped up in your design needs to speak to the hearts and minds of these people and if you don’t know who they are how will you deliver? Persona research is your tool. Do it early and continue to refine, you can never have too much understanding of the minds you’re connecting with.
3. Does your site structure support your business aims?
So are you selling stuff… ? Services? Products? Ideas? Then you need to attract eyeballs, direct attention and deliver on your promise. This means effective landing pages and sales funnels. You want people to take certain action at certain points so your copy, imagery and overall design needs to support this. You don’t want any roadblocks or mixed messages.
4. Are your individual page goals clear?
Individual pages support the overall site structure and have their own micro goals. Some pages are pure information, ‘backstory’, but others should have well defined calls to action providing the ‘next step’ your visitor should take. Tell them what to do next or lose them.
5. Are you applying a ‘virgin’ WordPress theme, fresh out of the box?
Wordpress has been revolutionary for small businesses and creatives needing to get online fast. Frameworks like Genesis are a Godsend in a sea of expanding possibilities. But I’ll confess a wry smile when I visit a site and spot the generic favicon in the browser bar or the tell-tale colour scheme… This is an increasing issue, as business becomes increasingly web-savvy we’re sinking into the ‘good looking generic’. Just a little customisation can lift a well known theme way out of the ‘seen that before somewhere’ moment. You have options: hire a designer or do it yourself. A sprinkle of CSS can go a long way and there are many excellent online resources: lynda.com, Treehouse.
6. Does your graphic design support your content?
When you design you design for content. This doesn’t just mean creating containers that you slip content into, that’s where the generic theme comes unstuck. At the other end of the spectrum ‘design’ that calls attention to itself is not design. It’s not even branding, it’s closer to art because it’s detracting from the important stuff, your content. Good graphic design supports your copy, leads the eye, satisfies the user and works with business aims at every point. There are still way too many designers who consider their role is to produce ‘beauty’ when actually what most websites need to be is a conversion machine.
7. Are you confusing ‘brand’ with ‘visual identity’?
If you’ve done any kind of brand research you’ll have come across the ‘your brand is not a logo’ quote. A logo is just one element of a whole visual identity system that includes colour scheme, typography, imagery. Your visual identity, expressed through such touch-points as website, business card, t-shirt, side of van… is built off your brand attributes. Your visual identity is your brand’s outer layer, its visual expression. When I had my meltdown I’d plucked ‘retro’ out of thin air. I was committing the cardinal ‘cart before horse’ branding error. Not only was I being completely random I was making visual decisions based on no more than whimsy. Did I know my audience connected with ‘retro’ in any shape or form? How did ‘retro’ express my values or support my business aims..? Branding is no longer the preserve of corporate giants and is becoming big news for start-ups across the board. I have a whole ebook that will clarify this if you need it. If you don’t build it the internet will.
8. Does your typography support your brand?
Typography is what language looks like and given that it’s all over your website, your stationary, and every written interaction you have, it forms part of what your brand looks like. So how have you chosen your fonts? Even if you haven’t consciously built a brand your use of type is saying something about you. But good typography is about more than simple font choice. You can get half decent fonts off Google these days and reasonably priced font streaming via Typekit so it’s worth considering how you want your brand to appear. ‘Modern’, ‘traditional’, ‘quirky’… your type can support or work against perceptions so choose well.
9. Are you grabbing lead generation opportunities?
Consider this: once your visitor has left your site the odds are that they will never, ever, ever return. Never is a long time and what a waste. This means that pleasant little visitor stat in your analytics may as well be giving you the finger. If they’ve taken the trouble to pay you some attention you must be doing something right to pique their interest… so follow that through, give them an opportunity to come on board. If you measure your site’s success purely by the hits you get you may be making the mistake of confusing vanity metrics for success. Sign-ups in themselves are not a result but could lead there. At the very least it gives you opportunity to extend the convo. List-building has become the number one method, consider working it into your long term strategy.
10. Are your web page loading speeds slower than a wet weekend in Aberdeen?
The world is time-challenged, the world won’t wait. You have seconds, between 4 and 12 depending on who you ask to convince your visitor you’re worth their while. So avoid processor hogging ‘vanity functionality’. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. I cut my teeth on Flash but while its demise is being painfully drawn out it’s been replaced by a combination of HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery. All as seductive as hell but used badly as processor intensive as hell. If you don’t need it don’t do it. Minify your code resources (there are plugins that do this), optimise your images and leverage browser caching. Google looks at site speed so if your site loads like a two-toed sloth post-lunch your rankings will reflect this. Get lean, act mean.
11. Does your web copy grate like fingernails?
Writing on the web means copywriting. Good writing comes from clarity of knowing who you’re talking to and what they need to hear. Keep it simple. ‘Scatter-gun conversationalists’ say things like “welcome to our website” and “sign up for our newsletter” and “please friend us on Facebook”. They also put “submit” on submit buttons. The language is neutral. No personality, no positioning, no reason to be even vaguely interested. Here’s a prediction for you: as it gets easier to source and apply generic but attractive visual design (for example WordPress themes) your copy will be your point of leverage. Even today I’d take a rubbish looking website with sparkling copy over pixel precision. (Yes I did say that.) Fix your copy then look at design, or better still do them together. Great copy having a ball of a time with great design is a match made in conversion heaven. However you do it make sure the design in no way stands in front of the writing. Your writing is your passport.
12. Are you aware of web trends?
A client came to me recently with a vision for her site based on the niche she was in. Colour, layout, typography were all nailed because she’d looked at what was out there and decided that fitting in was better than standing out. I had arguments against the home page slider and the colour and font choice but she was adamant. I looked at the niche and noticed a lot of her reference points were old websites, based on old technology using imagery and copy that was decidedly dated. This to my mind provided a great opportunity for really pronounced differentiation based on a potent design and copy combination. She declined. It made my job easier but whether that position will work for her will tell over time. Check your options. You always have them: you can ignore the trends or you can clock what’s out there and position; be clever.
13. Are you using or abusing SEO?
Ask any well-informed SEO for an opinion on designers… I’m ‘LOLing’ just recalling some of the language I’ve heard. Contrary to some popular blogs SEO is not dead but neither is it the golden egg. Whichever way you decide to play this getting the basics sorted is a no-brainer. There are plenty of resources online about on-page optimisation. You can always call in the pros further down the line. I use the Yoast plugin on WordPress sites which does a lot of the heavy lifting. Just don’t do it badly. I still come across keyword-stuffing in meta-tags which in today’s climate is embarrassing as much as anything, it looks plain dumb.
14. Are you applying a ‘look and feel’ that talks to lizards?
Before writing this I researched what was already online in the area of ‘bad web design’. I found that 90% of articles focused on ‘look and feel’ wrapped up in the principles of graphic design. Stuff like colour, contrast, layout, typography. All worthy stuff. Trouble is web design (whatever that term even means today) is not the same as graphic design. ‘Look and feel’ is a nebulous term used to cover a shedload of inadequacies. and it’s not branding. ’Look and feel’ delivers first impressions. It talks to the ‘lizard brain’ or amygdala located in our temporal lobes. Yes we make judgement calls in that instant so we need to get it right but we also need follow through so your ‘look & feel’ decisions need to allow for and encourage ’next steps’. For many site owners and unfortunately many designers ‘look and feel’ is their main focus, the ‘end point’ when actually it is just the beginning.
15. Is your site navigation a mystery to users?
A website, even a one-pager is defined by its navigation. Screwing up the navigation is like cutting major arteries and expecting full on functionality… not gonna happen. Trying to get somewhere should be the simplest task your visitor does yet the number of modern sites that insist on ‘playing’ with standards is laughable. Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.
16. Is your site a confused mess on mobile devices?
Mobile responsive design wasn’t a thing when I had my meltdown. It is now. It’s a big thing. It’s not hard to get right but you need to be on top of it and it can be time consuming. Google appreciates it as do the increasing tablet user-base. It’s no longer an option it’s a necessity. If you’re using WordPress make sure the theme is responsive and try to test it on different devices before committing. One of the commonest errors I see are landing pages that have been created post-site launch with no consideration for variable screen-widths.
17. Is your site over-relying on ‘legacy’ technology?
Inexplicably there are still sites out there with Flash headers. If you’re under 20 you may not know what that is. The Adobe plugin is pretty much discredited across the board. I say this as a former aficionado of the much heralded ActionScript. I cut my teeth on Flash but things change, this is tech and tech is never stationary. I hear designers moaning about ‘Wordpress’ and ‘frameworks’ like they’re the devil incarnate but if you’re in this world you’ll need some realism and know exactly how far and fast this tech is moving. Look at the big picture and plan ahead, don’t get stuck with old tech.
18. Do your site graphics bore, confuse or plain irritate?
Good graphics talk to the previously mentioned lizard brain; make them confusing and you lose any kind of instant rapport, make them boring and risk looking generic. Use them with your content by illustrating a point or providing information. They can attract attention and boost content sharing (used cleverly with social media) but never decorate. When graphics become merely decorative they are bleeding attention away from your central point, obscuring your offer. I’m seeing a general movement away from use of stock imagery. So consider measuring responses. Change imagery where you can gauge differing rest
At the irritation end of the scale the recent penchant for ‘flat UI’ design has lead to an over use of unnecessary icons. When I have to think about what an icon means, or if you have to tell me, what the hell is it doing there?? Get rid. Icons should facilitate speed of understanding and hence action. Anything else is decorative, obstructive, so no matter how pretty they look, get rid. Apart from anything else it looks silly.
19. Is there a designer ego in the way?
Beware designer-ego. Whether it’s yours or someone else’s it needs to get out of the way. I once followed a discussion by a group of designers on LinkedIn around the question of revisiting old sites and what they would change about the design. Not a single answer addressed business or user needs. It was all about the designer and what they felt looked good or fitted in with ‘modern’ trends. Designer ego is easily dealt with by being clear about all the above issues, 1 to 5 in particular. If your designer doesn’t respond well to your informed status find another.
20. Are you abusing pop ups?
I’ll be honest, I have a natural aversion to these bastards popping out at me unexpectedly. Thing is, the damn things work. But there’s a way to use them and a way to abuse them. If I’ve arrived at your site via a link to be immediately hit with a pop up do you seriously think I’m signing up for anything? Nope I’ll happily click “I’ll stay uninformed and unloved thanks” and probably never go back. If you’re asking someone for their email address be respectful and bat clever.
21. Do you have annoying auto-playing videos, or worse… actual music?
Not then. Not now. Not ever.
22. Is your site being pimped by social media?
So you’ve gone to the trouble of creating your very own web platform simply to send them off to an outpost. Doh! Social media used well can be a game-changer. But most folk have little or no idea how to use it well and pepper their site with outbound links. Eyes are drawn to icons (that’s their point) and if your Twitter icon has more prominence than your ‘buy now’ button guess what…? Less sales, high bounce rate. Social is designed to bring traffic in not send it away so consider the difference between a ’share’ button and a link to your social account and apply judiciously.
23. Are your font-stacks breaking your site and making the internet look uncool?
A font stack is a line of code which calls your fonts the order in which the browser applies. ‘Bad’ font stacks normally means they don’t exist. This is tragically common across the web so much so that when your favourite font streaming service goes south up the call on Twitter: “The internet’s broken”. A well designed theme will have a solid font stack so when your favourite serif body font is no longer available the next best kicks in smoothly.
24. Is your site retina-ready or a fuzz on iPads?
Apple’s retina displays are a game-changer. If you want clarity across devices you’ll want good resolution images. There are plenty of resources online to help you out with this but the trick is to have your 2x resolution images called by the devices that need them and your plain ‘normal res’ by the devices that don’t.
25. Are there any broken links?
The older the original site the more internal and external links it’ll have. A redesign is prime cause of broken links so first things first have a decent 404 page. Then use a tool like Screaming Frog to comb through your site. Broken links look crap, they cause annoyance, and are all too common.
26. Are your web forms long and over-complicated?
Keep your forms simple. Make them as long as they need to be but don’t collect details for the sake of it or risk form abandonment. Also make them clear and readable.
27. Are you testing?
Nothing is ever perfect first time. Most sites, especially those focusing on conversion will need testing. This can mean experimenting with page layouts, copy, button colours. There are a host of things you can test and the more you do it the more you’ll know. Keep pushing, keep testing.
28. Is your website built and finished..?
Nope. And it won’t be anytime soon. I maintain that a website is not a thing, it’s a part of your process. Processes change and given this is the most fast moving technology ever created, and getting faster, the only time a website is finished is the day your doors close for business. So don’t get precious about the website. It’s just a tool that you’ll continue to tweak and adjust in response to any number things.
Need a site critique? Just ask.