It’s not new to say that we now live in an age in which survival in business depends on your ability to communicate effectively through the internet.
What is new is the realization that just having any old website isn’t enough. The quality of your site and the nature of its content are paramount and your ability to communicate with your audience is the key.
A good website is built on two basic truths—that the internet is an interactive medium and that the end user is in fact human. In other words, it is meant to be an experience. As with any adventure, a little strategic thought is needed to ensure that the experience is enjoyable.
Remember that the person on the other side of the computer screen is a human being. They want to know that your business understands them.
Take the time to find out who they are and what they like. Then tailor your message and design to suit them. A real-life analogy is the approach you would take to initiate a conversation with a stranger at a party (a person with whom you hope to become better acquainted). You would do well to listen intently to what interests them and then craft your conversation to suit. You wouldn’t bore them with a lengthy extolment of CSS or Ajax on a Saturday night, would you?
Try to think beyond the demographic and envisage the individual. Many web briefs contain a far-reaching description of the audience. During the briefing session, try to narrow the focus. A brief may begin at:
Intranet Audience: 20–50 year old real estate agents
This can be divided into a primary and secondary audience, as follows:
Intranet Primary Audience: 20–35 (sales agents)
Intranet Secondary Audience: 35–50 (middle and senior managers)
From that point, it helps to imagine yourself as the agent, logging onto the intranet with a cup of coffee in hand half an hour before tackling early open houses. Do you see your desire for flash animation disappear in a puff of smoke? Do you see how “get to the point fast and be obvious” becomes a distinct directive? How about the need for personalization, so the agent can see what they require immediately, for example, appointments for the day, contacts, and their sales pipeline?
Closing the gap between yourself and your audience will help you to make the right decisions and tailor the design to their needs.
Tell me a story
Harness one of the oldest and most effective ways of communicating knowledge on your site.
Storytelling is a rich and compelling way to involve the user in a design, evoke an emotional response, or enhance a user’s learning experience. The question to ask is:
Is there a more creative way to present the required information to increase the user’s involvement?
News websites are increasingly rising to the challenge. In the past a breaking story would have been a single page of written text. Now it may be enhanced with multimedia to offer alternate ways to view the story including interactive timelines, streaming web-cam, animation, sound, and video. These elements can give the audience a broader and deeper understanding of the topic and the issues, which surround it.
The most wonderful thing about using the internet to tell a story is that it can be non-linear—the user can click to view fragments of information that interest them, rather than viewing the entire story from beginning to end. By telling a story through user interaction, you enable users to choose their own path according to their preferences or needs.
As broadband becomes prevalent, web designers have increasingly begun to combine visual design with interaction and motion. Their role has become less that of a designer and more that of a director of experiences. To illustrate the difference between those roles, let’s look at the way the creative direction of a design might be described:
To promote your strength, which is the local content of the entertainment news, we will include the cityscape of each state within your brand.
The direction of an experience, on the other hand, would require more documentation in the conceptualization stage. An experience director must pull together content, formulate an interactive approach and style, and orchestrate the creative elements in which to propel the story. The web designers of the future may even be required to write a treatment, melding the design process with that of film direction.
By attending to the entire user experience, designers can create a rich, sensory experience, which helps to immerse users and encourage them to become fully involved in the site and its message. When a site is intended to educate, immersion is particularly important, as it can increase learning speed and overall understanding—especially when a site’s main users are children.
Through immersion, the user experiences joy and satisfaction: positive qualities that will be transferred to your brand.
Some people believe that web design starts and stops with branding. Their view is the visual identity of the brand is easily applicable to the web through the transference of common elements such as logo, colours and typography.
Indeed a lot of the traffic that will come to your website will be people who know or chose your brand in the real world. So when they arrive at your virtual world it is an ideal opportunity to reinforce it.
However, your site can do much more than mimic your identity. It can encapsulate the brand personality, whether that is inspirational, trustworthy, or authoritative. These traits were part of the reason why they chose your brand in the first place.
During the filming of Withnail and I, the director told lead actor Richard E. Grant to “stamp the celluloid”, meaning to go full pelt, not half-measure. It’s timely advice for when you want to inspire your audience and make them take action—don’t be polite, grab them by the throat—and bring your brand to life!
A beautiful design will give the user the impression that the site is easy to use, whether it is or not. Also, it is more probable that the design will be used because the human psyche is inexorably drawn towards beauty.
Transactional sites often fail miserably in the aesthetic stakes. The reigning thought is that it is the domain of the usability consultant—that design is secondary and often confined to the “coloring in” of table cells.
Yet highly complicated processes and pages can look deceptively simple with the right styling. Spacing becomes increasingly important as it allows the user’s eyes to rest before taking on the next batch of information. Design can create order and instill a feeling of peace and serenity—positive attributes when you are asking your user to complete a lengthy and profit-creating form. Professional design can also increase user trust levels, the single most important trait to attain for any transactional site.
If you’re not a professional visual designer, you can engender trust and loyalty and foster attraction by consulting a high-level designer for business-critical or transactional sites.
The principles of good human-to-computer interface design are simplicity, support, clarity, encouragement, satisfaction, accessibility, versatility, and personalization. While it’s essential to heed these, it’s also important to empathize with and inspire your audience so they feel you’re treating them less like a faceless user and more like a human being. In doing so, you will extend their affinity with the design and foster positive attitudes towards your brand, company, or product.