Good design is vital for creating a website that is attractive and easy to use. You can design your website yourself, customising ready-made templates, or using software that simplifies the process. Alternatively, you can hire a web design agency to do it for you.
Whatever approach you take, your website needs to present the right content in a simple and well-organised way.
What are your objectives?
First, work out what objectives you aim to achieve with your site. Ideally, they should be SMART - specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time-limited. Try to track all your objectives.
Who are you trying to reach?
For example, a roofing supplies company may target builders and architects rather than the general public.
When these people visit your site, what action do you want them to take?
For example, register for a newsletter, email for more information, or place an order.
If you are intending to increase sales, what targets are you setting?
If you want to save money, what targets are you setting?
For example, you might plan to use your website to cut the cost of customer support.
What are the constraints?
You may not be able to publish certain commercially-sensitive information.
- The three main options
You can build your website from scratch
This is a good option if you have in-house expertise, or time to learn. Many books cover good web design or you can search online for information.
Software such as Serif WebPlus or Adobe Dreamweaver makes building a website similar to editing a document in a word processing package. However, these packages do not generally produce the same quality of code you would get from a good design agency.
You can buy a fixed-price starter package
This is the fastest way to set up a website. Most web-hosting companies offer starter packages. Starter packages can be limited in terms of design and functionality. They are usually based on picking a layout from pre-designed templates.
You can appoint a web design agency to design an original site for you
This is usually the most expensive option, but you will get a highly professional site. You will need to work closely with the agency to achieve the website you want. A good agency will combine your ideas with their knowledge of what works online.
Information to include
People expect quick answers on the internet. They will become impatient if they cannot get what they need quickly.
Start with the essentials
What is your product?
Who do you sell to?
Why should visitors buy from you?
What are your prices? Only omit price information if there is a good business reason to do so.
Provide up-to-date information
If real-time data is important in your business, link your site to a database for automatic updates.
Try to provide something unexpected
Offering a useful service which is unavailable elsewhere will always encourage repeat visits.
Offer improved after-sales support
For example, you can provide tips, FAQs and local contact details.
Give customers a number of ways to contact you
Include telephone and fax numbers and your email address. Publish your full postal address. This reassures customers you have a 'real world' presence.
- Make it simple
For clarity, keep pages uncluttered
People skim read online. So use lots of subtitles and bulleted lists.
As a general rule, do not have more than about 250 words of text on a page.
Do not display visitor number counters on your pages
A low figure looks embarrassing, while a high figure will not be believed. Analytics software can track your visitors and show you how they use your site.
Only use techniques that are appropriate
Complex animation, video and sound can be useful, but only if they add something to the experience. You could offer a video demonstration of your product in action. Many people now access the web using their mobile phone, so you should create a mobile-friendly website. 'Responsive' web design automatically adjusts to suit the visitor's screen size.
Track your visitors
The web is the most measurable marketing channel there is. You can see exactly how people use your website.
To start, you need to install an analytics package onto your website
Many web hosts include an analytics package as standard. You can install a free package like Google Analytics or AWStats. Commercial analytics packages are also available. Ask your designer for advice. Once your analytics package is installed, you can view your web statistics by logging in to a website
Use the information you get to make your website better
See how many people visit your site and how long they stay. Analyse the paths your customers take and identify where people drop out of the purchasing process. Discover how people find your site and which keywords are working. See average order values and data about repeat visitors. Do they purchase again or just come back for help? Try changing one thing at a time on your site, then waiting to see whether it improves your statistics.
- Organizing your material
Change and update your content often
The web is a dynamic medium. Changes to your home page signal to repeat visitors that there is something new to see on your site.
Make people feel welcome the moment they arrive at your home page
People usually know what they are looking for when they go to a website. Let them know quickly that this is the right place. Give visitors immediate payoffs - news, offers or key information they will want. Your proposition should be clear. Customers should immediately understand what your website offers.
Make regular customers feel special
Use restricted areas to allow business customers to enter a password and see appropriate prices and discounts. Provide an opportunity for regular buyers to record their details permanently, rather than having to enter them on every visit. This is usually achieved by asking customers to log in to the site.
If you are selling online, the design of your site should make buying easy
Being able to see what is on a site and get around it quickly is important. If moving around is tricky, potential customers will feel they are wasting time and will quickly lose patience. Online, your competitors are only a click away.
Give visitors a way to get straight to the areas that interest them
Include an index, menu bar or set of navigation buttons on your home page. A site map can also be useful. Try to design your site so you can get from any page to another within three clicks.
Many sites benefit from having an internal search form on the home page
This allows visitors to search by keywords. Off-the-shelf packages will let you include a search form without any technical knowledge.
Keep your navigation consistent throughout the site to avoid confusion
Most visitors to your site will not enter through the homepage.
Avoid any website solution that uses 'frames'
Frames allow the menu bar and other elements of the design to stay constantly in view, but frames have serious disadvantages. Some browsers have problems handling frames, so you may lose visitors. Some search engines do not index frames properly.
- How to present it
Your site must reflect its objectives
A site that is selling must look and feel dynamic, to encourage visitors to act.
If you aim to capture names and details of potential customers, offer an incentive to register. For example, a regular newsletter or a members' discount.
Include any visual material you need
For example, you might use images from your brochure, scan photos (saving them as jpegs) or take shots with a digital camera. Check you have permission from the copyright holder to use graphics and photos. Generally, keep pictures small. When illustrating products, make sure pictures are large enough to see the detail. Let people click them to see a larger image if necessary. There are many sources of free photos online. Always check usage restrictions carefully.
Make sure your website is integrated with your traditional marketing activities
Include references to your website in your brochures and traditional advertising, and refer to your brochure on your site.
Ensure your website complies with disability discrimination legislation
Be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to enable, or make it easier for, disabled people to use the site.
- Two-way connections
Make sure your site can be found easily
If you had to guess your company's web address, what would your first guess be? That or your product's generic name is the domain name you should register.
Keep the name short. If you have two words, people must guess if they are separated by a dot, a hyphen or an underscore - consider simply running them together.
Ensure the right keywords to help search engines find you are embedded in your site's page titles and 'meta tags'.
Consider linking to social networking websites such as Facebook or Twitter, where web visitors can follow updates about your firm.
Links bring you visitors, but can also lead people away from your site
Include links to related sites, in return for links to yours. Keep tempting links off your home page. These links are better placed deeper into your site, when you have had a chance to put your main messages across. You can set up links so that they open in a new window and do not take the visitor away from your page. Once customers are into the 'buy' process, do not distract them with links to other sites, or other areas of your site.
Make it easy for customers to contact you
Every email you receive is a warm lead. Make sure it is obvious how customers can get in touch with you and respond to inquiries quickly.
Involve visitors to your site in doing something, rather than just looking
Set up a discussion forum and encourage customers to exchange tips and advice. There are several free packages available, although they may take time to set up. Include a survey. Customers like being asked for their opinions and you can gain some genuinely useful feedback.
- Test your site
Do not put anything on your website without checking it first
Check facts and spelling.
Include a disclaimer if you have doubts about how information on your site is used.
Check all content for libel. What is on your website can be seen worldwide.
Check that you have the right to use all the design elements, programming and pictures that form part of your site.
Do not launch your site until you know everything works
Check that it looks right on screen. Ask colleagues to take a look. View the site at various screen resolutions. View and test your pages on all the major browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari. Check all internal and external links work. Check how your pages print in black and white.
Find out about or download analytics packages Google Analytics or AWStats. Find free photos at freeimages or morgueFile. Find out about designing mobile websites from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Find out about accessible web design to make it easier for people with disabilities to use your website from W3C. Test your web pages on different browsers at browsershots. Check website links using the W3C link validator.
"Appointing a web design agency to design an original site for you is an expensive option, but they will be able to share their experience and expertise to help you grow your business. An agency will monitor new trends and enable its clients to benefit from upcoming technologies and advances appropriate for your business." - Chris Closest, Steak
"When deciding on new website content or services, put yourself in your customers' shoes... What will make their life easier?" - Richard Dale, Crafty Devil Web Designer