Web Design: Getting The Balance Right

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In this article, Dr Dave Chaffey runs through the 8 requirement areas that are imperative to marketing-led design.

I've always been intrigued by best practices and processes for planning new commercial websites or major re-designs. The reason being that there are so many potential inputs from different types of people in a business or different people in an agency or different types of agency.

The larger the business, the more types of people in the marketing team and beyond may need to be considered. For example, in a larger organisation, corporate communications, brand managers, product managers, SEO specialists and IT to name but some. Website design projects can get complex if all these considerations are included, but I consider them essential.

As a digital strategist and consultant, I'm all too aware of the many different factors that need to be considered since when I review the effectiveness of current digital strategies and plan improvements. There are often fundamental defects in the website design that suggests that a holistic approach to design hasn't been taken. Instead, designs have been mainly informed by user experience professionals who haven't consulted more widely, and this has limited the effectiveness of the website for marketing since other considerations haven't been fully considered.

The 8 requirement areas I will cover are similar to those I used to cover in an 'effective website design course' I used to run years ago for the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I believe they're still valid, since I'm prompted to write this article based on wireframes I'm reviewing at the moment for a site refresh on a consulting project. The site in question is for a B2B publisher, but these requirements are important across most types of business in my experience.

Yet, I think it's fair to say that traditional thinking is that web design should be led and driven by user experience (UX) professionals who have the training and experience in techniques for finding user requirements and information needs. User-centred design is the logical starting point to inform website design. The specialists skills needed such as user research, wireframing, information architecture, target screen resolutions and the latest creative and design thinking makes sense, but in this article, I'll show seven other areas that are important, but sometimes forgotten or at least under-emphasised.

1. User Experience

I think most would agree that this is where understanding the requirements for a new website design should start (alongside our second requirements area). Using the UX techniques I mentioned earlier is essential to creating an effective site which answers the users' questions about a brand, and guides them on a journey to understand why they should engage with a brand.

Many designers will be familiar with and their approach will be informed by ISO 9241 - Ergonomics of Human-System Interaction which applies to a range of interfaces and describes an effective process to design. However, the nature of a generic standard means that marketing-specific issues like those below tend to be omitted. 

2. Business and Marketing Goals

For a commercial website, which is what we're discussing here, the needs of the user must always be balanced against the needs of the business. After all, a new website is an investment by a business, for which a viable break even time and return-on-investment are important.

For these to be achieved, the business and marketing outcomes needed from customer journeys need to be specified. Depending on the background and experience of a designer they may not be experienced in understanding these business requirements and the outcomes needed which differ in different sectors.

3. Analytics and Reporting

Closely related to delivering value from a website, is setting up analytics to assess conversion to outcomes which prove that value. If a site is only configured to measure visits and page views, which is all Google Analytics or similar will give using the default tagging, then it's unlikely the site owner will know the value generator.

Here, an experienced web designer will know the importance of agreeing different Google Analytics Customisations such as Goals, Goal value, funnels and events in advance of a site design. Retro-fitting these is too late. Alternatively, in an agency they will be able to call on a colleague who does have that experience.

4. Segmentation, Brand Positioning and Differentiation

Have you noticed that in some sectors, there seems to be a great similarity between websites in the category. It's almost like there is a formula for structuring the main navigation and content. It can make comparisons more straightforward for prospective buyers, but it doesn't help the businesses if the competing value propositions are similar.

It should be the role of the designer to be able to emphasise differences in value propositions and answer the user question 'What makes you different?'. But designers who haven't been trained in psychology and persuasion techniques, or haven't seen the results from CRO experiments may not know best practices to help persuade.

This challenge is made more complicated since most sites have a diversity of audiences to appeal to, so knowledge of the marketing concepts of segmentation, targeting and positioning are important.

The design should enable different messages to be delivered to different audiences through personalisation or 'scent trails' appealing to the different audiences. Using customer personas can help here, but again, only if the designer has experience in deploying personas which combine audience needs with content mapping.

5. Inbound and Content Marketing

HubSpot developed the concept of Inbound marketing to highlight the advantages of using a new content-led marketing approach to attract and convert website visitors. Their definition of inbound marketing explains how they achieve this:

Inbound marketing is focused on attracting customers through relevant and helpful content and adding value at every stage in your customer's buying journey. With inbound marketing, potential customers find you through channels like blogs, search engines, and social media.

Ultimately, it's the quality of content which will deliver on the promise of inbound marketing. Here the designer has a role to play by considering how different types of content and how to showcase the most effective 'hero content' or 'lead magnet' content which will boost conversion. Yet, so often in site designs, I see different types of content treated equally with no placements highlighting the very best content.

This can be delivered automatically through personalisation based on machine learning to analyse the best content to serve different audiences, but knowledge of this technology and the best placements to use across a site and on different page template types is required.

It highlights the need for the designer to also understand technology options and plugins, which go beyond a CMS, such as landing page, marketing automation systems and paid retargeting.

6. SEO

Organic search traffic can potentially be the main source of visits in many sectors where there is a strong intent as prospects search for products and services. It follows that it should be a vital part of design informing the layout of page templates and information architecture to support on-page and technical SEO, but also link-building.

Yet, in my experience, SEO is often treated as an afterthought by designers or not a thought at all unless the designer is working alongside SEO specialists, which good designers will insist upon.

7. Onboarding and Customer Service

Not the sexiest part of website design, but it needs to be considered too as part of customer experience. The current wireframe I'm reviewing (and the previous site) has little consideration of customer service or even FAQ to help explain the proposition. Again, understanding technology integration options like Livechat and Assisted selling can help here.

8. CRO

Modern thinking on website designs is (or rather should be) that designs aren't fixed and static for three or five years when changes in design style or technology requires a re-design and a new approach.

Any new site design should be just the first iteration of a dynamic site design and messaging which is improved through a planned approach. Using techniques like AB testing and audience research based on customer feedback tools as part of a conversion rate optimisation approach should be planned into a new design. Considering which elements of a page will be AB tested during design will make it easier to improve and evolve the design. 

So, these are the 8 areas that I think are vital to a business and marketing-led website which will deliver results. I'm sure there are more! I'm sure designers will counter that often budget is not available to consider these other factors, but that is then down to the craft of bundling these requirements in as part of their services or ensuring specialists can be brought in from the business.

When selecting with a web design consultant or agency, check that they have the full-services need to build an effective site which delivers returns for the business now and is future proofed.


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