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Website design: Think beyond the visual

When we think of website design, we often focus on the visual side of things: fonts and colours, photography and iconography, layout and animation, and so on. Those things are important, of course, but there’s more to the web design process than surface-level imagery.

18th Sep 2019
Editorial Assistant PracticeWEB
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Web design
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A website isn’t a static image, after all. It’s an interactive experience, and an effective design should make that experience as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Start with the user

At the core of any good website design is a sharp focus on the person who’s going to be using it. Every aspect of the website, visual or otherwise, should be built around that user’s needs and behaviours.

User experience (UX) is a hugely important aspect of web design, but it’s often overlooked – perhaps because it’s not as visible as the text or imagery on a website. In fact, the original definition of user experience is much broader than anything that would fit on a page, encompassing every interaction someone has with a company or its products.

Don Norman, who coined the term, has said it’s now “horribly misused” in the design industry: “It is used by people who think the experience is that simple device, the website or the app, or who knows what. No, it’s everything: it’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, it’s the way you experience the service.”

In that sense, UX has more to do with psychology than visual design. It’s about understanding your prospective client’s goals and values, getting to know what drives them and what frustrates them, and using that information to improve the interactions they have with your business.

Plan out the structure

With that information in mind, web designers can start applying it to the structure of the website.

This is often put into practice through a process of wireframing, which involves drawing up the basic structure of the website and setting out the key pages. At this point, there’s no visual design and no written content. 

For web design clients who are presented with a set of grey boxes and lorem ipsum dummy text, it’s not always easy to imagine how it’s going to turn into a polished and presentable website. 

What’s important at this stage is to think about how the structure will drive users through the website, and towards the actions you want them to take. After landing on the homepage, will they want to read a bit more and get a feel for your firm? Or will they dive straight into the technical details on your service pages?

The right approach will vary depending on what you want the website to achieve. For instance, a site built mainly for lead generation purposes might be structured in a way that encourages users to click through to your contact details as early as possible.

Alternatively, a website made with brand-building in mind might take more of a narrative approach, engaging users with an interesting hook and unfolding the brand messaging as they make their way through the website.

Set the right tone

However beautifully designed your website is, it’s the written content that will determine whether you keep or lose visitors.

Your content should be clear and readable, but it should also be written in a way that conveys how you want to be perceived – research shows that tone of voice has a measurable impact on the way people perceive a brand’s friendliness, trustworthiness and desirability.

Trust also comes from consistency, and if your copy is written by several people without a shared tone, the different voices can make for a confusing experience. 

One way to manage this is to create a tone of voice guide, thinking about the kinds of qualities that describe your firm. For example, is it friendly, casual and modern, or serious, traditional and formal? Based on these characteristics, you can set out some guidelines on the kind of language to use, and what to avoid.

Keep people coming

All the work that goes into making a well-designed website could end up going to waste if nobody finds it.

Search engine optimisation is a broad area that requires continuous work and improvement, and you may have to pick and choose how you invest in it over time. But as a bare minimum, it’s worth checking that your website conforms to some of the best practices for SEO.

Making the website is mobile-responsive is also increasingly important, with Google research showing around 50% of people wouldn’t consider purchasing from a brand that has a poorly designed mobile site.

Finally, the design work should continue even once a website is live. It should be continually tested against the user’s needs, and adjusted over time to meet them. Something that looks and feels great today can easily seem dusty and out of date in just a few years as the world changes around it.

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