10 things a web designer would never tell you

These arty-farty web designers are always telling you how your site should look. Don’t listen to them! Don’t they know the customer is always right? Here are 10 things a ‘good web designer’ would never tell you about choosing the perfect design.

Working with web designers is a nightmare. You will never meet a more opinionated bunch of snobs. They are always going on about ‘white space’, ‘composition’ and how they went to art college (like that counts as a proper education!). When it comes to choosing the design of your site, they are the last people you should listen to.

What follows are 10 things you need to know about managing a web design project, that no web designer will ever tell you!

1. Always request speculative design up front

Before you pick which web designer to work with make sure they submit some designs for your site upfront. Whatever you do, don’t pay for this work. If they really want to work with you they will swallow the cost.

Some of them might start bleating about not doing ‘speculative design’ and that only designers desperate for work would do design for free. Personally I ignore this BS. If they are ‘so successful’ that they can’t spare the time to do unpaid work for me, then I don’t want to work with them.

What is great about speculative work is it is not constrained by ‘understanding the business’ or ‘user feedback’. Its all about creativity. Surely a good web designer can come up with great work out of thin air, even if they don’t know who the target audience is and have never spoken to the client. I want something that makes me go wow. Who cares if it ‘fulfils my business objectives.’ The more bells and whistles the better!

Screenshot of no-spec.com

2. Don’t get hung up on end users

Web designers are always obsessing about the end users. They worry that users won’t like this or that they won’t understand that. Its pathetic.

People like to be told what to do and they will ultimately follow your lead. I once had a web designer complain because I wanted to collect users phone numbers on a sign up form for our newsletter. Apparently ‘users’ don’t like being asked for unnecessary personal information. Can you believe it! How the hell am I going to cold call these people if I don’t have their phone numbers. Sometimes you wonder how these idiots survive in business.

Instead of focus on user needs, focus on what you can squeeze out them. Times are tough these days and so you need to maximise your returns on every one of these sheep. You have to be tough in business.

Asta Development Website

3. Rely on your gut instinct, not testing

Talking of users – what is this obsession with user testing? Just sounds like a way for web designers to charge more money if you ask me.

After all you have probably been working in your job for years. You know all there is to know about your audience, right? Even if you did run user test sessions, stakeholder interviews or whatever other made up technique is the latest fashion, its not going to tell you stuff you do not already know.

Admittedly, these sessions occasionally turn up stuff you might not expect, but can you really trust the results? Surely your years of experience count for more than a few hours of testing.

Of course, the other problem is that user testing is massively expensive. I heard from a friend that it involves usability labs, videos, two way mirrors and ‘facilitators’ (whatever those are). That all sounds pricey to me!

Some web designers will tell you that they do it by going into user’s homes and talking with them in their own environment. They justify this by saying you learn more because the user is relaxed and you can see where they live. Personally, it doesn’t sound very professional and if it isn’t expensive, how could it possibly give good results?

useit.com

4. Form a committee to provide feedback

Admittedly I maybe sounding a little arrogant, but I really am not. I think it is important to get the opinions of other people. I just think web designers are not the people you should be asking. They live in a techy bubble and do not understand what it is like to be an ordinary user like us.

I suggest forming a committee to approve any designs produced. After all web designers keep telling us that design is subjective. That means you shouldn’t rely on the opinion of just one person (especially if that person is a designer). What you need is a committee to thrash out what the site should look like.

Ideally you would call a meeting with the designer in the room and get them to produce something there and then under the direction of the committee. However, most designers tend to get ‘emotional’ when you suggest that. So instead I recommend giving them the freedom to produce something themselves and then discuss it as a group.

Now inevitably this will lead to disagreement. Some people will like the colour, others will hate it. This is natural. What you need to do is seek a compromise that will please everybody. If you can have the designer on hand to try out new ideas in the meeting this will really help. Before you know it you will have a design everybody can tolerate (although admittedly not everybody will like it).

A committee of people working out how to reach a compromise on a design

5. Become obsessed with detail

“The devil is the detail they say. Nowhere is that more true than on a website. Unfortunately you cannot rely on a web designer to have that attention to detail. Its hardly their fault. They are ‘arty’ people after all and their brains just don’t work that way.

If you want your design to be ‘just so’ you will need to micro manage every aspect of the design process. Don’t be afraid to tell your designer exactly what you need them to do. Be as specific as possible. After all, they call themselves pixel pushers.

A twitter post where a user declares he is a pixel pusher

Also insist on consistency across all browsers. Web designers tend to be sloppy in this area. It might look great in Safari (apparently this is a browser – who knew!) but in Netscape 4 it looks awful. They will give you some rubbish about not all browsers being capable of rendering modern design. They will say that as long as it is usable on all browsers, that is what matters. The hell it is! You don’t put up with that kind of rubbish in print design, so why should you on the web?

6. Enforce corporate style guides to the letter

Your organisation has a corporate design guide for a reason and yet web designers think they can flaunt the rules. They will talk about the differences between print and the web. They will go on about colour on screen, web typography and dots per inch. However, the real reason they want to ignore your guidelines is because their egos will not allow them to work within limitations.

You must take a firm hand over this issue and stick to the letter of the law. Enforce pantone numbers and ensure they use corporate typefaces. They might mutter something about limited fonts on the web but this is just not true. I know for a fact that sites built in flash can use any font you want. With that in mind I always recommend that sites are built entirely with Adobe Flash.

Oh yes, and watch out for abuse of the logo. Most style guides say that the logo must have a certain number of millimetres around it to allow ample white space. I recommend taking a ruler and measuring the space around your monitor on screen. Better still, print out the design so you can be even more accurate.

24 Ways article containing the words Branding Guides be Damned

7. Fit as much on the homepage as possible

Let’s take a moment to discuss the design of your homepage in particular.

Without a doubt the homepage is by far the most important page on your site. If I look at my own website statistics the majority of people who come to my site never get further than the homepage (I have no idea why this is the case!) This is a problem.

The solution is obvious when you also consider the importance of minimising the number of clicks a user has to make to reach content – Put as much content as possible on the homepage.

This also solves the problem of everybody within your organisation wanting homepage real estate. Instead of endlessly discussing whose content is most important, simply put it all on there.

Of course with so much content on the homepage people might complain their content is lost in the crowd. The best solution in such situations is to either make it bigger or animate it. I find flashing text particularly effective.

HavenWorks.com

8. Ensure all content appears above the fold

Unfortunately you are limited in the amount of space available on the homepage. This is because all content has to sit above the fold.

The fold refers to the point where users have to start scrolling. As we know users do not scroll. In 1994 Jakob Nielsen found that only 10% of users would scroll when presented with a web page. 15 years on I see no reason why this would have changed.

Some designers will tell you that the fold is a myth. They will argue that it does not exist because different browsers, resolutions and toolbars all effect the vertical available space. All I know is that on my computer I have 470px of vertical space before I have to start scrolling. I am a fairly typical user and so you should ensure all content is within this area.

The only exception to this rule is if your boss has a different amount of vertical space. If he is going to be looking at the website I suggest designing for his browser. Alternatively simply print out the site for his approval.

A web deisgner holding a 'there is no fold' banner

9. You only need to test in Internet Explorer 6

Web designers like to claim they need to spend hours testing on every browser combination. However, in reality this is just another way to extract more money from you.

All you really need to do is build the site so it works on Internet Explorer 6.

Internet Explorer is the most dominant browser having by far the largest market share. Although there are different versions of IE most companies run IE6. As corporate customers are the people with the real money you should concentrate your testing on their browser. Also surely if it works in IE6 it will work in IE7! You can trust Microsoft not to break the web.

If you want to be super cautious, add a message to your site telling users it is optimised for internet explorer. Users can then download that browser if they want to see your site.

Website displaying message about downloading IE

10. SEO is more important than design

Getting the design of your website right is important. However it is no use if nobody sees it. Your number one priority has to be driving traffic to your site.

The best way to do this is through search engines. Fortunately there are a plethora of tricks and techniques to fool Google into ranking you highly. You can use hidden text, cloaking pages, redirects, doorway pages and keyword stuffing to force you up the ranking. Google kindly list these techniques in their Web Master Guidelines.

The problem with some of these techniques is that they undermine the design and content of your site. They can also affect the usability and accessibility. However, this is a sacrifice worth making in order to keep those new users rolling in.

Some web designers place a higher emphasis on repeat traffic. However, in my experience it is hard to get a user to return a second time. This is almost certainly because they have seen everything already. Why would they come back? Concentrate your efforts on creating a steady stream of new users.

Example of how BMW used keyword stuffing and redirects

Conclusions

If I could leave you with a single thought from this post it would be this – your web designer does not work with you, he works for you.

You need to take control of the design process. Its your site and you should get the design you want. The role of the designer is to implement your idea. Do not allow him to drag you down into endless discussions about ‘users needs’, ‘accessibility’ and ‘usability’. These are all distractions from the primary aim – to impress your boss and earn that next promotion.

This article was based on a presentation I gave at Bathcamp and is a sick twist version of content taken from my book ‘The Website Owners Manual

Headscape

Boagworld