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.
1. Your website 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.
What targets are you setting?
- If you hope to increase sales, by how much? Are you trying to influence existing customers or reach new ones? Which market segments are you targeting?
- You may want to use your website to reduce costs or improve service, for example with online customer support. What measurable results do you hope to achieve?
What are the constraints?
- For example, you may not be able to publish commercially-sensitive information.
2. Website design options
You can build your website from scratch
- This may be an option if you have in-house expertise, or time to learn. Many books and YouTube tutorials offer good web design tips.
- Well-known software includes WordPress and Mobirise. There can be a trade-off between how easy software is to use, and how flexible and powerful it is.
- Unless you are an expert, building your own site is unlikely to 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 the most expensive option, but you can get a highly professional, custom-built site.
- You 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.
3. Site content
People expect quick answers on the internet. They 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.
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.
- Search engines give content a higher ranking if it appears to be up-to-date.
- If real-time data is important in your business, link your site to a database for automatic updates.
Try to stand out
- What is the unique selling point that makes your business better than the competition? Offering a useful service which is unavailable elsewhere will always encourage repeat visits.
- Use the site to 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.
4. Design for simplicity
For clarity, keep pages uncluttered
- People skim read online. So use lots of subtitles and bulleted lists.
Only use techniques that are appropriate
- Animation, video and audio content can be a great way to engage visitors and keep them on your website for longer. But only embed this kind of content if it adds something to the experience. For instance, you could offer a video demonstration of your product in action.
- Most people now access the internet via their smartphone. Makes sure your website uses 'responsive' web design, so that it automatically adjusts to suit the visitor's screen size. A good agency or software should take care of this.
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. 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 into 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. 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.
5. Organising your content
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 want.
- Your proposition should be clear. Customers should immediately understand what your website offers.
Make regular customers feel special
- Consider using password-protected pages to allow business customers to see appropriate prices and discounts.
- Provide an opportunity for regular buyers to register their details, rather than having to enter them on every visit.
If you are selling online, design your site to make buying easy
- Anticipate queries and give clear answers.
- Illustrate your products clearly.
- Make order forms easy to find and fill in.
- Reassure nervous buyers with convincing customer testimonials.
- Offer as many payment methods as you can and let buyers choose which to use. Provide secure facilities for credit card purchases.
- Spell out the terms of any guarantees you offer.
- Give details of delivery costs, and any extra costs if you sell overseas.
Visitors want to be able to see what is on a site and get around it quickly. If moving around is tricky, potential customers will feel they are wasting time and quickly lose patience. Online, your competitors are only a click away.
Give visitors a way to get straight to what interests 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 any other page within three clicks.
Many sites benefit from having an internal search function
- This allows visitors to search by keywords.
- Off-the-shelf packages let you include a search form without any technical knowledge.
Keep navigation consistent throughout the site to avoid confusion
- Most visitors to your site will not enter through the homepage.
6. Visual design
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.
Make sure your website is integrated with your traditional marketing activities
- As part of your branding, your website should have the same look and feel as your other marketing materials.
- Include references to your website in your brochures and traditional advertising, and refer to your brochure on your site.
Include any visual material you need
- For example, you might use images from your brochure or take shots with a digital camera. Check you have permission from the copyright holder to use any third party 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.
- Be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to enable, or make it easier for, disabled people to use the site.
7. Attracting visitors
Make sure your site can be found easily
- Make search engine optimisation part of how you approach designing your site.
- 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 if possible.
- Keep the name short. If you have two words, people must guess if they are separated by a hyphen - it's best to simply run them together.
- Ensure the right keywords to help search engines find you are embedded in your site's page titles and 'meta tags'.
- Include links to your social networking profiles 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.
- Set up links so that they open in a new window and do not take the visitor away from your page.
- Avoid distracting customers with links once they are into the 'buy' process.
Make it easy for customers to engage with 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 enquiries quickly.
- Consider setting up a discussion forum. 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.
8. 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 screens of all sizes and at different 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.
- Ask colleagues to take a look.
- Find out about or download analytics packages Google Analytics or AWStats.
- Find free photos at FreeImages or Pixabay.
- 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 Closset, 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 Design