What would you say if I told you that your website design is costing you sales, prospects, and brand visibility? If you are a savvy marketer – and I'm sure that you are – you would want to address the problem immediately; after all, your company's website should be helping you make money, not lose it. Unfortunately, addressing this common website design problem often means overcoming your company's greatest obstacle on the road to online marketing success: itself.

Websites are usually created internally, by people who are familiar with and enthusiastic about the companies they represent. However, the real purpose of any company website is to provide information externally, to people who are not familiar with your company or its product offerings. Whether you are building a new website or trying to improve the old website design, it is paramount that every design, content, and navigation choice be considered from the point of view of an outsider searching for information. This can very difficult to do internally, but it is particularly difficult to do once the website design is already in place.

Why Your Website Design Needs to Change

When asked to reevaluate their website design, most of the companies we deal with have two primary objections: ego and money. They've invested a lot of money, time, and brain power into the website design that they have, and they don't want to feel like it was wasted. And they definitely don't want to hear that those Flash animations that everyone in their company is so proud of are probably just irritations in the eyes of their prospects.

The fact is, they are. Study after study has shown that Flash is more likely to annoy than to endear your visitors, but web designers and marketing departments continue their love affair with the technology. A web hosting company called Hostway conducted a survey of nearly 3,000 Internet users in August of 2005. The respondents were asked to rate their Internet pet peeves on a scale of 1 to 5, with a 1 being not at all annoying and a 5 being extremely annoying.

Nearly 89 percent of those surveyed said that website design that requires the installation of additional software to view is extremely annoying – are you really so certain that every one of your website visitors already downloaded a Flash plug-in? Is that a gamble you are willing to take when over 70 percent of the respondents indicated that, if confronted with their website design pet peeve, they would refuse to visit the site again, unsubscribe to promotions from the company, refuse to purchase from the website, and view the company in a negative way? What if I told you that, in addition to losing each of these customers, you are also losing their friends, family members, and co-workers? 54.9 percent of those confronted with an Internet pet peeve would not only view the company negatively, but they would complain about the website design to friends and associates. Are those the kind of odds you want for your site?

And it gets worse. Number eleven on the list of website design pet peeves is unnecessary splash/Flash screens or animation, with more than 69 percent of those surveyed indicating that these are very to extremely annoying. The list of Flash-related offenses continues, with 60 percent finding text that moves (including Flash animations) extremely annoying and another 53 percent finding sound that plays automatically very annoying. This means that a typical Flash animation on a company website is guilty of not one, not two, not even three, but four of the top 15 most-hated website design crimes in the minds of your visitors.

Design Your Website for the Customer, Not for the Company

It's easy to convince yourself that surveys like these don't represent your customers or your Flash animations. Your website design is clever, it's well-crafted, it's simple and easy to use – how could anyone find it annoying?

Consider your own Internet use. Imagine that you are shopping around for a product you don't know much about. Whether it's something small like a GPS system or something large and complex like an IT outsourcing service, your mindset will be the same: you are seeking out information. Think back to the last time you were researching a product or service online, and you'll probably find that you don't remember very much about the website design from the sites you visited. This is because when a person is seeking out information, he or she will mentally discard any visual "noise" on the website – large banner images, Flash animations, text that moves around. These great feats of graphic design become mere hindrances in the quest for information, and the last thing you want to do to prospective customers is make it harder for them to buy what you have to offer. If you hit "Skip" the last time you encountered a Flash intro page, you've got to assume that your customers will want to do the same.

Of course, Flash animations are not the only culprits in the website design pet peeve game. Content that is out of date and confusing navigation were also big losers in the survey, with more than 80 percent of survey respondents rating each as either very or extremely annoying. Requiring registration to view the site annoyed 83 percent of respondents, and websites containing only a web form instead of contact information got under the skins of 75 percent of those surveyed. The numbers are staggering, and customers are making it overwhelmingly clear: design your website for them, not you.

Getting It Right

When you are deciding how to label your navigation, consider how an outsider thinks about your products – it's easy to forget that the way you talk about your company internally is not how people unfamiliar with your industry will talk about it. When you are making decisions about your contact page, consider how many potential customers you might lose instead of how many unwanted phone calls you might get. When someone in your office chimes in suggesting that you add a Flash movie that rotates the four taglines you can't seem to decide between, consider how likely it is that your customers will stay on the page long enough to watch it. Make your company's website design about the customers' experiences, using content, functionality, and design choices that answer the questions they have and move them through the site. If you really love that Flash animation that much, there's always your personal website.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

August 14, 2007

Erin Walker is the Director of Conversion at Medium Blue, a search engine optimization company.

Search Engine Guide > Erin Walker > You're Not Listening to Your Audience: The Flaw in Your Website Design