Web Informant #214, 18 September 2000:
What makes for a well-designed web site


Dave Winer had an interesting comment in one of his recent essays: "In the overworked world of Web development, there's no time to study, there's only time to do." I couldn't agree with him more. To expand on this theme, here is a contribution from Wendy Talarico, a communications manager at Design Architecture (wtalarico@designarchitecture.com). Take it away, Wendy.

I talk with a lot of architects, engineers, and building contractors in the course of my work as a writer, editor, and part-time Web-site consultant. I've detected some trends in web site design that seem to hold true for them and, perhaps, for many businesses.

Firstly, no one is happy with their site unless they just completed a total redesign a couple of days ago. Even then it's still not quite right. No one likes the colors, the fonts are weird, or there's too much text (the most common complaint). And there are always things that need to be fixed -- the intro page is not exciting enough or the president of the company still hasn't approved the text for the company philosophy page.

That's okay, no one seems to like their company brochure either. They're resigned to it because it, at least, is done. With a web site, there is no such thing as done. That is the beauty and the beast of it. A site can be tinkered with endlessly, but it's only as good as the last revision.

Most business owners don't really know what they want out of their site or even what makes a site good or bad. They only know that what they have isn't right. It seems the web site is more anxiety producing than productive.

Secondly, the web site at most of the companies I some in contact with has no clear ownership. If the owners could afford it, they'd jettison the entire thing to a web consultant. But they're rarely happy with what these types do either and there seems to be a dearth of consultants who will do the whole job. One architect in Albany, NY, told me he started work on his site with a graphic design firm in New York City, but they didn't know how to do the text portions. So the architect called in a writer friend in Boston. But neither the writer nor the designers knew anything about programming. This was turned over to a programmer in Vermont. So every little change the architect wants to make to his site hops around the Northeast like a tourist taking in the autumn foliage.

Another scenario is to make the site the responsibility of the marketing department -- except those individuals are so busy getting out proposals, answering calls, and juggling the needs of the partners, they don't have time for it. And no one likes the site anyway so why bother?

So the site migrates to the hands of the one or two individuals who, seemingly alone, comprehend the importance of a good site and, perhaps, understand the beauty of the web itself. These are the people who "get it," they comprehend the vastness and effectiveness of the web. These individuals aren't geeks or nerds (well, sometimes they are), but they have a mind that can take it all in, the Internet equivalents of those who can look at an automobile engine and, within seconds, understand how it works. These poor souls are frustrated as hell because no one will listen to them.

The last truism is this: somewhere along the line, everyone forgot that a site must, above all, have a reason for being. It's analogous to the buildings that architects and engineers understand so well. They exist for a reason, as housing, office space, or whatever. A web site deserves the same type of positioning. It is not simply a brochure for the company that sits, like a magazine on a table, hoping that someone will pick it up and page through it.

All business owners have to think what they want to accomplish with their site. Is it a way to generate leads? Is it a recruitment vehicle? Is it a resource for customers in need of information? Each aspect needs to be refined and focused individually.

For example, one engineering company I know of first addressed the recruitment issue. They developed a series of pages that talk about the firm's abilities and market segment, the kinds of engineers and allied professionals who work there (complete with bios and photos), a bit about the corporate culture and setting (their neighborhood, their softball team's record, even a small map of their office), a list of their clients and what they've done for them, and an easy email form that tells them enough about the applicants to decide whom to pursue. This is all followed up by links to the major engineering schools, associations, and recruiting agencies.

In short, a well-designed web site works for its owners, just as a well-designed building does. It looks good, just as a building should. It has a purpose for being there, and, like any meaningful structure, its purpose is clear to the passerby or the web surfer. A building's architect should recognize that buildings don't stand alone; they are part of an urban fabric and their purpose within that fabric must be clear. The building must be maintained, or it loses its appeal.

A web site is much the same, a collection of pages and features with a strong focus. Those pages must relate in an active and lively way to other sites on the web. And if the pages on a site fall into disrepair, they become a blight, just as a sorry old building does.

Self-promotions dep't

Thanks Wendy. Catching up on my summer's publications, an article I wrote for VarBusiness called, Linux From Soup To Nuts! What you need to know to help your clients dig into Linux," can be found here:

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David Strom
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