Monday, January 18, 2010

Who Crowns the King? The importance of website design in reinforcing text content

I'll never forget the first few weeks of serving on the Internet Advisory Committee at M. D. Anderson.  The idea of promoting any kind of health information on the web was still new.  We were promoting very cutting edge therapy, including clinical trials, and our hospital's name was world-renowned for decades.  All we thought we had to do was follow the practices we did in our research labs and clinics:
  • Take our technical protocols and translate them into everyday-speak for the general public.  The same thing we did when writing informed consent forms for our patients entering treatment.
  • Make sure that any claims we made followed the US FDA and FTC guidelines To. The. Letter.
  • Don't miss any details.  Be ready to answer any questions.  Follow up with everyone we met.
Pretty simple, right?  After all, "Content is King".  As long as the text was straight, eveything else was secondary.  "Just details."

Then at one meeting we were presented with information gleaned by one of our consultants, a group called "Hamilton Interactive".  These consultants were surveying our visitors determining how they found our site, what they were looking for, did they decide to subscribe to our services, etc.  The primitive version of web audience research made easier by Web 2.0 and other technologies today.

The results were shocking.  When it came to those website visitors that wanted to be M. D. Anderson patients, they made their decision based on appearance.  They chose the hospital's programs because of how the website looked. 

No one on that committee slept for at least a week.

We had utterly no doubt that our medical information was the best there was.  But using our name and putting out that information wasn't enough.  The public and potential patients had to believe it.  That was a critical step that, until then, we had taken for granted.  That's the part that the appearance played.

There are four steps to distributing information on the Web. 
1)  The website is live and visible on the Web, and can be found by visitors.  (This is a joint effort between the webmaster, the ISP, and the search engines)
2)  The visitor reads the content that the webmaster has placed on the site.  (That content is what the webmaster can directly control.)
3)  The visitor accepts and believes the content to be true and accurate.  (The webmaster can influence this choice, which is the subject of this blog.)
4)  The visitor acts on the information they see.  (This can also be influenced by the webmaster.)

So you hire your webmaster, you consult over content, back and forth creating and reviewing and editing until it looks just right.  You go over it one more time to make sure the words you want your visitors to use in a search engine are included.  But the design, the aesthetics, have to underscore the content, convey the feeling that the text is trustworthy and the interactive features are worth using. 

I've heard some folks ask, incredulously, "Do people really make their buying decisions based on a graphic logo?  Or colors?"  The answer is YES!!!  That's why ad agencies can charge a fortune for 30-second commercials.  Colors and graphics and designs are the persuasive part of your web communications. 

Here are some items your webmaster should consider when designing your site:

Color:  Color conveys emotion.  The message it conveys varies between men and women, and in various countries.  Your webmaster should discuss with you who your audience is, who you expect or want to visit your site, as much as what you are promoting.  Then use color accordingly.  There are analyses of this concept all over the web but this is a good one to start with:

Layout and Shapes:  Men and women perceive shapes and layout differently. 
Men respond to straight lines and orderly rows and columns.  This is easy to do in a square- or rectangular-shaped computer screen.  Bold.  Simple. Straightforward. 
Women respond to designs that are asymetrical, or involve curved lines, and random or detailed embellishments.  If you think I'm exaggerating, take a trip to the Womens' Center at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.  Look at the floor:  there's not a straight line anywhere in that linoleum pattern.  Some of the walls in the main entrance are curved as well.  In addition, exam and L&D rooms all have flowered borders decorating the top of the walls.  In the Atrium outside the coffee/snack bar, there is a plaque that goes into deep emotional detail about the color choices in each section. 
(Here is a slideshow of some of the elements I just described.  Ironically, the womens' center website has a more masculine aesthetic - except for color - in spite of the largely female audience.  Go figure.)

The old adage is still true:  "Content is King".  You could edit that to say Usability is King too.  But Design and Look and Feel are what put the crown on his head.  You can't have one without the other.  The greatest text in the world won't sell your product or deliver your message unless your website visitors believe what you say.  The website's text is the message, the apperance is the persuasion. 

Work with your webmaster to make sure your message is being delivered and received at all levels.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Four MORE Signs Your Website Needs an Upgrade

There was such a great response to my last post about upgrading your website that it's time for a second chapter.  If any of the following apply to you, talk to your web professional or contact SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions for a consultation.

1)  Your email address does not match your website address.

Companies will often spend lots of time on getting just the right catchy, snappy name for their website URL.  It's hip, it's happening, all of the customers love it.  Then the contact emails consist of "" or "", etc.

Take the time to complete the presentation.  Almost all web hosting companies, even bargain ones, provide some email accounts with your service.  If your emailsays "throwaway", that's what your customers will think of your company.

2)  "ImageReady Slices"

What is ImageReady?  And what is a slice?  About ten years ago, as web design became more complex and intricate, it was difficult to download these gorgeous new images.  They took forever to appear in a browser.  So a technique was created to split up big beautiful pictures into "slices" - like squares of sheet cake - so the image would download faster.  It worked!

But that was ten years ago.  Today elements can be "layered" on top of each other like transparent sheets of paper which not only makes it easier to create beautiful designs but also makes it easier to translate your web images into your print materials.  Ask your web professional how they created your design.  If the word "slices" comes up, either your design is outdated, or the web professional is!

There is one exception to the above rule:  if your site visitors are using older browsers (like Internet Explorer version 6.0 for example) you may have to generate your site using an older technique.  Your site statistics (provided by your hosting company) can tell you what kind of browser your visitors use most.

3)  The Search Engines Can't Find You

Your site has been active for months, even years, and yet when you type a phrase in a search engine related to your site, you're nowhere to be found.  Welcome to "what's the point".

Your site will get more visits if the content that visitors can read or the functionality that they can use is always fresh and updated.  That takes some time and effort, but so does all kinds of advertising.

Many older sites used a piece of code called "meta tags" to help search engines find them.  They are pieces of text not visible when you view the website, but search engines and browsers can read them.  There was a time when less-than-scrupulous designers would pack the meta tags with all kinds of garbage just to attract search engines, even if it wasn't relevant to what the site was about.

Google and all other search engines got wise to this trick.  Meta tags are not seriously used to rank sites in search engines anymore.  The search engine reads the text actually on the page.  So when deciding what you want to say to your customers, use words that you want them to find you with on a search engine.

4)  The Copyright Holder Notice on Your Site is Not You

This is not just an issue of effective Internet market, it is a core issue for any business.  Make sure when your website is created that the contract clearly states that you own your own content!  If it sounds obvious, it's not.  There were many conflicts early in the growth of the Web whether the website designer owned the content created, or if the business contracting their services did.  Older websites may have a copyright notice indicating the web company owns everything you gave them for the web.  Which will put you in a real bind should you want to make changes, or if you're competing with another company for customers.

All sites created by SDOC Publishing are owned by our clients.  We only reserve the right to credit for creating it.  Our clients own their content, including any graphic creations, and they hold ultimate legal responsibility for it as well.  That point is always clearly stated in our contracts.  \

If you're ready for a current, state-of-the-art effective web presence for your business or organization, now is the perfect time to contact SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Rest of the Story: Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce website

What I look forward to most on this blog is being able to go into greater depth on the thought process behind each site that SDOC creates.  This is my first discourse on what goes into a major project.

The City of Dunwoody voted to incorporate itself in 2008 and began operating in December of that year.  During the summer, right after the vote to incorporate passed, a group of local business owners organized the Chamber of Commerce.  This was a unique step:  to have a Chamber representing the business community at the same time the residential community founds the city.  That was an additional point of view in play when it came time to elect a mayor and council and decide on ordinances and fees.

The Chamber is now and has been from the beginning a volunteer organization.  SDOC Publishing signed on as a founding sponsor - one of 36 local businesses to chip in the startup resources to get it going. 

Audience:  We knew from the start that we had to have a two-pronged approach.  First, we had to be a credible voice on behalf of the business community, which consists of about 2500 registered business organizations within the city limits, most of them very small, often family-owned enterprises.  These interests had to be addressed evenly with the larger organizations occupying the Perimeter.  That was the easy part.  On the other side was the residential community.  This one was going to be harder because there was a long and storied history of local residents feeling their rights were trampled by an indifferent (at best) county government in bed with certain business interests.  Hence the incorporation effort.  Any business entity was regarded with the deepest possible suspicion.  So we have two audiences,  in a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship, but not necessarily trusting each other.

Original Goals:  at the beginning, the goals were constantly evolving.  It was very hard to pin down an approach when new information was coming in weekly, sometimes daily.  This project was one of a kind in that it was a daily experiment.  The original goal was to be a resource for that developing information.  Information initially transmitted was:
  • Progress on City Ordinances
  • Minutes of City Council Meetings
  • Progress on Licensing Standards
  • Networking and Organizational Events
  • Opinion polls for the general public
The official City website was not functioning at the time; the Chamber site was a key source for ordinance documentation in a searchable format.

Current Goals:  Because of the aforementioned friction between business entities and the residential community, the Chamber decided to promote very user-friendly functions that brought member businesses and their customers together.  This includes:
  • Member Business Directory
  • Job Posting Board
  • Special Offers/promotions page
 For our members, the Chamber wants each member company empowered to promote themselves to the public.  So all of the above information can be updated by member businesses themselves, pending review by the Chamber office staff. 

Finally, the site had to communicate the Chamber's participation in Dunwoody life.  An event calendar promotes events sponsored by the Chamber or its members.  Committee chairs update their respective blogs with event recaps, or city council meetings and agendas that will impact the business community.  Members have a private forum to discuss Chamber matters among themselves outside of formal meetings.

Technology:  From the beginning the Chamber decided to use an open-source Content Management System (CMS) both for cost and ease of use for the numerous volunteers that would be coming and going over time.  The original site was created in Joomla.  The idea floated at the time by TPTB (The Powers That Be) was that modules and plug-ins would be used to create business directories and any other function we needed.  The design was a template that was modified to customize the appearance and coordinate with the new logo.

For 18 months,the IT team tried to use these tools to create the site TPTB wanted but there was always a conflict between modules, or something slowed the system down, or the office staff couldn't generate the reports they wanted.  It was always something.  So the decision was made in the summer of 2009 to drop Joomla and switch to Drupal.  For the IT team, it was not a big difference.  But the office volunteers were going to have an issue because the types of content were not as cut-and-dried into sections and categories.  Plus, permissions were more complicated even as they were more precise.  But the old questions of building databases inhouse and testing combinations of assorted modules followed the switch.

Finally, the Chamber leadership decided to outsource the member services.  Chamber leadership and the IT committee reviewed presentations by several companies and chose ChamberMaster.  (This was my recommendation as well.)  ChamberMaster functions are tunnelled through the main Drupal website, but remains separate.  This decision solved several problems.  First, it eliminated any chance that a regular member would accidentally get access to the main content of the website outside of member services and make unexpected changes.  Second, the member services interface is much simpler for the average internet user.  Third, ticketing and other online payment systems are secured in a separate area that does not require manual maintenance by the Chamber staff. 

Design:  Look & Feel
The original design was based on the concept that TPTB were looking to convey a sense of optimism and excitement of a new beginning.  Thus, the original colors were the colors of sunrise:  blue and orange on a white base.  These colors were also popular at the time in TV ads.
When the CMS was changed to Drupal, a new template was required.  The emotional point had not changed but fashions had:  shades of blue with bright spring yellow-green were becoming popular.  A basic template was chosen with that palette and then customized to make the appearance unique to the Chamber. 

Finally, a graphic accent to support the text-based logo.
The symbol needed had to be a simple representation of the local business community, where neighbors own the local storefront, where there is a great comfort with business.  The sense of mutual community that was the goal.    The design is an American colonial-style cupola; this structure is found scattered all throughout Dunwoody in small business areas that subscribe to the Colonial architectural style.  Even gas stations have them!  A photograph one bright and sunny afternoon, then a few Photoshop steps to render it into a soft pencil/charcoal drawing and voila!  If you've been to Dunwoody, you know what it is, and what it means:  good neighbors and good business. 

And that's the story!  Feel free to post comments if you have any questions.  This is the thought process that goes into a website - the abbreviated version anyway!