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.

No comments: