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Appropriate Web Design

I have been thinking about what I want to call appropriate website development. What does that mean? It is the answer to the question: What should we put on our website?

The answer is: Whatever is appropriate.

Um…appropriate? Appropriate to what?

Good question. Whatever is appropriate for your organization to achieve its purposes and goals for the website and for the user to get what he needs and/or wants from your website.

Organizational purposes and goals are mutually linked to things like user intent, user expectations, and user ability. The appropriateness of a piece of content is dependent upon website goals, intended user actions, and overall marketing purposes.

There are two sides to the equation of appropriate content. One is user expectation and intent. The other is the purpose for the site, the site’s goals, and organizational goals and purposes. It is false to think that the organization has no stake in its website. It is likewise false to think it alone has a stake in the website.

Think of the experience of using a website as a pie in which users and organizations are both stakeholders. Notice that I didn’t say equal stakeholders. That’s because it’s not always a 50/50 relationship.  For each website the organization must decide the appropriateness of its content based upon the understanding that there are two (not necessarily equal) stakeholders in relation to that website.

The sad truth is that many often fall into the trap that we must be bigger, louder, faster, and a hundred other things, in order to beat the competition or be relevant. The truth is, however, that your best chance at being successful is to be appropriate in the content you create and share. You shouldn’t waste where you don’t need it and you shouldn’t leave gaps that should be filled. Your content, organizational goals, and user expectation/intent should all meet together in harmony.

What determines appropriateness of content?

  • The demographics of your target audience
  • The intent of your audience
  • The expectations of your audience
  • Your organization’s website goals
  • Your marketing plan
  • The purposes of your organization
  • The end goal(s) for the website user

Website Goals

Every website should have a purpose. Sometimes a single site can have more than one purpose, but it needs at least one. Imagine advertising without a purpose and you can see the futility of a website that has no purpose.

Here are some example purposes for a website:

  • Public relations
  • Product advertising
  • Product sales
  • Building a community
  • Customer service

There are dozens of reasons to build a website. Research says that the more specific the purpose the better the results.

Once the purpose of the site has been determined the organization must figure out the goal or goals it wants the user to achieve. It is also important that the user and his or her goals and intent are also taken into account.

(If I can divert from the thought above for a moment, the idea of two stakeholders in regard to your website is a key idea. The organization is the gatekeeper, while the visitor is looking to go through a gate–could be yours, could be someone else’s.

Though it seems like a potentially adversarial relationship, both need one another. The user is trying to go through a gate to get the information, product, or service. The organization wants the users to come through its specific gate. It is a symbiotic relationship.

What does this mean for organizations? It means being continuously adaptive, always listening and watching, and testing users. Each of these show a level of respect for the user as a person and not just a consumer. Organizations should neither have contempt for the user nor bow to user. In mutual respect they work together to fill one another’s needs.

Even the user has responsibility? In truth, he has little responsibility but to use the website to the best of his ability. Or not. In the end the responsibility rests upon the website owner to be appropriate.)

Now that the site has a purpose and there is at least one goal, there is a chance for the site to be successful. But this is just the beginning. It’s akin to the front door to the largest store you have ever been in.

As a business owner you can go and try to piece it together yourself. You can trust a web designer to do it for you. You can even hire an agency. Whatever your choice, the content of your website must still be appropriate.

If the goal of your website is to get people to sign up for your newsletter, what do you need to put on the site to move a new visitor to that goal? What is appropriate content to move that visitor? Sometimes it is a free eBook–but not always. Sometimes it’s telling a story–but not for all organizations. Some organizations lend themselves to storytelling, some don’t. If you are a non-profit and your target audience wants (or needs) to be moved emotionally before giving their resources, you need to do what is appropriate to move them.

“But what takes precedence to beauty is how a potential customer will interact with your home page. Ask yourself, “What do I want my prospect to do when coming to my website?” The answer to that question should drive every decision. Form follows function.” — Derek Hunter, taken from Mashable.com

Everything from strategies to tactics should flow out of the goal or mission of the website. The site should also use appropriate measures (i.e., the right tools) to get website visitors to take the desired action.

Getting the right tools, however, is not an easy thing. Marketers, talking heads, and even designers can muck this up for clients.

A Case in Point

Here is an illustration from Hubspot. I love Hubspot and what they do and the software they create. This is a tweet posted recently:

I can imagine two reactions to this tweet from small business owners who follow Hubspot or use their services–which has established itself as a digital marketing authority, btw. The first reaction is panic: “55%(!) is a huge number. Do we have a Vine strategy? And what is Vine, anyway?” The second reaction is the small business owner who has already tried to keep up with every marketing/strategy message in his stream and has given up: “Great. Something new to think about. Do we have a Vine strategy? What is Vine, anyway? We don’t have the resources, and, besides, it’ll just be something else tomorrow.”

For those whom it is appropriate to use Vine, they should develop a Vine strategy (or Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or whatever the social platform may be). This should be done when Vine has been targeted as a relevant platform for the site’s audience and where Vine happens to be the right answer to, “Okay, how do we get this message out to this specific audience?”

Do you have a Vine strategy? Probably not. Do you need one? Maybe. Or maybe it’s best for you to spend your resources putting together a long-form documentary. Or a stop motion animation of a typical day with your people. Or write and perform a sappy love song. Or maybe just put some really well-written text on a page.

What is your organization trying to say? What does your target audience need from you in order to move them to the place you want them to go? What do they wish someone would give them?

Those are the fundamental questions. The answers to those questions will determine which tools you use to get there. All marketing answers a “how” question, not a “what.” If you get the “what” answered, then you can move to the question: “How do we create appropriate content to sufficiently get to the answers to the ‘what’ questions?”

The implication of the tweet above is that all businesses and people–everyone–need to be on Vine and (going one step farther) have a Vine strategy. Vine is important. It’s just not important for everyone.

Web Designers and Developers

Web designers and developers are just as guilty as marketers. Instead of utilizing what is appropriate, they often push for things the client doesn’t need. This can affect WordPress developers who can get a little plugin happy, which will actually slow down the website. Read more about using WordPress plugins wisely.

One of the difficult parts of doing web design and development is the love one has for it. It sounds funny, but it’s true. It’s easy to get attached to an idea, drawing, program, plugin, methodology, etc.

We tend to solve problems that aren’t really there because we love the process of solving the problems. Many things, though, just aren’t necessary.

A Practical Framework

Here is my hierarchy of content, starting from the most simple and moving to the most complex.

  • Text on a page
  • Photographs
  • Graphic designs
  • Video
  • eCommerce

Text on a page
There is nothing more basic to the Web than plain text on the page. It is the foundational building block of a website. It is possible to have a website with only text on a page.

Photographs
Photos are one step up from text. It is so easy to add images to the website. Over the past several years it has become increasingly easy to get a high quality image and get it onto your site. Photographs illustrate the text, but require more interpretation from the viewer than plain text on a page.

Graphics
Graphics are more complex and subjective than photographs. They require more skill, time, and thought in their placement.

Video
Video is interesting. It is relatively easy to create a video but difficult to do well. It is less clear then text on a page but more clear than a photo. So it comes in somewhere between. But this is a list on simplicity, not clarity.

eCommerce
Creating a shop online, or even just selling a few products, is the most complex because it involves the introduction of more systems than just the website. It requires a front end and a back end setup. It also means a lot more work for you in terms of maintenance and security.

Why this list in an article on appropriate content?

Based on all of the factors above (website goals, target audience, etc.) can you put text on a page and stop there? If that’s all you need then you should stop at that level of complexity. Your site will be faster to load and easier to consume and share. However, if you need more than text on a page to reach your goals, move up a level in complexity.

At each level it would be wise to ask the question, “Can we stop at this level of complexity?” Don’t worry about what others say you should or shouldn’t have. There is no standard visitor or organization. If you embrace that it can be a strength for you.

Getting the appropriateness of the website correct for your organization can transform an adversarial relationship between user and organization into a harmonious relationship that will lead to a win-win for both sides. 


I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts and questions about appropriateness as a website content strategy. Join the conversation below.

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