For those of you that attended salesforce.com’s Dreamforce 2007 conference, you heard of the release of Visualforce, which empowers developers to change the user interface of their applications to best meet the needs of their users. I think this is a powerful capability that can make anyone a web product specialist. That can also be a very dangerous thing since not everyone has “the eye” for navigation and design.
For those of you coming from the enterprise or B2B side of things, I strongly advise that if you haven’t read up on some web design basics, that you do so now. As you’ve probably noticed, web developers and designers are in demand right now, working on the latest and greatest new consumer (or B2B) web sites. There is a science to the art they create and it’s best for your site (and thus your target audience) if you take a few moments to get the basics of web design so your collaboration can be that much more effective.
Too often, design issues in small companies can boil down to debates based on opinion, versus genuine evaluation of the customer’s experience. I’m not just talking about colors, either, but the look and feel of the page, and the various calls to action that you should be wanting to drive your visitors towards (registration, sharing an article with others, rating something, etc.). If you have 100s or 1000s of pieces of content, information architecture (how you organize and categorize your content) also must be carefully thought out. What appears common sense to you and your team may be completely confusing to your target audience.
Your target audience is now more fickle than ever before, thanks to the high standards set by their use of consumer web sites. If they don’t like something, especially a new product that they’re trialing or that you’ve just purchased, they won’t use it, and they will abandon it.
If you don’t have the luxury of a usability lab or several consultants to help build that elegantly simple web site or on-demand product, I recommend you read the following book(s). Heck, even if you do have the luxury, get these so you can better understand where web application specialists are coming from.
If you only get one book for a quick overview, get this one. You can read it over the weekend and it’s filled with actionable steps (versus pure theories) that can get you thinking more about web site design.
If you’re more the type that loves reading about research findings, Jakob is your man. No, I don’t want to scare you off. He states several site design fundamentals, and backs it up with research. Some of the numbers may surprise you…have you really ever thought about what percent of your visitors actually plan to lift a finger and register? contribute content? rate something? Knowing the numbers may give you an extra incentive to make that design a little more elegant, I think. Jakob is also known for creating a lot of discussion around his findings, so whether you agree with him or not, he does push you to think about why you’ve designed something a certain way.
Also known as the Polar Bear book, this is a good reference for you to have if your site deals with a lot of content. How do you scale the organization of the site as content balloons exponentially? Do you want to default everyone to your search bar because they can’t find anything any other way? (And if you’re using a custom-built search technology, are you giving your visitors what they expect?)