Why Don’t Most Web Designers Know Anything About Business?

By , May 27th, 2013 in Online Marketing | 28 comments
Designing Business Sites

It’s true—web designers are almost never taught the basic principles of what makes a website an effective business asset. This might sound strange until you realize that what universities teach about web design is approximately as good as what they teach about marketing—and you can get a PhD in marketing without any ability to attract customers to a business.

In this article, I’m going to reveal 3 things only 1 in 100 web designers know about designing an effective business site. If you’re a web designer, knowing these things will give you a leg up against your competition because you’ll be able to tie your services to financially significant goals in your clients’ businesses—instead of pretending a passion for web standards and the ability to be featured on design galleries is of real benefit to them. If you’re a business owner, knowing these things will let you profitably adjust your website—or give you an edge in choosing a web designer to create you a profitable website in the first place.

1. A Website Is Like A Shooting Target

It needs the following elements:

  1. A Bullseye. This is the element which gets a prospect to fulfill the site’s central objective. It represents the action that every visitor on the site will ideally take. The central objective is the one with the highest revenue potential. Usually it’s directly related to a long-term business goal: generating leads or sales. If there are multiple actions a prospect can take to achieve this central objective (or multiple objectives you regard as central), only one of them can be the bullseye on any given page. Different pages can have different bullseyes, but you can only have one per page. The other objectives will fall into:
  2. The Inner rings. Along with the secondary actions a user can take to fulfill the site’s central objective, the inner rings also include other elements representing other objectives. These are more indirectly related to your business goals and have lower revenue potential. Often they’re short-term—things like specials, promotions, featured products and so on.
  3. The Outer Rings. These are elements which fulfill tertiary objectives. They’re necessary for the site, but don’t really contribute to any business goals or have any revenue potential. They include things like the site’s navigation, legal disclaimers, and physical address details.

Any given page on your website can have a lot of “rings”—but it should only ever have one bullseye. It must be big, obvious, and easy to hit. Never turn secondary actions into bullseyes. Most websites do this wrong: they present several, equally-weighted options that compete with each other. This leaves prospects confused about what to “shoot at”—what to do…so they do nothing. Hence, most websites fail to achieve any of their objectives very well.

Dropbox Homepage

Dropbox’s homepage has a clear bullseye: to get prospects to sign up. This is supported by the promotional video and download link—the inner ring. Everything else is relegated to outer rings: the navigation is clear but understated, and the signin link is unobtrusively

2. Your Site Must Answer 3 Questions Immediately

These reflect the overriding concerns your prospect has in mind when he arrives on your site:

  1. Where am I?
  2. What can I do here?
  3. Why should I do it?

If you fail to answer these questions within 5–7 seconds, prospects will either not know where they are…or will be confused about what to do…or will not see any point in doing it. In each of these cases, they will solve the problem by clicking the back button or just close the browser altogether.

Answering these questions, in many respects, is well outside the purview of a web designer. His role is to lay out and style the content he is given—not to create it. But he should still know these questions must be answered, since he should be an adviser to his client (and frankly, most copywriters are as poorly trained in effective web writing as designers are in effective web design).

That said, a poor design can cripple the ability of even the best copy to answer these three questions. Thus, the layout of your site must instantly be clear—which means it must follow a format readers expect. Too many web designers sacrifice usability as a burned offering on the altar of creativity.

Joomla Old Homepage
Joomla Homepage

Top: Joomla’s old website failed pretty miserably at answering the Big Three Questions. There was nothing that instantly told prospects where they were—nor why they might want to try Joomla, learn and extend it, or download it.

Bottom: Joomla’s current website is aimed squarely at the company’s ideal prospect: someone looking for a reliable, well-supported and tested platform to build a website. Thus, no words are wasted, and prospects have no doubt as to where they are, what they should do there (download Joomla or try it out), or why.

3. Readers Can Almost Never Find What They Want On A Site

This is directly related to the Big Three Questions—but it bears mention as a separate item because there is plenty to say about it. Here, for example, is web usability expert Jakob Nielsen:

Don’t assume that users know as much about your site as you do. They always have difficulty finding information, so they need support in the form of a strong sense of structure and place. Start your design with a good understanding of the structure of the information space and communicate this structure explicitly.

Discussing his research of website usability and trustworthiness, Brent Coker of Melbourne University says:

The biggest source of frustration for web surfers appears to be the ability to find relevant information on a website—that’s the biggest killer, the biggest driver of dissatisfaction. As soon as a web visitor is dissatisfied they will leave that website and defect to a competitor. And the best way that website owners can stop that or reduce that is by increasing the relevancy of information.

In other words, the major challenge for websites is helping people find what they want straight away. As Coker says, “you need a very good map to help people get around”. And Nielsen has discovered the same thing:

Uncovering navigation shouldn’t be a major task: Make it permanently visible on the page. Small children like minesweeping (passing the mouse around the screen to see what’s hidden), but teenagers don’t like it, and adults hate it.

Your site’s navigation is your reader’s fallback if he starts to feel lost or uninterested. It’s very important to make it as useful as possible. By this, I mean:

  1. Include a search field. If you have more than about four pages on your site, this is a necessity. Over half of all web users are search-dominant; to find something they may skip navigation entirely and go straight to searching. Position your search field near the top of the page—either on the navigation bar, or somewhere nearby. That’s where people expect it.
  2. Navigation should be identifiable and consistent. I’ve seen sites where the main navigation is made up of text links above a graphics-heavy masthead. This is no good, because readers won’t see them. I’ve seen sites where the navigation is styled like a banner ad. This is no good, because people ignore banner ads. Make your navigation obvious. I’ve seen sites where the navigation changes depending where you go. This is no good, because the whole purpose of the navigation element is to save readers from getting lost when they move about.
  3. Links should be named in a way people expect. I’ve seen sites where the navigation links have been given “cute” names. This is no good, because readers don’t know that “The Full Monty” is actually an About page. Even names like “Our Story” are much inferior to what readers are actually expecting: “About”. Resist the self-destructive urge to “brand” your navigation. Readers won’t click links they don’t understand.
  4. Link structure should reflect site structure. I’ve seen many sites with two navigation bars, and no clear difference between one and the other. This is no good, because people don’t know what the difference is between them, or which one you think the page he’s looking for should fall onto. I’ve seen sites with the Contact page under an About section. This is no good, because your reader doesn’t expect that organization. Your site structure must be logical, and clear from a quick glance at your navigation. A reader must be able to see where on your site they are, and where they can go. If you have a lot of content to present, use a large drop-down menu that clearly breaks up your content into logical divisions (called a mega-menu), and breadcrumb navigation which shows readers where on the site they are: e.g., Products → Information Products → Attention-Thievery 101.
KillerStartups Old Homepage
KillerStartups Homepage

Top: KillerStartups’ old navigation suffered from some unintelligible options—where will “Dataopedia”, “Badge” and “Widget” take me?
Bottom: Look how much clearer and more comprehensible their new site’s navigation is.


What Critical Facts Have I Missed?

There are many other things web designers often don’t get taught, or forget about in the heat of battle. Have you come across any lately? Share you insights and experience below.

– D Bnonn Tennant


About The Author

Photo of D Bnonn Tennant

D Bnonn Tennant is the author of the free email micro-course “5 Sales-Spiking Website Tweaks Gurus & Designers Don’t Know”. When he isn’t teaching on turning visitors into customers, he’s schooling his kids in archery, fisticuffs and how to grapple a zombie without getting bit.
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Comments

  1. NileLars says:

    Hello Tennant,

    I am totally agree with you. I am also dealing with web designer and feel that they are not think as user point of view. There are not needed to think extreme. They just need to think as users. If they design website as users point of view than you can certain expect good design. Web designer always try to make website creative but some times they failed to create user friendly design. Anyways you have share really nice point.

    Regards,
    Nile

  2. Joyce says:

    Great article. They seem so common sense but often, as you say, tech savvy and ‘pretty’ override clear and functional. Thanks for posting.

  3. This has been the fundamental problem I’ve had with almost every designer I’ve worked with (sparing the few I still work with!). When I tell graphic designers I don’t want to hire them because they don’t know anything about marketing or conversion optimization, they get furious. I don’t know why. Entrepreneurs hire designers to make a return, so I’ve never understood why there aren’t more designers focused on that.

  4. Nick Eubanks says:

    The joomla example is a really good one of consolidated information design and supporting conversion-focused user experience. Would love to see some data on the conversion lift after the redesign..

  5. The one problem with sign-up focused pages – your Dropbox example , or Netflix is another perfect example – is that you risk alienating, at least slightly, your current customers. I pay Dropbox, I pay Netflix, so why do I have to search for the “login” button just to get into the site?

    • Hey Jennifer, there’s always that balance to be struck. It very much depends on the purpose of the site. How often are existing customers going to be coming back?

      For a true landing page, the question is irrelevant, since it only exists to convert specific people from a specific channel. But for a homepage, it’s definitely an important question to consider.

      Obviously one way to deal with this is to show new prospects a different homepage than existing customers. Even still, I think Dropbox’s page is a pretty good one, simply because most people don’t come back to the homepage after installing the program — they use the program itself. And if they do come back, the top right is the first place anyone looks for a login link or similar.

  6. Mark Ford says:

    This can work the other way too.

    Some customers don’t understand that their site is there to generate leads and just want something that looks good.

  7. You didn’t mention the issue of copywriting. Not understanding the importance of the written message, where to put aspects of the copy, how long the copy should be, etc. So frustrating!

    Maybe the question needs to be, “when will designers learn marketing?”

  8. Anonathon says:

    The title of this article is a pretty strong generalization to make. It comes off petty, and quite insulting to the many designers that are knowledgable about strategy, information architecture, marketing AND design.

    Perhaps this article’s title could have focused on educating people on choosing the right designer (ie. “How to choose a web designer that will make you money”), putting the onus on the client to do their due diligence learning about what a good web designer should provide before hiring someone to create such an important part of their business.

    Copywriting (as Juliet Austin mentioned above) is also vital to a successful website. It’s important to hire experts in their respective fields to get you the results you want. You wouldn’t hire a plumber to do your electrical work – consider hiring multiple people in the appropriate areas (marketing, copywriting, etc) rather than someone claiming to be a jack-of-all trades.

    P.S. 99% of statistics are made up… (1 in 100 designers told me so)

  9. David says:

    Wow, what a very informative article! You said it clear, these three questions I will keep in mind every time I will create/design a website! I think those questions can be a great pre-writing questions too.

  10. nomadone says:

    I must agree as well, though I think in all fairness, many times web designers will advise clients and clients who themselves don’t have a clue force certain decisions down their web designer’s throats.

    Which is why you’ll find tons of articles written by web designers about ignorant clients who couldn’t care less about the effectiveness of their site as they prefer the design advice of their neighbour, mother in law or slightly creative younger cousin.

    Some clients are easy to advise and educate, others have such thick skin it requires a sharp metal object to pierce through in order to make any kind of impression.

    I have found many times I buckle and just give the client what they want as opposed to what I think would be more beneficial to their objectives. It has alot to do with ego, people think because they’re paying you to do a job you have no say in how the job needs to be done.

    These are all generalisations of course including the ones made in this article as there are tons of web professionals who think very deeply about what is best for the user and the client, it just requires a good match between designer, client and project

  11. Delena Roth says:

    We always recommend doing some research before deciding on site navigation. Asking your current site users what elements of the site they use most and also find most valuable helps uncover the content that needs to be “bubbled up” to the top. (You can also find clues in the analytics, of course.) I also look to site users to help in navigation nomenclature. Clients are usually too close to their business to know which terms their customers actually use and referring to the customers’ preferences can help them understand that. This way it’s not “me against the client”.

  12. There are tons of web designers out there, but only a small percentage command high prices. They are the designers that help a business increase revenue and sales and give that business owner a good ROI.

    To be valuable to a business, they have to understand it’s products and services. I think the bullseye is where most web designers go wrong. Too many websites don’t have that single targeted call to action that the business requires. Or if it’s there, it’s diluted by the other “rings”.

  13. Michael says:

    D Bnonn (never seen a name like that before, where are you from? Just curious) Thanks so much for this article, learned a lot from it. I will be signing up for your list. God bless.

  14. lionleaf says:

    Developers and business people have different goals than designers

  15. Jurre says:

    As a designer I feel I should say something about his. At the start of a project, take time to ask these questions three…and answer them.

    What are/is the main business goal(s)?
    What are/is the main user goal(s)?
    What design strategy will achieve these goals?

    After that.. measure, measure measure, tweak, tweak, tweak…

    Any webdesigner worth his or her salt should at least touch upon these questions before placing the first pixel on a screen.

    Luckily, most designers I know seem to be up to date on conversion funnels and what role they should have in a design.

    Thanks for a lovely article Mr. Tennant! Keep it up.

  16. Darek Kargul says:

    I totally agree with you, many of my friends are web designers but apart from that, they know nothing about business, that’s why I always design and code my websites by myself.

    In my opintion most of the web designers should be aware of at least stuff like SEO etc.

  17. From reading this I thought that the 3 questions that your site needs to answer is dead on. If someone were to come to your site and have no idea what you do then they probably will leave immediately. You need to send a message while drawing their interests. Ive also learned that your navigation need to flow. If its hard for someone to navigate through then you site have failed.

  18. Thanks for the post, it is necessary that a website design should contain some relevant information which is needed for the user. Obviously, if a user can not find the site according to their need, they will not stay there.

  19. One must aim for the website design not because of his competitors
    but because he wants to reach his target customers through it.

    Clarity on these two parameters signifies added readers, subscribers,
    trades or leads depending on the objective of your webpage.
    We have a specialized team of web designers, which facilitates to make company’s correct brand image of your business.

  20. Jos says:

    The best designers have experience in marketing and understand the best designs around the web. All you have to do is explore some of the designs of the best websites on the web.

  21. Can’t really blame web designers for not knowing how to market their business online. Like most people, they’re good at what they do, but suck at marketing. That’s why you’re supposed to be in the “internet marketing” business, instead of whatever business you’re “technically” in.

    • On the contrary, Randall, I can blame a web designer who creates business websites for not understanding even basic principles of direct response marketing.

      Quite bluntly, a business website designer cannot be “good at what he does” and yet not be good at marketing, because a business website is a marketing platform. That is its purpose.

      Saying that you can create business sites but that you don’t know anything about marketing is exactly to say that you can create a website but that you can’t create a marketing platform. In other words, it is to admit that you are completely unqualified and incompetent at the job you’re claiming to be able to do.

      A business website designer who doesn’t know marketing is not a designer at all. Design is goal-oriented — and he doesn’t know how to get users to achieve any goals. He is actually just a mis-labeled artist.

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  25. You hit the nail on the head!

    The thing is a website must be monitored and tested. Whether it is the home page, search bar, navigation, content, opt in form colors, or visuals.

    That best thing to learn is a/b testing when it comes to your site. Using analytic tools to monitor specific areas on your website utilized.

    The main thing to take away from this is that you can ALWAYS IMPROVE yourself. Once set up that doesn’t mean your site is really completed.

    It takes experience and knowledge for designers to really understand they are in business to deliver results.

    After reading your article, I am even more aware of what needs to be put in place to deliver results beyond design.