For almost a month, “Alma” went back and forth with her Web developer on which illustration to use on her company website’s homepage. Should it be the lavender flowers? The bluebell-carpeted scene of springtime in the woods? Or would the photo of the healthy-looking young yoga instructor best convey what the site was about?

Everyone in Alma’s company had a different opinion. And changing one illustration on the homepage meant other graphics on the site needed to be changed to reflect the “core” image of the business.

It’s a situation that replays itself every day in website agencies and Web development companies around the world.

Now there’s no doubt that good graphic design can make or break a marketing campaign. A well-chosen, well-placed image can double, triple, or quadruple response rates. However, the design of your website is a whole different animal. Taking a close look at some recent research may offer a startling insight into what I’m talking about…

Nielsen Norman Group recently ran a battery of website usability studies using eye-tracking technology. In the studies, people were asked to perform a variety of tasks on different websites, such as “open an account” at an online bank or “find a local pizza restaurant” or “buy a black suit with a blue tie.” While they were engaged in these tasks, hidden infrared cameras monitored their eye movements to see what they looked at and where their gaze was fixed. From the data, the researchers drew “heat maps” that showed which parts of each Web page were looked at the most. Areas colored red indicated where the study participants spent the greatest amount of time. Yellow and blue indicated fewer eye fixations. And gray areas were those that didn’t attract any fixations.

In every case, statistically significant patterns emerged.

Here are three results that you should be aware of in order to make your website stronger and more appealing to your visitors:

• Banners and ads are ignored. People almost never pay attention to anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it actually is one. This is true of banners anywhere within a Web page.

• Images are ignored. Images receive similar scant attention fixations, with the exception of faces and “cleavage and other ‘private’ body parts.”

• Text is universally “interesting.” What all the study participants fixated on was plain text or written content.

Why Your Website “Design” Shouldn’t Be Your Top Concern

 

Your website design does matter… but probably less than you think. And a lot less than your website designer thinks (or would like to bill you for).

Think of your website as a dinner plate and your articles and other content as the dinner. Sure, you want an overall presentation that is attractive. But the food is the most important part of the meal. The plate itself should not be garish or bland. It should complement the meal and showcase it in the best light possible.

Almost all the websites and e-mail promotions that took Agora Inc., the parent company of Early to Rise, to its first $100 million in online sales were about as un-designed as you could imagine. They were mainly all text and headlines. In fact, Agora’s websites looked – and still look – very similar to the longer direct-mail sales letters you receive in the mail. According to many Web designers, these sites shouldn’t work any more than a bumblebee should be able to fly (because it breaks every rule of aerodynamics). But fly it does.

It is important for all Web designers to know where people look when they visit a Web page. Most people are looking for information, facts, or advice. And they want a website that gets that job done. If they are engrossed in a story or buried deep in content, they don’t want distractions and they don’t want to look away.

Plus, if your most important content is “hiding” in a banner or graphic, you could be missing plenty of opportunities to convert site visitors to paying customers.

Recognize the power of words. If you are considering placing a photo or other graphic on your site, ask yourself whether, instead, there is a way to express what you’re trying to communicate with words. Research and experience bears out that this will probably produce a better result.

What Does Matter?

Most website critiques focus on the look and feel of the site, its visual design and layout. But what matters primarily for most websites and to most people is text.

For this, there are a number of guidelines you can adopt:

• Make it easy to skim-read your Web pages. Online, people skim-read and scan for information. So break up your Web content with logical headings and subheadings. Use bullet points to break up paragraphs, and use bold type to make important words stand out.

Try skim-reading your Web pages yourself – or, better still, have a customer do it for you. See if they have any trouble understanding the page and moving onto the next step (signing up for your e-mail newsletter or purchasing something).

• Think “elevator pitch.” An “elevator pitch” explains what you do, what your product or service does, and, especially, what it does for the customer. And it does so in the time it takes to move between two floors in an elevator.

The first two paragraphs on any Web page should state the most important information in an easy-to-grasp way. If a site visitor reads those two paragraphs, there’s a better chance that they’ll continue reading the rest of the page.

• Begin with useful information. Beginning page titles, headings, subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words will help your site visitors as they skim-read. People generally notice the first words of any block of text more than the later words. Make it simple for people to find what they need.

Creating content-rich rather than image-heavy websites is still unfashionable. Many designers still treat the Web more like printed advertising media and focus on graphical embellishments – which often end up being largely ignored. Even seasoned Web designers forget the power of words.

Above all else, make sure your website has useful, easy-to-skim information. Work with your graphic and Web designers to ensure that your design supports the content rather than overwhelms it. You’ll better serve your website visitors… and have a better chance of converting them into e-letter subscribers or paying customers.

Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies. David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen! He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.

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