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Make Web surfers your clients

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Your site design is not about you. It’s about your business problem.

My next few columns, leading up to the Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, are going to be slightly geeky and focused on some of the topics I want to discuss at the conference. I’m hoping to get everyone primed with questions and experiences so when we’re all in the same room we can move forward faster.

A few weeks back Inman News columnist Rob Hahn posted an article about design being more important than content. One of the thoughts in that article is that if too much attention is spent on search-engine optimization (SEO) and other tactics intended to increase your site reach and the site itself has poor design, you’re spinning your wheels. Rob’s right on this one. But how do you figure out what is "good design"? There’s a tool to help you with this: Google Website Optimizer.

Before I get too deep into this I should make sure everyone knows what I mean when I use the word "design." When you make something that is intended to solve a problem (business or otherwise), that’s design. When you make something that is intended to move an audience emotionally, be cool or express yourself, that’s fine art (unless expressing yourself is the problem you’re trying to solve).

The Web is littered with exceptionally ugly graphic design that is very functional at solving problems for their site owners. Craigslist, for example, is not much fun to look at and certainly doesn’t look cool. Having heard Craig speak a few times, I don’t think the site was made to help him express himself. It is, however, relatively easy for his site visitors to use for the quick, commodity-style interactions they want from a classifieds-style listing site. It’s probably worth mentioning that the newsprint classifieds that Craigslist has supplanted were for many years the cash-cow of newspapers and also received very little attention from staff art directors.

Another example of an ugly Web site that does well for its owner is GoDaddy. Perhaps the most obnoxious checkout process on the Web is on the GoDaddy store. Something like 15 steps to buy a domain name and on each step the way forward is always minimized and hard to find. Unlike Craigslist, which is merely plain but easy to use, GoDaddy is a cluttery mess and purposely difficult to use. But the upsells and add-ons that GoDaddy is pitching every step of the way make up for the potential lost sales.

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Those two examples aside, there’s no reason why a well-designed site shouldn’t also look good. It’s not like making a Web site look good is mutually exclusive to making it solve a problem. If you’re in a commodity business like classifieds listings or domain-name reselling, perhaps there’s no real need to work on making something look good; if the value you bring to the consumer is the lowest price then maybe spending money on the art won’t help. But maybe not.

Every site is going to have different strategic objectives and problems to solve. So every site is going to need different designs. Even better, as audience needs change, your site design will need to change.

Before you can begin to improve your design (or content for that matter) you’ll need to know what the objective of your site is and how you measure it — what business problem are you solving. For many of you, this will be some kind of contact form submission, but it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s make a Web site solve a business problem for us (aka: improve a Web site design).

Objective: Discover which of two design options is more likely to convert site visitors into customers. …CONTINUED