Volume 38, Issue 3, March 2003

Out of Site,
Out of Mind

A Crash Course in Web Design

by Kristine Tunney

Since Pizza Hut first offered its online ordering option in 1994, the world of e-commerce has exploded exponentially. The World Wide Web has revolutionized the way that people do business, and what began originally as a supplement to existing business marketing plans quickly has become a necessity for increasing revenue and brand recognition.

During the late-1990s, creating a website of one’s own continued to gain prominence as everyone from Barnes and Noble to college students learned how to make themselves visible on the World Wide Web. And while many companies and individuals did manage to secure themselves a domain name and put up a website, it was quickly evident that some makeshift web “designers” lacked the design know-how to put together a page that both met company objectives and was user-friendly. 

All Sites Are Not Created Equal
Designing a web page is totally different than designing any other type of business media. Web surfers actively seek out sites in order to gain information on a company, product or service quickly and effortlessly. With that in mind, the need to focus a company’s site on offering users the information they need, rather than taking them on a trip through an endless maze of links and graphics, is essential.

As the speed along the information superhighway continues to increase, users have less time and patience for sites that take the “scenic route” to desired information. With the average web surfer remaining on a page for less than 50 seconds before moving on, today’s users want information as concise and navigable as possible and in less time than ever.

In order to begin laying out a successful glass industry website, it is necessary to first outline the company’s objectives for the page, basing every design decision on who the company is and who its customers are. The most successful sites are those that have found a balance between design and performance.

“Our strategy is to post information that will empower the customer,” said Dan Roach, vice president of systems for Los Angeles-based C.R. Laurence Co. Inc. (CRL). “When we began planning our current website, we had to first identify our business processes where we come in contact with customers so that we could figure out the best way to deliver that same performance across the web.” 

Going For the Same Goal?
Clarify the following issues with your web designer before site production begins to confirm that you’re both on the same design track:

What content do I want to present? Most web developers charge on a per-page and/or hourly basis so early determination of whether you need a single page or multiple pages on your site is 
essential. 

Make an example of other sites. Illustrations are a big help when trying to describe to the web designer how you’d like your site to look. While you don’t want your site to look exactly like someone else’s, it’s certainly OK to borrow ideas from other web pages. 

How will visitors find the site? Find out who will be responsible for submitting the site to search engines. Don’t assume the designer will do it automatically. Many developers charge an extra fee for search-site submittal.

Choose a domain name carefully. Pick out a domain name that is easy to remember. Domain names go for about $12 a year these days and hosting is available for as little as $50 a year.
 
Budget for site maintenance. Ask your designer what kind of post-design support they offer or what monthly maintenance fees are involved. Designing a site that is too expensive to update is a waste of money.



Braving the Elements
  One of the simultaneously fabulous and frustrating aspects of maintaining a website is the fact that there is always room for improvement. With more than 2 million new Internet users signing on for the first time in the United States alone, it’s never too late to make style and content changes to your web page. So, if your company’s site hasn’t brought in the anticipated customer numbers or revenue, utilize the following style guidelines for producing a simple but effective web page that could prove to be invaluable to your business.

Five Mistakes of First Time Web Designers
Using too many fonts (the ransom note effect).

- No page organization. Consistency is the key to usability.

• No unique content—if you don’t have anything to say or show, why have a web page?

• Leaving outdated information and links visible on the site.

• Going overboard on animated graphics and music. Sensory overload benefits no one.


At the Head Of the Class
Need some web inspiration? Ranging from very complex to do-it-yourself-simple, the following websites are prime examples of easy navigation, accessible information and effective design. While some may not utilize the advanced graphics that make other sites visually fascinating, all are successful in providing the visitor with well-organized, hassle-free access to information.
www.crlaurence.com 
www.binswangerglass.com
www.e-skylight.com 
www.glacierglass.com
www.huskerglass.com 
www.mirro-mastic.com
www.midwestglass.net 
www.truseal.com
www.ultrafab.com


Make Your Site Easy to Navigate
The table of navigational buttons should be clearly labeled and easy to read, utilizing function over fashion. Your audience may enter your site at a variety of different points so make sure that users can access the homepage from anywhere within the site easily.

Make sure to design for the user, rather than those in the company. The less complicated the design, the better. Visitors should be able to find what they are looking for in your site within three clicks. Users are probably looking for specific information, so make it easy for them to find.

Use Minimal Text
Reading from computer screens is about 25 percent slower than reading from paper, so write for scannability. Instead of requiring users to read long continuous blocks of text, aim for short sentences, explanatory headings, bulleted points and consistent typefaces. “On our site, we kept all information as to-the-point as possible,” said Chris Palmer-Ball, executive vice president of sales for Palmer Mirro-Mastics of Louisville, Ky. “One of our main goals for the page was keeping the page simple and easy to navigate,” he said.

Keep Information Updated
Consistently add new information to the site and make sure there is a “last-updated” date somewhere on the page, so users know they are receiving the most up-to-date information. Encourage visitors to frequent the site by announcing “news” via the site regularly. Whether it’s a new press release, updated coupons for customers or a bulletin board, such as on the CRL site, where users can post equipment for sale, job vacancies or notices of upcoming events, adding new elements of interest keeps customers coming back to the site.

There’s a lot to be said for “web gardening.” While adding the new information, make sure to remove or archive any old or outdated information. Old information makes the user think the entire site is antiquated.

“At least once a week someone has to go in and make changes to the website—adding new details and removing outdated information from sections such as the calendar and the employee listings,” said Alan DeMello, Ultrafab’s vice president of sales, marketing and product development. “Our senior management, including the president, reviews and monitors the website on a regular basis. They are very in tune with the fact that the website is often the first impression people may get of our company and as a progressive company the last thing we want is a stale, outdated website.”
 
Make Contact Information Visible
Don’t forget to add all company contact information to a visible section of the web page. Whether you use your site for online transactions or merely as an online business card for your company, adding information such as a phone number, e-mail address, fax number and physical address in a prominent position on the page lets users contact you in the way that makes them the most comfortable.

Bob Higginbotham, director of human resources for Binswanger Glass, said that in the two years its site has been up, the number of online inquiries for replacements has increased dramatically. Higginbotham said that the site’s contact information has been used in ways the company had never anticipated. “Having the ‘contact us’ option allows everyone, from customers to employees, to voice complaints that we can then handle immediately. Using the web form lets people give as much or as little information as they want, allowing them to either stay anonymous or give us the information needed to contact them and quickly address the problem.”

Need Some Help?
Want to reach the online community but don’t have the time or resources? Key Communications Inc., publisher of USGlass magazine, offers the largest variety of electronic services and websites available to its active and engaged customers.

Take advantage of Key Communications’ expertise in designing:

• Online Advertisements – including banner ads and pop-ups;

• Electronic Newsletters;

• Broadcast E-mail;

• Online Calendar Listings;

• New Product Listings on the News Now Network; or

• Advertise your products and services on our glass.com™ online buyers guide, which averages almost 11,000 unique visitors per day!


Kristine Tunney is the assistant editor of USGlass.


USG

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