The beautiful thing about web sites is that they’re everywhere.
The un-beautiful thing about web sites is that 75% of the design I see in smaller towns and cities is circa 1996, about the year we all got on the Internet. What do I mean? I mean that the web sites are appalling in the same way that “desktop publishing” has been appalling since the 1980s.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, any damned fool with a Macintosh could put together a brochure, albeit not a great one. However, the pendulum slowly swung back, so that you rarely see the term “desktop publishing” anymore.
That’s good and bad. Good because we don’t have to hear that oxymoron anymore. Bad because now the really awful designers just call themselves “graphic designers” even though they’ve never had a single course in design, typography, or illustration nor can they explain any reasoning behind their work.
I don’t really want to brag, because I am not the world’s greatest designer. However, I did earn a masters degree in design and therefore am allowed to say a thing or two about a thing or two.
Deconstructing web sites
To start our first review, I’ve picked a web site out of the air. Well, not exactly out of the air. I did a search on “communications” companies in and around Newport News, VA.
Home page (http://www.widomaker.com/index.html)
Mission: From what I can tell, WidoMaker offers residential and business Internet services, web hosting, web site design, and a few other things. Naturally, each of these services has choices.
Web design is about more than just looks, but looks are important.
So let’s review WidoMaker’s layout.
It’s a website-in-a-box, as many were in the mid to late 90s. “WidoMaker” is inexplicably spelled the way it is and overlaid on a globe. Another globe, to the right, has a lot of cables floating about, implying multiple kinds of connections. I don’t think that Spiderman 2 had been filmed before this time, but this graphic reminds me of Otto Octavius.
There are three menus — top, body, and footer. That’s OK, if they’re each useful. And there’s also a list of “blue links” to help out in case you’re still not sure where to go from the three existing menus.
I like the idea of advertising rates on the front page, and in a left-hand rectangle there’s a slide show that rotates several images, with an opportunity to click for details. The rotation of the slides is less annoying than on some web pages, but it’s not really necessary at all. Why not bring your customers in from a single, non-distracting ad? If you do that, then you’ve brought them one page deeper into your site, and not offended anyone.
Also, the quality of the images is rough (a lot of pixel bleeding), and the typography (selection and size of fonts), is a little inconsistent and uses way too many typefaces.
Underneath this advertising box is the address and phone number. Yay! I love it when companies put this information in a clear, easy-to-find spot. My only criticism here is that the information is actually misleading. There’s a phone number and ALSO a link to “Contact Us.” If you click on “Contact Us,” you’ll find that there are different phone numbers, depending on which location you want to call and whether you’re calling about, say, accounting or support. To fix this, you could put all three locations’ phone numbers on the front page, perhaps with the hours, and then offer staff email addresses on the linked page.
Let’s go to the second column, where there’s the perfunctory image of a young woman. We’re not sure why she’s here, because she’s not holding a telephone or installing equipment. Is she a business customer? Eye candy? Something tells me this photograph was inspired by the gratuitous tendency by some of us (men) to put pretty women on the covers of tech publications.
The title “Business Services” is below this woman’s picture. Here’s the thing: I can guarantee that most of the people who visit this web site are women. But even if that weren’t the case, why not use a photograph of an actual business service? An installation, or a phone call, or something aside from a smiling young woman? Show the unexpected, perhaps — a young woman installing some kind of device. Or a man answering the phone. People are most interested in the unusual and will stick around for more.
Let’s look at the copy: “Hampton Roads’ businesses are hosting sites and connections with us” is the first sentence. (Probably not the first sentence you’ll read on the page. Likely that will be the title “Surf the web without waiting.”) First, it states the obvious. You’ve just read the title, “Business Services,” so you’d expect that Widomaker serves the business community. Redundant and unpersuasive.
Same with the second line: “They trust us to deliver the maximum up time for their needs.” When you have an audience, you speak to that audience. Don’t refer to them in the third person. “They” will feel the disconnect. Use the second person.
The copy could read (although this is just off the top of my head), “Thank you for entrusting us with your valuable business service. Whether you need a small web site or broadband for your Fortune 500 business, we can help. We’re good, and we never sleep.”
Point is: You talk directly to your customers, let them know how valuable they are to you, and that you will do everything in your power to serve them well. That’s what people want to read in a case like this.
In other words, don’t talk about yourself and your company. Talk to your customers about their needs, and give them what they want. LL Bean and Harley Davidson got this message a long time ago.
Now for the iconic navigation (begins with “Members Start Page”). This is the second of three navigation areas on the page. And that’s just fine. People are often drawn to icons, and perhaps these mimic pictures they’re using to seeing in print materials. That would be the ideal.
The only problem is that I’m not quite sure what they mean, and some of them are redundant with other navigation on the page. Say it once and say it well, people! The Members Start Page, I assumed, would be a page for new members. Not so. It’s the page that Widomaker wants you to save as your log-in page (I think). That page is messy, much larger in its dimensions than the other pages (ACK!), and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to read, or why. I also found that the top navigation bar is entirely different on this page! ACK! In fact, if you click “home” you don’t get back to the main Widomaker site at all. This is like a web site within a web site. To get back to widomaker.com, you’d have to use the back button. Sigh.
Service and Support appears to be not so much about Service as it is about Support Documents. These are documents that might help you if you have a problem. Maybe this could have been renamed as an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page? On the other hand, if your customers have a problem with connectivity, what then? They can’t even reach your Support Documents.
OMG! I just realized that the snowy banner on this page is different than the home page version. Hmmm. We’ve been swept onto another web site without any notice or any apparent reason.
Recommended Software takes you to a page that simply lists browsers and so forth with no guidance. Some are PC applications, and some are Apple Macintosh.
When I see pages like this, I think, “WWMMD (What Would My Mother Do)?” Never, ever assume that your audience is primarily 20-year-old geeks, or that they know anything for that matter. I’m not crazy about the Verizon site that my mother does use, but this one would throw her for a loop.
How about helping the customer find information??
WebMail Access simply takes you to an online mail area. But note that nowhere, not even under the “Email” docs on the Service and Support page, do I find information about how to bring my widomaker email into my desktop email program so that I don’t have to visit this web site, except in emergencies. What I do find on the Service and Support page are some esoteric docs such as “Setup Port 587” (set up would be two words in this case). Why on earth would anyone WANT to set up Port 587? OK, I know the answer because I work in web technology. But believe me, I’m the only person in my large circle of friends who does. Make these documents user friendly, so that people don’t have to dial your phone number.
I did find one page that I find outstanding. It is: http://weblog.widomaker.com/. On this page Widomaker staff and administrators post information about phone scams, office closures, and service outages. This page is exceedingly clear and welcome. Thank you!
Lastly, let me talk about the footer. There is bottom navigation that just isn’t pretty, and deals purely with specific kinds of services customers might be seeking. It’s great to offer the services, but let’s show some sense of typography, OK?
And before anyone says, “Hey, lookit, we’re just a web company, OK? You can’t expect us to know EVERYTHING.” Well, no, we don’t. We do expect you to hire competent designers to do your work, though. Because if your web site doesn’t look professional, neither do your services.
If you’re not a designer, find someone who is. Just because you have a computer does not make you a designer.
And, please, make your own web site good looking before you go advertising that you provide web sites for other people.
Before you call yourself a web designer …
As you can see on Widomaker’s web site, hourly prices are given for web design. Do you think that’s user friendly? How does a potential customer know how many hours he or she will need? I’d suggest either a flat fee, a range, or estimates based on number of pages, and without add-ons such as e-commerce, blogs, and so forth.
An overhaul with user friendliness in mind would be a great thing for your customers! The Me generation is over. Welcome to the generation that cares about what its customers want.
Overall: Poor design, poor typography, poor usability, some good ideas.
- Usability Issues in Web Site Design (tc.eserver.org)
- Web Site Retention – Reward Level (lockergnome.com)
- Stanford-Makovsky Web Credibility Study 2002: Investigating What Makes Web Sites Credible Today (tc.eserver.org)
- Examining the Usability of Web Site Search (tc.eserver.org)
- Help me hire a web designer (ask.metafilter.com)