Billions of people use the Web every day. A web presence is a necessity for any professional or company—and for most individuals, too. If Google can’t find you, you might as well not exist.
Yet most people persist in thinking of the Web as flat.
It’s an understandable mistake. After all, we interact with websites on flat screens. Even at smartwatch size, computer screens remind us of televisions and picture frames. We can’t see the Web in three dimensions.
Back in the Nineties when the World Wide Web was invented, desktop publishing was just starting to take off as inkjet printers improved in resolution. Because humans always approach new inventions in terms of more familiar technologies, we talked about web “pages” and did our best to make them look like print documents—not an easy task at the time.
This history goes a long way toward explaining why most people think of their websites as brochures. But building a website is not like creating a brochure. Your website doesn’t have to sit frozen and inalterable once it’s been published. Nor should it: no one is going to come back to your static “Home, About, Services, Contact” pages if they won’t find anything new there when they go back.
Building a website is like building a car. It’s made up of moving parts, and its purpose is to take you somewhere. The first thing you have to do is decide is not what it should look like. It’s where you want it to take you.
If your car is taking you across the country, you’ll want something that’s comfortable enough to sit in all day and gets good gas mileage. That means that although it might be good-looking, it won’t fall into the “chick magnet” category.
If it’s taking you around a racetrack, you need power and speed, so you’re going to sacrifice comfort and fuel efficiency.
If you have to take the entire extended family with you on your trip, you can’t get a two-seater sportscar. Again, there are trade-offs: I have never seen a bus or minivan that I would describe as “sexy,” or a Corvette that you could put six people in without breaking the law.
A website’s purpose helps to determine its design. Of course there’s room for variation within the constraints imposed by function, but have you noticed how similar all four-door sedans look? It’s hard to tell a Nissan Sentra from a Ford Fusion, a Chevy Cruze, or a Hyundai Sonata without actually looking at the logo.
Websites with similar purposes tend to share many elements. If you’ve been to one e-commerce store, you can probably find your way around the others—and if you can’t, it means the owner or her web development team have sacrificed user experience in the name of clever design. That in turn results in lost sales because shoppers can’t figure out how to buy.
Don’t hire a designer until you know what you need to build. I might even say “don’t hire a designer until after you talk to a developer,” but that would be self-serving. But do remember that although Photoshop is a great tool, it’s not the place to start planning a new web project.
Don’t hire someone who has only done print design, or your developer may find herself trying to put the body of a sportscar over the chassis of a minivan. You can waste a lot of time and money if you aren’t sure what you’re doing.
Do hire someone to help you develop a content strategy if you aren’t sure where your website needs to take you. If you don’t know who and what you’re taking on your trip (the content), or where you need to go (the goal), or how you are planning to get there (the function), you’ll end up with the wrong tool for the job.
There’s nothing like spending thousands of dollars on a website that doesn’t grow your business. It’s like wrecking your new Ferrari the day after you buy it. If you don’t want your website to end up on the scrap heap, repeat after me before you hire an agency: “A website is not a brochure. It’s a machine.”