GRAND RAPIDS — Web sites that generate high traffic and keep people coming back for more have some characteristics in common.
Great sites work well functionally, they’re easy to navigate and they offer users content they can’t get elsewhere.
So say three local dot com experts who’ve been there, done that and continue to deliver mega-clicks for their clients.
Good Web sites start with a plan that involves a four-stage process. Steve Colthorpe, president and owner of 3C Studio, a Web, print and logo developer, starts by asking clients to answer the Five Ws.
Why do I need a site? Who is the target of the site? What is the site’s overall objective? Where will it be hosted and administered? When does the site need to be alive and functional? The final question is how much will my budget allow?
That’s the discovery stage: the stage where a site developer learns about the client’s business and the client learns about delivering information on the Internet, said Steve Lewis, owner and president of Fusionary Media, a company that specializes in Web design and interactive advertising CD-ROMs.
Then the designer has to create a design document outlining the target audience and various site objectives.
From there, Lewis said the process moves into the design stage, which is a combination of the visual aspects of pages and how content will be architecturally placed. Next is the actual development that includes the creation of pages for display and, in many cases, a database to manage content and users.
The final step is site launch. Lewis recommends small group testing of a site before launch to assure it’s technically ready for public debut.
“In the old days it was OK to put up a page that said “under construction,” but I don’t think that’s acceptable anymore,” he said. Neither are the “404 errors” indicating pages don’t exist.
Lewis sees great sites as incorporating five basic elements. A site must be usable and functional; its content must be pertinent and relevant to the targeted audience; it must offer customers good service; it must respect customers’ security and privacy; and it should be unique.
Uniqueness continues to be important because a lot of Web exploration still is going on, he said, and uniqueness often proves a big hit in the dot com world.
Usability and functionality mean a site must work. It can’t have any dead ends or broken links. It must be navigable and consistent throughout.
Part of the usability issue is speed of delivery, and whenever possible it’s best to minimize download time, even when a site is designed to be graphically rich.
“Knowing who the audience is and knowing what kind of technology they have access to gives you some insight as to what kind of pages can be built for and delivered to them in a reasonable amount of time,” he explained.
Ellyatt said that’s one thing Web designers always have to keep in mind.
“I have to remind myself every day that I’m not designing the site for someone who can fly around the Web at 300 miles an hour and knows where everything is; I’m designing it for somebody who has a degree of comfort on the Web but is still investigating it,” he said.
Graphics and other design elements provide “subjective satisfaction,” Lewis said, and are part of the overall usability equation.
Each Web graphic must have a function, Ellyatt explained. A graphic either has to highlight a product or, in certain cases, capture and express a company’s “mood” in terms of image and/or brand significance in the marketplace.
Graphics should be as small as feasibly possible in file size so they download quickly, even for users on slower modems.
Colthorpe’s firm shies away from bouncing, animated graphics and blinking text lines because they can annoy viewers and spur them to look elsewhere, he said. They tend to look unprofessional as well.
Good customer service includes accessibility to customer service representatives, accurate and consistent pricing, shipping schedules and privacy policies. Part of that, Lewis added, is respect for the individual.
“The unlawful selling of client data doesn’t make for a good site or a good company,” he noted. “A good site has to give users a sense of security and privacy.”
Ellyatt seconds that.
What level of interactivity to incorporate depends on the underlying purpose of the site. Interactivity that has a function is a valuable asset, Ellyatt pointed out, but interactivity for interactivity’s sake is a waste of everybody’s time.
“If you have a dancing dishwasher on the site just because the Web designer thought it was cool, that would be bad interactivity. That would be pointless,” Ellyatt remarked. “But if it was a children’s site, a dancing dishwasher might thoroughly enrapture a 6-year-old.”
Customization features that let users filter out or focus in on specific site content can be worthwhile if they offer users something truly tailored to suit their interests. If all a user gets is a “Hi, welcome back, David,” and there’s no actual content behind it, that’s ultimately pointless, Ellyatt said.
Common sense demands that site managers respond quickly to user inquiries, e-mail and other feedback. It’s what Colthorpe refers to as the Hello-is-anyone-there? factor.
“Lots of times people will get a site up and running and they think that’s all they need to do. People on the Internet want a snappy return,” he said, and lack of response can result in lost business.
Colthorpe offered a final word of advice: Don’t build a site on your own and don’t build it as you go. The end result is likely to function poorly and look amateurish.
For sites that require a lot of maintenance, the most economical approach is to have the Web developer build in a content management system, a private Web-based interface that clients can use on their own to publish new content and update product information.
For some clients, it’s more economical to have the Web developer maintain and update the site, Lewis said.