At the Politics Online conference yesterday, I participated in a panel entitled “Does Good Design Matter” (previous post here). In my opening discussion, I talked briefly about some common mistakes I see people make when building their websites. Here is a quick summary of what I said.

First, I think website design really consists of two things:

  1. What the site looks like (the brand)
  2. How well the site works (usability)

The instinct of most folks when building a website is to invest a great deal of energy into the overall look and very little into how usable the site is. In my opinion, this gets things backwards. I’m not advocating that people build ugly sites or not pay attentions to looks. Not at all. But, it is important to remember that, on the web, usability has just as much to do with your site’s brand as the overall look does.

Think about it. When you visit a site for the first time you definitely have an immediate reaction that is based entirely on how the site looks. The colors. The fonts. The pictures. Etc. Your brain processes this information quickly and then you go about the business of actually using the site. If the site doesn’t deliver in a usability sense (things are hard to find, forms don’t work, error messages aren’t in place, etc.), all the good will built up by that good first impression will be thrown out the window and the user will be left with a bad impression of your organization.

So my first piece of advice to folks building websites is to invest as much energy in usability as you do in agonizing over colors and font choices.

Second, always remember that content is the driving force behind any website. Design is there to serve the content. A blog that isn’t updated is going to fail no matter how pretty it is. The slickest tool for writing letters to the editor isn’t going to get used if you don’t provide a compelling reason for people to act.

Too many people think design is a panacea that can cover up content problems. “If we make our site really cool with lots of Flash animation and stuff, maybe people won’t notice that we only have two pages of content.” It doesn’t work. People know.

We actually struggled with this ourselves in developing our site, We got stuck trying to build something really design heavy and slick a few years back, because we weren’t focused enough on the conent. Below is what I wrote about our own struggles a few years back:

We’ve been contemplating a redesign of the main Bivings site for a couple of years, but the path forward only became clear the last few months. When thinking about a redesign previously we fell victim to our own ambition. We had grand plans and wanted to create something that was perfect. This sort of led to paralysis. We didn’t follow our own advice, which is to focus on usability and design that serves the content.

We finally started making progress when we shifted the focus to our blog. We decided to keep really simple and not to overwhelm folks with lots of brochure content they don’t want to read anyway. We brought our blog content front and center. Our goal with the new site is to tell the story of our company a little bit every day by writing about the projects we are working on and the things we are passionate about. We think this will be much more effective than producing some sort of slick, heartless brochure site.

So my second piece of advice would be to figure out your content strategy in advance of even contemplating a redesign.

Without compelling content, your website is not going to work that well no matter how slick the design.

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.