No-one wants to just look at a Web site - we want to use it

By Kate Lyons

The accepted wisdom is that Web design - in relation to marketing and
e-tail - has proceeded in leaps and bounds since the days of the 'moving
brochure' web site. And in some senses, at least in functionality, that
is true. Gone are the days when a customer, having gone to the trouble
to find a Web site, arrived to find a pretty but essentially useless
visual and a phone and fax number - something they could have found in
the Yellow Pages. Now web sites offer purchase, search and
personalisation functions, are critical in brand marketing and form a
vital cog in a company's marketing, distribution and operational

Now for the bad news. According to some Web design experts, the whole
trend may have gone too far the other way. Too many bells and whistles,
too many plug ins, too many added value offers and too much information
results in a Web site like a dog's breakfast. The customer visiting with
a clear purpose in mind - like buying a product and making the Web site
profitable - ends up confused and distracted and up to half leave
without what they came for. Which defeats the purpose of having a site
in the first place.

What's going wrong

Simon Van Wyk, managing director of one of Australia's foremost Web
development companies, Hothouse Interactive, is one strategist who
thinks Web design has actually gone backwards in relation to marketing
over the last few years.

"Too many sites confuse good design with large graphics and new
technology, and they also confuse innovation with stuff like animation,"
Van Wyk says. "Those of us who grew up building CD-Roms knew that highly
complicated highly animated interfaces didn't work. The latest crop of
designers have not had that training and when the brief says innovative,
they use flash and create something which is just unuseable. No-one
wants to just look at a Web site - they want to use it."

Matthew Walker, interactive strategist with Grey Interactive (the
interactive division of Grey Advertising), agrees with Van Wyk on the
bells and whistles problem and says too many Web sites show signs of
"designers running amok."

"For many sites now, people are there to shop. We have designed sites
for specific clients with no flash technology, because we know the
penetration rates for flash and other plug ins are low. Research has
shown that up to 40% of people encountering problems with plug ins for
example will leave the site and not come back. It's hard enough to get
customers there in the first place without actively discouraging their

Walker points out however that it is "horses for courses" - for example
youth audiences who are using a site for relaxed entertainment don't
mind increased download time and they want the bells and whistles
approach such as the use of flash technology. Other demographics are
actively suspicious of back end technology like cookies and
personalisation while some audiences recognise the value of personalised
Web experiences.

"You have to choose your tools carefully," Walker says.

How to do it right

Are there any trails being blazed in Web design in Australia at present?

Van Wyk says he is not sure whether trails can be blazed until marketers
get the basics right.

"Most design for the Web does not even recognise the fundamental fact
that the Web should be about 'me'. I'm the user, I'm in control."

After that, the number one issue to consider is download times.

"People don't want to wait and they don't really care much about how it
looks, they want it to work. Marketers need to establish what is the key
reason their site exists. Then give the site the appropriate focus.

"If the key reason for the site's existence is to sell, then get the
products up on the home page. If the key reason is to service customers,
get the log on up on the front page."

Web sites in general seem to becoming more cluttered by the minute.
However Van Wyk maintains that clutter itself is not always a problem.

"Have a look at a book page in Amazon for example. It's cluttered but
the sections are well defined and the navigation is in a logical place.
You always understand where you are going and how to get there.

"Another example is Yahoo, which is cluttered but users can cope because
its well defined and laid out."

Walker says that while some of the major Australian e-tailers like
Dstore and Wishlist are doing a good job, a key issue with e-commerce is
the need to work out what you are trying to do.

"If the customer is there to save time or money, you need to focus on
that particular offer. For example, Amazon when they sold books did
extremely well, but as soon as you broaden the offer, design gets
harder. It's not like you are in a shopping mall. A new category or
product is not a ten minute walk away, it's a click away to new
category. What is your focus? As soon as you have decided on that,
design and functionality start to mesh together."

Another vital priority is consistency of brand marketing through design
once a user arrives at a site and the ability to deliver on promise once
you get there.

A classic example says Walker of what not to do is the recent case of a
marketer using sex to sell in a banner ad. When users arrived at the
site, it had nothing to do with the banner at all.

"It's all about 360 degree branding, from site to transaction to
fulfillment. Word of mouth is still the strongest form of advertising
and if someone has a bad experience - long download, plug in problems,
lack of consistency or functionality in navigation - they will tell a

Return to basics

As Walker points out, even when Web design was in its infancy, the basic
tenets were functionality, navigation and usability.

"Now they are being forgotten in the rush for the new and the flashy,
and being lost in a barrage of over-information."

Van Wyk says that good design is 100% about meeting the customer's
expectations and on the Web that means considering how a user interacts
with design.

"You have to focus on what the customer wants to be successful. Too much
design is usually about what a 22 year old designer thinks is cool or
hip, not what the customer needs or wants."