Websites: Aesthetics & Usability

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Web Site Series, Essay 04: Aesthetics & Usability

This is the fourth article in a six-part series on web sites–what to know, how to make your web presence successful, and other points to consider.

I will be discussing for the first time ever, my real-life Creative Brief I send to all potential clients. This is proprietary information, so please don’t copy anything I say without asking and/or providing credit.

Ideally, at this point you have a fair idea of the fonts, colors, and general layout. You know whether or not you have a logo and/or slogan and you’ve identified the key features to be present on every page, including the navigation.

Before actually beginning to create your site, however, it’s a good idea to take a look at what else is already out there.

1. List any URL(s) of web sites you find compelling or persuasive. Describe what you find most appealing about these web sites.

The first list you make is of web sites who get it right.

This does not mean competitors–it means successful web sites in general. Perhaps your list contains eBay, YouTube and Amazon. Or maybe your list contains Wikipedia, Facebook, and Meetup. This should be specific to you, sites you find compelling.

Ask yourself, from which websites did you actually use the contact form or purchase a product or sign up for a newsletter? Whose web site was attractive? Whose was easy to navigate? Whose has the best content? Whose did you visit more than once? Whose did you bookmark or forward to a friend?

Once you have this list, analyze what about those sites made them work for you, and what made you act, whether by bookmarking and forwarding or by using shopping carts and interactive forms. If it was the design, what about the design? If the layout, what about the layout? If the content, what about the content? Etc.

2. List any URL(s) of web sites you find displeasing or bothersome. Describe what you find most displeasing about these web sites.

This list is of web sites who get it wrong.

Again, this does not mean competitors–it means horrendous web sites in general. Perhaps this list includes that map site you used once and never again, or that game site that never loaded properly, or that free email site with all the banner ads, or that web portal with more popups than actual content, or that online catalog whose shopping cart system never did work right.

Ask yourself, what made you run away screaming? Why did you never return? Was it the colors? Legibility? Download time? Layout? Navigation? Content? Tone? Distracting images? Too many ads? Actual page errors? Broken links? If you tried to interact with the web site and couldn’t, what went wrong?

Once you have this list, analyze what made the site too much of a hassle to bother with. If it was the interface, what about the interface? If it was impossible to find what you were looking for, which elements should’ve been in plain view on the home page? If it was too busy or cluttered, which elements could’ve been removed altogether? Etc.

3. List URL(s) of competitors’ web sites and explain what you like or dislike about their overall web sites.

Ah ha! This is the list where you finally compare other authors’ web sites. You now know what elements tend to work or not work, and you can look at their sites objectively.

Because of this, you can also keep an eye out for industry related things they do–or don’t do–that you may wish to implement on your site. Do they have an awesome, easy-to-play book video right on their home page? Maybe you want to put yours there, too. Or is their video a giant monster, taking up the whole screen as well as five long minutes to download? Maybe you don’t want yours on your home page.

Look at where other authors place some of the elements you’ve decided to include in your web site. Are the elements prominent or hidden? What will make your layout easier for your readers, your content more relevant, your navigation more intuitive?

4. List your key competition. How does your product/brand differentiate itself from competitors?

First, a giant disclaimer to say I personally believe that in our industry, unlike almost any other, we do not have competitors in the truest sense of the word.

If you’re car shopping, you’re as unlikely to buy an Aston Martin and an F150 as you are to drop by the convenience store for a bottle of Coke and a Pepsi.

If you’re browsing for books on the other hand, as a reader you are actually more likely to walk out with the latest King, Koontz, Lumley and Barker, than you are to just buy one book. (Or Kleypas, Quinn, Hoyt and Balogh. Or Crusie, Rowe, Davidson and Evanovich. Whatever.)

If you write mysteries, for example, Mary Higgins Clark is not your arch nemesis. Every new reader she entices to your genre is one more reader with the potential to fall in love with your books. Every debut author, every New York Times bestseller, every news release or billboard ad or book signing or podcast interview, all help to increase the size of the market.

This is a Very Good Thing. We are in this together and should concentrate on helping each other. (Plus, you will be indirectly helping yourself. Mua ha haa!! *g)

That said, even if you do write mysteries, you do not want your web site to look exactly like Mary Higgins Clark’s. Perhaps fans of A Cry in the Night would love to read your books too, but you still need to differentiate yourself to show them why.

You want them to recognize your brand, to add your name to their subconscious auto-buy list of favorite authors.

Even if you have mediocre (or no) sales, you don’t have to have a mediocre web site. Make yours rock!

NEXT: Hosting & Technology

This article first began as a September 4, 2007 writer blog post.