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Good Web Design: Who Decides?

Evan Maier

Internet connectionEver since AOL thrust its way into the homes of millions of Americans in the early 90's, the internet (as most common users know it) has been based on one principle: your experience online will constantly change to keep things fresh.  Of course, back in the good ol' days of dialup, information was being brought in at 56 kilobits per second, so websites, even as they underwent re-envisionings, were pretty light on design and heavy on text.  Needless to say, things weren't exactly changing at the speed of light.  These days, with broadband, static IPs, and even mobile data that would make your dusty dial-up modem weep, websites have much more agility and flexibility than ever before.  So it should come as no surprise that websites today, regardless of industry or target demographic, and the marketers who oversee them are much more apt to experiment with new ways of presenting their brands online.  But with an online ecosystem based on the precedent of near-constant updating, any brand is bound to experience redesign blunders.  So who, at the end of the day, decides whether a site is up to snuff?

If you're a marketer, brand manager, etc., you are undoubtedly raising your hand right now.  Yes, it's true: you are in charge of driving your brand, establishing the image you want to portray, knowing your customers inside and out, etc.  But unfortunately, brand identity and effective design are not one in the same.  Look at all those design-heavy sites that cropped up when Flash became the hot new thing online.  Yes, branders were thrilled with such polished, limitless, "eye-catching" design on their websites, but these slow loading, cumbersome, often convoluted microsites were really nothing more than gorgeous wrapping paper around a big, empty box.  Marketers are good at a lot of things brand-related, but fine-tuning an online experience isn't one of them.

What about designers and web architects?  Surely those who conceive of websites from early wireframes to final design flourish are the ones we look to to stamp a site as "effective," right?  Wrong.  Those in web development specialize in taking the abstractions provided by marketers and turning them into a reality online.  Sometimes, old paradigms are leveraged to create something that is familiar and accessible.  Other times, a design & development crew is tasked with creating something new and different.  But in each of these cases, the team pouring their blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids into the sites they are developing is going to carry an enormous bias on their work.  Inevitably, design and development staff are going to be met with one looming, unshakable question: does it meet the client's demands?  So unless you have a client saying "I don't know what we're looking for, but give me something that works," chances are those developing your site are going to be too close to the work to adequately judge it.

In truth, it is ultimately up to your users to determine whether your website works or not.  From details as minute as text size or image placement to things as complex as usage scenarios and gaps in navigation logic, your users will undoubtedly find, probably within minutes of your flipping the switch, what works and what needs to go on your site.  Give them an unfavorable experience and you risk losing your userbase entirely.  Give them a solid experience and they are not only likely to come back, but will look to you as a cutting edge brand online.  And who doesn't want to be viewed as cutting edge?

So what's the takeaway from all this?  If anything, it's that you can't solely rely on one source to create a website that works.  While web designers, developers, and the marketers that feed them ideas are important, they simply aren't the deciding factor in whether a site works or not.  It's a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees: of course those who toil day in and day out with something aren't going to be able to judge it objectively.

But even more importantly, because the web is a constantly changing beast preventing anything from ever truly being "complete," you should think of your website as an opportunity to survey your userbase.  And in branding, testing is as important as having a solid brand in the first place.  So listen to your users, engage them with social media tools, and give them an opportunity to share their thoughts in surveys, community boards, or in your blog's comments section.  You never know what insights you will gain from your users, but rest assured any insights will only help keep your brand moving forward.  And these days, it's anything but easy playing catch-up online.