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IN WEBSITE DEVELOPMENT,
A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE CAN BE
A DANGEROUS THING

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In the Sunday Times of January 22, 2006, there was a rather good article on website design - called 'What kids can teach us'.

At least the article was good if you read - and understood - it all.

Unfortunately, the title, sub header and first couple of paragraphs put a different slant on the content by suggesting certain elements of web design are a good thing. It is only when you read on that the content includes warnings on the judicious use of some of the practices being promoted. Indeed, there is a 'Golden rules for an engaging site' text box which makes several issues clear.

The sub header reads 'Websites for children lead the way in design, interactivity and eye-catching multimedia. [the author] shows how much grown-up favourites have yet to learn'

Remember I am writing this as a marketer, and it is this kind of headline [read without taking on-board the rest of the content] that has business owners and managers demanding that they have websites that meet this criterion - particularly the 'eye-catching multimedia' bit. And sure, for a very few sites this is true. But for the majority of commercial websites it is not the case.

The Sunday Times article mentions - as an example - absolute.com. Certainly, this site has some cutting edge multimedia in its design [at least it does on my T1 line-connected PC, let's assume that individuals in the vodka brand's target market also have the same facility]. But what is this site? Its objective is one of branding - not sales, direct or otherwise. How many businesses can afford this sort of financial input into branding? And what is the ROI of the site? I would hope that Absolute's marketers have a handle on that question - and have put in place the analytics to see if they achieved that ROI.

The article also mentions children's websites that offer interactivity, with users [children] adding to content. This is also excellent, but rarely useful on an e-commerce site. Though I do acknowledge that endorsements and customer driven FAQ-type chat rooms do help foster vendor-customer relationships, such facilities are normally associated with sites that provide premium content in order to generate traffic and so increase advertising income.

The article features the opinions of one Beth Porter, author of 'The Net Effect', and one paragraph reads; 'Interactivity - or the lack of it - is her [Porter's] pet grouse. Interactivity is the unique asset that distinguishes the web from other media, yet many websites do not take advantage of it, preferring to rely on uninspiring text-based design instead.'

Whilst not taking anything away from the skills required for the 'multimedia' sites, research [and logic] says that customers use the web as a source of information as an element of their buyer behaviour. Apart from a limited use of images, the vast majority of that information is best presented in textual format - and professionally written text at that [but that is another rant]. I suppose 'uninspiring' could refer to the lack of quality in the text, but in context I read this comment to mean 'uninspiring as opposed to multimedia design'. I'm sorry, words inspire. In commercial terms, words sell things. Demonstrations of multimedia design ability do not. Web designers should be reminded of where their wages come from. Ultimately, they come from the customer. If the website does not in some way generate income there is no wage. Full stop.

As a footnote to this rant. I am fully aware of the technology skills required to engineer 'back end' facilities. These skills are essential to the successful e-commerce website. My argument is about what the user [customer] sees. Techies of the world - or anyone else who disagrees with my views - who are now fashioning Alan Charlesworth voodoo dolls in which to stick pins should take time out to visit Amazon, eBay, Google, MSN, AOL [the most visited sites on the web]. They use some brilliant behind-the-scenes technology - but what the user sees is clear, well presented, usable, easily navigated, quick to download web pages - made up mainly of well written, well managed, well edited textual content. And that's not written by kids.

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