What Makes for Great Web Design?
Techniques and tools have changed, but readability, usability and visitor engagement are still key.
Writing about website design in 2020 feels a bit like “dancing about architecture”, as the saying goes.
However, if you’ve taken a look around the web lately, you’ve probably seen a lot of talk about user experience and readability, without any evidence that anyone has given thought to the visual design of a web page in the past two decades.
So, let’s talk about web design, the latest techniques and tools, important design and deployment considerations, and the most effective ways to attract your ideal target audience to your website, engage them, and convert them into customers.
Web Design Tools & Techniques
User Experience Design
Web design, like art photography or artistic painting means that everyone can convince themselves that they are an “expert”. You’ve probably heard the expression that opinions are like…well, let’s just say, everyone has opinions.
If the stakeholders of the business have any say in it, the best web design and user experience for a the website is the design that leads to the most sales and conversions.
So what makes for the best user experience on a website?
Fortunately, we can rely on data, and not just opinions, to make that judgement.
Tools like Google Optimize can compare the interaction and dwell time of a user on two different versions of a webpage. In this way, a website’s optimal design can be decided by a user “vote”.
Design changes used to be much more difficult than it is today. It is now easier than ever to create wireframes and even full design mockups for clients which can be iterated until (nearly) everyone is satisfied.
And again, two competing designs can be compared by tools like Optimize to cast the most important vote: the vote of the user.
Let’s take a look a bit at the history of web design to see where we were, and how fortunate we are to be where we are in 2020.
Early on in the history of web design, websites were built using an approach akin to building a jigaw puzzle.
Designers would first create graphic designs in Adobe Photoshop, then “slice” the image created into smaller pieces, which would be set into HTML tables.
This was a very intricate and time-consuming method of design, as any changes typically would need to be re-done in Photoshop, re-exported into various little images, and placed back into the layout tables.
Believe it or not, this technique is still being used, although typically with CSS and not HTML tables, as “tableless” design became all the rage after a website called CSS Zen Garden popularized the CSS-first approach.
In the early 2000s, web content management systems were born. Content management systems are sophisticated database back ends that allow editors and authors and other such content creators the ability to publish content without worrying about the nuts and bolts.
The earliest systems did a decent job of actually managing content, with very few options for presenting that content.
Without getting too deep into the weeds of the various CMS options available today, we can relatively easily crown the winner of the CMS wars: WordPress, the system that powers over 75 million websites throughout the world.
WordPress is constantly updated, and a great variety of tools have emerged that integrate well into the system, including ecommerce and design process plug-ins that make building and maintaining a WordPress site a breeze.
Web Page Builders
We have come a long ways since the early days of Photoshop-first web design.
Waaaay back in 1995, Microsoft was the first company to release a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) web page builder called Frontpage.
Fontpage had a horrible user interface, and was terribly difficult to navigate and use. On the other hand, as bad as it looks in retrospect, this program was actually a major trailblazer, and gives one cause to wonder why Microsoft fell so far behind on this wacky new thing called the “Internet”.
Fortunately, we have come a very long ways from these early days, and newer WordPress page builders like Divi, Elementor, Beaver Builder and the like make it easier than ever to actually create very fully-featured and well-designed websites.
In short, there are no more technical excuses for bad web designs.
Search Engines & SEO
In the early 2000s, the Google search engine began its meteoric rise to prominence.
Google searches now comprise over 90% of all search traffic worldwide.
WordPress was designed from the ground up to be “search engine friendly”, and the success of WordPress is in large part due to the fact that sites built on this system are very fast and use “SEO-friendly URLs”.
Here’s a quick example to easily illustrate this concept:
- Mean URL: mywebsite.com/index.php?category=toys&item=plushdoggie&color=white
- Friendly URL: mywebsite.com/toys/plushdoggie/white
The speed of a website, or the time it takes a website to load and be visible to the user, is a key ranking factor in Google. A good web designer will ensure that their images and code load quickly to ensure that the great content is seen by as many visitors as possible.
With the right plug-ins, search engine optimization and speed optimization on a WordPress website is a breeze compared to the arduous, time-consuming SEO process on a raw HTML website.
Responsive Web Design
In the middle of the last decade, searches on smartphones became so prevalent that Google started using what it called “mobile-first indexing” on many websites.
“Mobile-first” means that websites that are highly-usable and readable on mobile devices are given a higher ranking than those that are not.
That sent alarms out over the internet, and caused a great deal of headaches for businesses whose websites did not adhere to responsive design principles.
Of course, the most obvious difference between web browsers on desktop computers and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones is the screen size.
Responsive web designs adapt the website’s front end so that the resulting web pages are easily readable and usable. A common design mistake is putting clickable elements too close together such that a user’s fingers could not easily select one element or the other (a menu item, for example).
Responsive designs owe a debt of gratitude to the black art of CSS stylesheets and html5, something most of us will never need to think about (thank goodness!)
Ultimately, a website should be compelling on desktop with any size browser, as well as a variety of tablets and smartphones.
Google even has a tool to check for “mobile friendliness”. Sometimes it’s an eye-opener to run your current website on it!
No discussion of web design would be complete without at least a mention of the incredible rise of social media.
At one point, most of the internet consisted of a few search engines and a blizzard of bespoke websites belonging to various companies trying to conduct ecommerce and sell things to their users.
Then a website called MySpace.com was born, and everyone said “Oh, I can just post on MySpace, and I don’t need my own website!”
MySpace was so huge for a while, that Rupert Murdoch’s company scooped it up for a cool $580 million.
Then Facebook came along and stole MySpace’s thunder, and eventually, lunch money. Today, there are 1.69 Billion users on Facebook.
And now other social properties like Instagram, Whatsapp, Reddit, LinkedIn and a kazillion others have also burst on to the scene and boast millions of users.
So, why not just put a Facebook or LinkedIn page up for your business, and leave it at that?
Because you don’t control Facebook. Or any other social property.
You merely rent property on social media, until they kick you off, change their business model, or go out of business.
Ultimately, the only web property you control is your own website.
Of course, you can and should still take advantage of the eyeballs on these social media properties in order to engage your target audience and drive traffic to your own website.
Just don’t get too comfortable there.
These days, the tools and techniques of web development have become very sophisticated. This allows us to focus on the marketing message and the creation of an optimized sales funnel to maximize the prospect conversion rate.
So how come most websites still offer such a poor user experience and bad interface design?
A quick scan of blog designs reveals that very few have paid any actual attention to user experience (or “ux design”) and readability.
A very few websites, such as Medium and Forbes, are decent.
And newspaper websites like the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, are good reads. Let’s face it: those bastions of the old-guard have been paying attention to readability for many more years than most web companies.
That leaves a huge swath of everyone else.
Let’s look at some of the most important design considerations of a professional website.
The poorly-understood art of typography is of great value as it pertains to website usability.
Typography enthusiasts have a language all their own: fonts, kerning, tracking, leading, justified, serif vs. sans-serif, baseline grid, etc. These are all measurements and modalities that the typeface interacts with the background and page.
Many of these terms date back to Gutenberg, the fella who invented the printing press!
The single most important factor boils down to this: does this font, paragraph style and overall layout make me want to keep reading, or move on?
For years, I’ve been telling people that the single most important factor to creating a great website is great photography.
My advice has changed slightly with the introduction of video, but photography is still extremely important.
Bad photography can make the most beautiful web design look terrible.
Great photography can make even the worst web design at least look decent.
Photos must be processed carefully to preserve the look of the picture, while making the size of the image as compact as possible. As we know, Google ranks fast websites higher than slow websites, all things being equal (of course, all things are never equal!)
Your website photography is a reflection of the character and quality of your business. Hiring a professional photographer is one of the best investments you can make to ensure that your business comes alive to your ideal prospects.
One common workaround to hiring a photographer is to utilize stock photography. Stock photographs are pre-shot photos of businesses or situations that reflect the kind of business that you do, and the types of clients that you want.
Unfortunately, stock photos usually have a very characteristic and generic look, and are easily spotted by sophisticated eyes.
If you can afford to, it’s always best to hire a professional commercial photographer so that you can achieve a high-end, custom look to your business.
Seeing the owner, their colleagues, employees and even other customers will go a long way towards cementing your businesses image in the minds of your ideal client prospects.
While readability is the most important factor of a text-based web page, interaction design is where most of the action has been for the past twenty years.
Little usability touches like slide-out menus, mobile menus, accordion selectors, buttons and carousels have all made their splash and are generally considered today to be par for the course.
Recently, accessibility has come to the forefront, and websites should always have the ability to cater to the visually impaired or otherwise-impaired visitors.
Video in Web Design
While Google loves correctly-tagged images and infographics (little graphics that visually convey otherwise dry statistics), everybody (including and especially Google!) loves video.
One old marketing saying is that people do business with people who they know, like and trust. And what better way to get people to know, like and trust you and your company, than by making simple videos? A few easy ideas:
- You talking about your business
- You talking with your employees and colleagues
- Your customers talking about your wonderful business
Video has made a tremendous difference in the ability to communicate and connect with a target audience.
And video is extremely easy to integrate into your web design.
Finding the Best Web Design Companies
So how do you find the best web design company to build the perfect website for your company?
Unfortunately, it’s nearly as difficult as ever to find a great web design company. Perhaps more so with the prevalence of spammy “Web Design Awards” websites that exist merely as paid redirects to web designers who have paid to be listed as “winners”.
Understandably, the AI doesn’t yet exist to sort the wheat from the chaff of web design.
Artistic Sensibilities of the World
Generally speaking, the majority of designers in a particular country create websites that appeal to the sensibilities of that country.
A few countries seem to produce designers who are able to move away from their own innate sensibilities, and create web designs that appeal to users in a target country.
A quick scan of the various web design company’s portfolios from around the world will likely convince you of these heuristics.
In my experience, the best web designers in the United States appeal to U.S. sensibilities, and the worst web designers in the United States are as bad as the worst anywhere! Just because you find a web designer in the U.S. for a U.S.-based audience, it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve hit paydirt.
Games Portfolios Play
One common mistake that many people make when searching for a web designer is to assign too much importance to one or two of the best designs in the artist’s portfolio.
“Well, if they can design like that, then they can build us a great website too.”
Very often, a web designer or graphic designer is assigned a task, but their own design sensibilities do not produce any design mockups with which the client is satisfied.
The client then takes over as defacto Art Director, and arduously pushes the designer step-by-agonizing-step to a design that they would have never created on their own.
Generally, a designer’s Photoshop or Illustrator chops will allow them to render what is instructed. However, the responsible party for the actual design is the client.
A couple of great designs in a web designer’s portfolio has led me astray more times than I care to admit.
Interview With the Web Designer
Meeting your web design team in person is usually not necessary, but it doesn’t hurt. In any case, speaking with your web designer before hiring them will tell you a lot about them.
Ask yourself: “Is this person just nodding to seem agreeable and win my business, or are they actually contributing great ideas that I would never have thought of myself?”
Can they communicate clearly? Are they eager to take guidance? Would you rather they create you something better than you could have ever conceived of yourself?
When interviewing web designer candidates, be sure to ask to see as many designs as they can point you to.
In addition, ask them for the cost to the client for each design. You’re sure to get some eye-opening and very helpful numbers this way, but you also might find that great web design means you need a pro web designer, and not your neighbor’s kid.
Once you find out the answers to these most essential questions, it’s time to find out a bit about their philosophy of business website design.
A visually-pleasing design is essential, but ultimately, the website must perform a business function: attract and retain visitors, and convert visitors into sales.
The website must first attract search engines, or your ideal prospects will never know your business exists.
If the architecture of the website is correctly implemented, search engines will understand and “love” the website, rewarding your business with search traffic (visitors). This requires being familiar with a great deal of concepts that are often beyond the scope of some designers.
Your web designer should be strong with the aforementioned SEO best-practices. Moreover, they should be able to guide you in the decisions you make as it relates to your messaging and sales funnel functionality.
Ultimately, you must let your own taste be your guide.
You’ll be living with the results of your decision for likely several (or many!) years to come.
In any case, a web design is not “forever”, as businesses change, priorities change, new products and services come out. Any of these things may be cause for a website redesign, or not.
I’m not surprised that great web design hasn’t changed much since it first began as a service.
Principles of readability, visual interest and overall user experience have always been, and will always be, the most important factors in a great web design.