Website Design PT4: Competition in a Digital World

Web Design
In creating an event website for the SEPG North America Conference, we researched what features other event websites were implementing.

by Therese Joseph, Shift PR Fellow

Just as technology is advancing the way we do business, so it is also advancing who we are competing against.  In order to retain your competitive edge in the digital landscape, you need to be aware of who your new competitors are and how you are measuring up against your competition.

Who are your competitors?

Competition is a major part of doing business.  It always has been.  However, when you enter into the digital landscape of social media and websites, your competition is no longer limited to other businesses in your industry.  When one of your customers is on your website, they are looking at more than just the services you provide in comparison to other industry competitors.  They are also looking at how your website compares to every other website they’ve been on.  And because your customers are making these comparisons, it means your competition just grew a bit wider.

Industry competitors

These are the people you are accustomed to competing against.  You know who they are.  Your competition extends into the digital world whether they are there or not.  If they’re not, all the better. Get there first!

Amazing, user-friendly websites

In the mind of your customers, these websites are the easiest to use and navigate.  Their questions are answered before they ask. Information is always located exactly where they expect to find it.  It can include companies like Google, Facebook, and more.  The secret behind these websites are their user-centered approach to designing their website.  To learn more about that approach, check out our previous article, Website Design: You Have Users.

How do I compare to my competition?

The easiest way to find this out is to check out what your competitors are doing and then compare with yourself.  This is often called competitive benchmarking.  Competitive benchmarking allows you to look out into the world and see what others are doing.  This provides you with two important pieces of information:

1//  What everyone is else doing that your not.  In order to stay competitive with your competition you  need to be aware of where you are falling behind.

2//  What everyone else is not doing that you are.  This outcome has two possibilities, depending on circumstances.  It can either mean you are wasting time and money towards something that is not worth it.  Or it could mean that you have the competitive advantage over your competition, and this is an area where you can invest to completely blow everyone else away.

What should I compare between websites?

Again, this can vary specifically between industries and business-types.  You have to decide what are the most important comparisons to make for your business.  Comparisons in a competitive benchmarking study can range from how the information is organized to the amount of time or clicks it takes to complete a task to comparing interesting features on each website.  To make an informed decision on what to compare, you should have previously considered the needs of your users and reviewed the existing state of your website.

Remember that in competitive benchmarking you could be looking at good and/or bad examples.  Don’t adopt everything you see until you’ve figure out whether their solution would help or hurt you.

Our Previous Posts…

This post was the fourth and final post in a series of posts on website design being published this month.  If you missed our first post, Website Design PT1: 5 Wrong Assumptions, check it out to learn about 5 common assumptions about website design that couldn’t be more wrong.  Our second post, Website Design PT2: You Have Users discusses the concept of users over online audience, and how understanding users can help you create a more effective website.  Our third post, Web Design PT3: Learning from Your Mistakes explains how to analyze your current website for how it does/does not meet the needs of your users.

Web Design PT3: Learning from Your Mistakes

Web Design
In reviewing Elliot & Davis PC’s existing website content, we were able to structure a new website that better served their needs.

by Therese Joseph, Shift PR Fellow

In this digital age, technology is advancing at a dizzying speeds.  If you own a business, it is practically mandatory that you have a website.  Not having a website could hurt the success of your business.  But having a website that is not meeting the needs of your users is a mistake that can also hurt your business.

There are many tell-tale signs that your website is not measuring up.  Some signs include a lack of traffic and a high bounce rate.  But these signs do not tell you where your website is going wrong and how to fix it.  To find your mistakes, you’re going to need at least two things:  your user personas and a content analysis.

What is a user persona?

I introduced the concept of users and user personas in my previous post, Website Design PT2: You Have Users.  You can read more about everything that goes into a persona there.  But for the sake of this post, a user persona highlights essential information about who is coming to your website and what they are trying to do on your website.  Mostly likely, you have a couple user types that vary in age, experience with your company, and experience with technology.  Each of these types would have their own persona.

What is a content analysis?

A content analysis is a two-part process that involves a content audit and an analysis of that audit.  A content audit is a listing of the individual webpages, the information on them, and how the pages link to one another.  An audit can vary in detail from a top-level skim or detailed sections of your website to a comprehensive listing of every page and link on your entire website.  This information is usually organized into a spreadsheet because the depth and amount of links can become very complex.  See Figure 1 for a sample of a content audit.

Figure 1. Sample of a content audit.

The purpose of a content audit is to define what information is on your website currently.  Once this is known, you can compare this information to your user personas, and specifically the tasks your users are trying to accomplish.  This is the analysis portion of a content analysis. Typical questions during the analysis include:

  • What information do I have that my users want?
  • What information am I missing that my users want?
  • What information do I have that my users don’t want?
  • What information am I repeating in multiple places? Should that be repeated?
  • Is there information I have that should be repeated in other places?
  • How many steps does it take for my users to find the information?

These type of questions help you identify information that you are missing or that is unnecessary. Sometimes to find the specific wording or the specific organization of content that is preferred by your users, a content analysis is paired with user testing.  User testing, like user personas, allows you to gain insight into the thought processes of your users by questioning how they would search for the information you provide.

Learning from Past Mistakes

Using a content analysis in tandem with your user personas will allow you to identify where you’ve gone wrong in the past and to fix those mistakes in the future.  Learning from your mistakes is essential in order to your website to contribute to the success of your business.  All websites are large structures of information, but a well-designed website doesn’t feel large.  A well-designed website pays close attention to their content and how it is organized.  They avoid mistakes like too much information, a lack of information, or hard to find information because these are all issues that will drive away their users.  For your website to be successful, you need your users to keep coming back.

If you operated alone in the world, this information would be everything you would need to know to redesign your website.  However, this is not the case.  Businesses have competitors and allies and neighbors.  In the digital world of websites, your business is not only being compared to your biggest competitor, but also to every website your customers have ever used.  Your content needs to be competitive in terms of your industry, but your look, features, and navigation need to be competitive with the latest websites out there.  This brings us to the next step of the process.

The Next Post…

This post the third in a series of posts on website design being published this month.  If you’ve enjoyed this article, watch for my next post, Website Design PT4: Competition in a Digital World, where I’ll be explaining how to discover who your competition is and how your website is measuring up.   The post will go live on Thursday, August 28.  If you missed our first post, Website Design PT1: 5 Wrong Assumptions, check it out to learn about 5 common assumptions about website design that couldn’t be more wrong.  Our second post, Web Design PT2: You Have Users discusses the concept of users over online audience, and how understanding users can help you create a more effective website.

Website Design PT2: You Have Users

Web Design
In our redesign of CAI’s website, we structured the content for their users.

by Therese Joseph, Shift PR Fellow

When attempting to understand the choices and motives of your online audience, there is one essential fact you must know.  You can call them your audience, your customers, your clients, or your whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you understand that they are much more than these labels convey.  When they are online, they are users.

What is a user?

A user is a person with a purpose and existing expectations.  When they arrive on your website, they have a specific task they want to complete, and they have existing expectations on how they will be able to complete it.  Their expectations are based on a mixture of previous experience with the subject matter, other websites, and internal intuition.

A user differs from an audience in the respect that they are not on the website to read what you have to say.  You and your website are only one half of the conversation.  A user represents the second half of the conversation.  They arrive on your website with thoughts and questions about the subject matter.  As they seek to connect with you through your website, they will operate as they are having a conversation, not as if they are listening to a lecture.  In order for your website to be successful, it must anticipate the thoughts and questions of your users.  Otherwise, you will be leading two separate conversations in which neither party is satisfied with the outcome.

How can I anticipate my users’ needs?

In order to anticipate the needs of your users, you must first get to know who your users are.  You can start by segmenting your audience by new/returning visitors and demographic data such as age, gender, martial status, profession, etc.  However, the greatest websites often go much further, asking questions about their interests, values, beliefs, likes/dislikes, and so on.  In addition, they also question the motivations, tasks, and goals to be accomplished by the users when visiting the website.  All of this additional information is often complied into user personas for each user type who visits the website.

A user persona is a profile of a specific user type that explains not only common demographic data, but also a head shot, name, and personality of the user.  The purpose of a user persona is to aid the web designers and writers in imagining a specific person rather than a vague demographic.  It is much easier to create effective designs for a specific person with wants, needs, and goals than a faceless grouping of demographic data.

The personality and values of a persona can often indicate previous experience, preexisting thoughts, and the most important questions on the subject matter for that specific user.  This information is what provides insight into how that user will behave on the website.  Understanding this information for each persona is what will help you anticipate the needs of all of your users.

The Next Post…

This post is the second in a series of posts on website design being published this month.  If you’ve enjoyed this article, watch for my next post, Website Design PT3: Learning from Your Mistakes, where I’ll be explaining how to analyze your current website for how it does/does not meet the needs of your users.  The post will go live on Thursday, August 21.  If you missed our first post, Website Design PT1: 5 Wrong Assumptions, check it out to learn about 5 common assumptions about website design that couldn’t be more wrong.

Website Design PT1: 5 Wrong Assumptions

Web Design
Apic Three Rivers needed a website that would growth with them.

by Therese Joseph, Shift PR Fellow

Website design is a complicated process.  However, it is often assumed that the process is much more simple than it is.  It’s more than picking some colors, sketching a layout and coding it to match.  The timeline to create or redesign a really good website can take months.  Great websites are often built on complex information architectures that go unnoticed exactly because they work so well.

This post is the first in a posts on web design that will be published this month.  If you ever wondered what makes a really great website, this series will give you a sneak peek into the behind the scenes process.  And it has less to do with coding than you think.  We’re starting off with 5 common assumptions about website design that couldn’t be more wrong.

1// Looks matter most

Looks do matter.  This is not a baseless assumption.  But looks are not the only thing that matters in website design, and they may not be the most important thing that matters.  You can have an amazing, jaw-dropping website, but if your audience cannot find the information they need or complete the task they are trying to do, they will leave.  And they won’t come back.

In this situation, it doesn’t matter how great your website looks.  If the website is unusable, it will fail.  Usability is often what separates the good websites from the great websites.  Why do you think Google and Facebook spend so much time and money constantly updating the menus and the functions of their websites?  Usability.  They want their audience to be able to do and find everything they want with the least amount of  barriers.

These big name companies have discovered that if they focus their attention towards usability, people are happy to stay longer and come back more often.  No bait and switch required.  They provide quality content in a manner that their audience can intuitively find and use.  That is their selling tactic, and that is what successfully gains and retains visitors in this digital age.

2// People will do what I expect them to

You may know your business and what people are looking for, but most likely you don’t know how they will look for it.  Even if you think you do.  Most business owners suffer from the same issue — you know too much about your business.  Your expectations of your customers is based on your experience with your company.  Sometimes this experience is what prevents you from truly getting to know and understand your customer base.

Most people when they are trying to navigate your website will follow their instincts to locate the information they are looking for.  Where they are looking relates very closely to how they are forming the question in their head.  If you are not anticipating this question correctly, based on their level of knowledge and experience, your website’s navigation will not match up with their intuitive sense of direction.  If your navigation doesn’t match up with what they think instinctively, then your website will be frustrating to use.

How do Google and Facebook attack this issue?  They test where people expect to find information and then build their sites to match those expectations.  They don’t guess or assume.  They ask the question, do the research, and build on the findings.

3// My online audience behaves the same as my physical audience

Do you remember your Mom telling you to use your inside voice as a kid?  We are trained to link specific behaviors with specific settings.  Therefore, if the setting changes, our behavior can change as well.  Your audience in a physical setting, like a storefront, will not behave the same way on your website.  Here’s why.

When they are in your store, they have physically committed the majority of their attention to you and your products.  They have already spent time traveling to the location, and now they must physically and mentally navigate the store in order to complete their task in coming.  However, visiting a website online does not require this much commitment.  Because it can be found at any place and time it is convenient for them, it does not take on the same level of commitment.  In face, when they are online, they are rarely focusing on just you and your products.

We are in the age of distractibility and multi-taskers.  The introduction of smartphones and tablets have only increased these behaviors and issues in the online medium.  While viewing your website, a person could be outside, shielding a glaring screen, talking to a friend, trying to cross the street, receiving a text message, and uploading a photo to Instagram all at once.  In this type of environment, you do not have their full attention.  And if you ask for more of their attention than they are willing to give you, then they will abandon your website in favor of one of the other 10 tasks they are doing in that moment.

4// When I hire a website designer, I just wait for the finished product

Website designers are experts in what they do.  They are not experts in what you do.  In order to build a website that effectively showcases what you do and reaches your customers, the designer will need your assistance and input.  The more you work with them, educating them about your business, its needs, its constraints, and so on, the better a website they can build for you.

5// Once it’s built, I’ll never have to touch it

All websites have some aspect of maintenance, in one form or another.  Even if you aren’t selling products or running a blog, there is information on your website that is subject to change.  When that happens, you need to be able to update that information so your website and your brand don’t look outdated.

Website maintenance is why Shift normally recommends and builds websites on the WordPress platform. WordPress is user-friendly for even the least technical users because it allows you to update pages through a visual editor.  The coding the web designer created does the rest.

The Next Post…

If you’ve enjoyed this article, watch for my next post, Website Design PT2: You Have Users, where I’ll be explaining the basics to understanding an online audience.  The post will go live on Thursday, August 14.