What makes a website successful? It might not be what you expect!

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  1. Regine Lambrecht

    <quote>If you have great content they will come for your content.</quote>.
    I think that people will come in a poor usable site until another site with the same content is more usable.
    Good usability with poor content will never interest visitors, but poor usability with good content will attract visitors only if there is no other site offering the same content with better usability. If you have a great content but poor usability, competitors will have room for improvement…

  2. Adrian

    Great Article! Most clients are not as enthusiastic as we are about design, usability and code – it would be nice if they would, but it’s not their field of expertise, so they hire us.
    Don’t focus on “taste” if you want to justify a redesign – explain why the website is not supporting the clients business strategy and needs – and make it your job that it does. In the end we make it pretty, usable and accessible anyway ;)

    Thank you Paul for sharing this!

  3. Tracy Osborn

    Fantastic article! Esp. the bit about calls to action and how every website needs to establish them – has been a recent pet peeve of mine, since designers and devs relegate that to only ecommerce websites.

  4. Yaili

    Great article, Paul! I completely agree with you (when we’re talking about client websites that are fundamentally business-driven).

    The client/designer relationship (and by designer, I mean designers, developers, illustrators, etc.) is a two-way street. We provide the best input that our experience can provide, because we are knowledgeable. But the client is knowledgeable within his or her own area too.

    This doesn’t mean we can’t have a say on how the business side of a project can be improved, but some questions must be answered first by the client: what is the main objective, what is he or she trying to achieve with a website in the end?

    I agree that these are very important questions to be asked and that need an answer before discarding or praising a website based on looks or code.

  5. Razvan

    Excellent article, Paul. I see many business websites built around the idea of being pretty and completely missing the point. And then you see sites like craigslist that just work.

    I don’t think users will be turn away by poor design. If you have great content they will come for your content.

    Good design and usability should be the last layer.

  6. Nikita Sumeiko

    Thanks Paul!
    Your article could be a base to look out before starting building a new website. You know, I faced a lot of clients who needed a website without any serious objective.

    Usually, they say something like this:

    - “In nowadays every solid organization should have to own a website and we also have to!”

    - “Everybody have got a website, why don’t we have?!”

    But is it enough to own one, isn’t it? Of course, it’s not.

    To my mind, every web developer before starting to build a website to a next client, should organize a small conversation where all the aspects you mentioned could be specified. This would help both the developer to work out purposeful website and the client to think about real objectives and targets he could reach.

    Thanks again, really helped!

  7. Derek Anderson

    Great information Paul. I’ve also noticed that clients sometimes don’t really know why they want a website. It’s as if they assume a website will take care of everything, including the business plan.

    Also, sites like Craigslist use less server resources, which is good for everyone!

  8. Steve

    Well that was refreshing! I opened 24Ways with trepidation this morning expecting a monologue on how important asthetics, styles, fonts etc were to creating a successful website. Instead I’ve just read one of the best doses of realism I think I’ve ever come across on this topic. Kudos for telling it how it is. Design doesn’t always matter and there’s too many designers and agencies who’d have you believe it’s the most important part of a web build (generally because they haven’t taken any time to think like the client or the users). Rather the creation of an interface which delivers the business objectives and meets the client/users needs is what really matters.

    Great article Paul!

  9. I think the reason why you don’t want to question your clients motives are because you might not benefit from the answer, if the answer is that they don’t need a website at all…

  10. Architela

    Excellent message! Whenever I begin with a new client, esp small businesses and start-ups, I always give them a list of questions based on “first principles”, such as the one you start with – Why do you want a website? And followed by others in similar vein about business purpose, commitment, capacity and so on. It’s all about making sure they get a site that really fits them.

  11. Chris Mahon

    Totally agree with people not focussing enough on business objectives and site goals.

    Best thing I’ve found to do is obviously define the purpose of the site overall and then set individual goals for each page, so you know what to design to achieve them.

    Doing this removes most of the inevitable subjectivity from the design process and makes it much easier to deal with clients who change their mind mid project.

  12. Heather Burns

    If anyone is looking for the right business objective questions to ask, here is an article I wrote last year which is still quite valid. It’s called “Building the business case for your web site”, and any designer who skips it and goes straight into mockups and colour schemes isn’t one worth hiring.

    http://www.scottishbusinessblog.co.uk/internet-marketing/building-the-business-case-for-your-web-site/

  13. David Goss

    What an interesting article – a really good angle. I think that possibly a lot of people do the right things but in the wrong order, so they design a beautiful site and mark it up carefully, and then start making changes to shoehorn in the business objectives. Doing things in the right order could save a lot of time and money for designers and clients.

  14. Yaili

    Ha! I think Nils nailed it!:

    the reason why you don’t want to question your clients motives are because you might not benefit from the answer, if the answer is that they don’t need a website at all

    Very good point :)

  15. Chris Hill

    Superbly well written and I agree completely.

    This is an working ethos I’ve been trying to push for a while – forget what the site looks like, what tech its built on and stop agonising over picking a snappy ’2.0’ domain name. Focus on what you want the website to do for your business and work you way up from there.

    Once you know what the sites going to do for you the rest of the dots should join themselves in more convincing, and ultimately successful, ways.

  16. Ben Bodien

    Definitely guilty of all these transgressions (vocab courtesy Tiger Woods).

    Mental node made to interrogate clients about business objectives, and the intended calls to action harder during research phases of projects. All too often our projects are planned out in those departments as we go along, and the clients often change their minds (and their entire business models) along the way. If we can nail them down to some stated objectives at the start, we’ll be in a better position when the inevitable indecision comes later.

    Thanks, Paul!

  17. Noel Wiggins

    This is a fantastic road map to starting any new website project, I now have a new set of questions I need to ask my clients.

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for Nopun.com
    <a href=“http://www.nopun.com/”>a graphic design studio</a>

  18. James Rayers

    I’m in the process of redesigning a website and this article has basically stopped me in my tracks. I always start with a rough outline of what is needed on a page, but never really look ‘deeper’.

    Analysing exactly what the user wants is one thing, but you have to make sure you design so that the user does what you want.

  19. m a r c o

    Great article!

    Nowadays web designers are required to go beyond graphics and code. We must look at the project as a whole. We need to know what the goals are, who the intended audience is and pay close attention to search engine optimization and conversions.

    Like your article says, calls to action need to be evident and exist throughout the site. In the end CEOs and board members need to see more than just pretty pictures, they need to see results.

  20. Kevin Richardson

    Who is responsible for defining these objectives? Often times, I find that clients have minimal knowledge of the web and it’s full capabilities. Therefore, their suggested objectives and calls to action seem flawed. Obviously, they know their product best, but in terms of marketing it on the web, they’re experience is limited.
    Where should the line be drawn between helping them establish these objectives and simply planing, designing and developing their site?

  21. Sid

    Excellent writeup. This requires a bit of education on the clients’ end too. Their demands often include vacuous stuff like ‘web 2.0 design’ or ‘edgy graphics’ or (gasp) ‘flash intros’. If they understand the reasons they want a website in the first place, it would make everything easier.

  22. Naomi Niles

    This article is awesome. I think designers often forget that our job is to help clients with their business goals. A nice website design is part of that strategy, but only one part, as you explain well.

    A lot of times clients don’t know what their objectives are. It’s our job to get it out of them, even if we have to spend a lot of time on initial planning and research. You just can’t have a successful outcome if you don’t have objectives to shoot for. It doesn’t make sense logically.

    The only thing I’d like to add is that I think a site still needs a good design to be successful. There is a credibility factor there that only a good design can bring.

  23. Ben Dunlap

    Wonderful points — but I’d take slight issue with your use of the term “design”.

    In the article it seems like you’re using “design” to mean “look and feel”. But I’d argue that, properly understood, “designing a web site” means structuring the content so as to meet the site’s business goals.

    In other words, what you’re advocating is not preparatory to design — it is design.

    In that understanding, look-and-feel is just one part of design, a part whose importance will vary depending on the subject matter and target audience of the site.

    Thus one can argue, as for example Andy Rutledge does, that Craigslist is extremely well-designed. It’s also ugly. (Amazon’s a different beast; that really is a poorly-designed site, and I think it succeeds simply by being the biggest, baddest, and cheapest there is, not to mention a pioneer in its field).

  24. Tiago Pedras

    “…where they begin to struggle is articulating what these users will want to achieve on the website. “

    How do you think you should get the client to tell you what their objectives are when the only thing he can think of is about showing his company around the web?

  25. Paulo Pereira

    Highly enjoyable article, Paul.

    I completely agree with you, and it’s so easy to immediately jump to design & code. When I first became aware of this, I’ve been practicing it more, first with my personal site, and now with a client website.

    I’ve found out that it’s not only really good for business, it’s also great to help us doing our job when it comes to design and specially copywriting. By knowing who will care about this and what is to be accomplish, design and writing are both easier and better.

  26. Matt Auckland

    Great post. I’m going through the fundamentals of taking a web site from a project to a business at the moment. It’s a long process, but well worth it to give myself and the site objectives and direction.

  27. Jessy

    Great article.
    You’ll definitely be surprised to see the number of small businesses or start-ups that do not see the business objectives from their website.
    Some assume automatic exposure/profits once they launch a site, which is totally not true.

  28. What Creative

    Great article, very interesting, and very true!

    Some of this stuff seems so obvious yet so many people forget or brush past it. It’s too easy for designers (including myself) to get caught up in the look and feel and forget about WHY they are doing it, or HOW it’s going to be successful.

  29. Rob Mills

    Thanks for this article Paul. As a Project Manager it was extremely reassuring, refreshing and helpful.

    As I read it I kept thinking about storytelling and how it is essential to ensure that we tell the right stories targeted at the right people.

    I think the points you discuss definitely go hand in hand with finding the right story to tell and then once you know that, using design and development to tell it in the most appropriate way.

  30. Nicolas Chevallier

    Do you ask your clients why they have a website?
    This is exactly what I ask when I talk with a new client. And if he don’t have an answer different from “because my competitor does” then I don’t spend more time with him. Maybe other webagencies will make the job, not me!

  31. Linda

    I used to work at a company with such an utterly horrible Web site that they actually lost a contact because of it. The site not only was poor from the design view, the content was poor. A programmer had literally slapped up some of the marketing materials and called it done. At least four Web designers worked on the site to try to make it better, but no one could get any traction. The manager in charge it was only interested in how it looked, and it was never perfect enough for him. He didn’t want to talk about content at all, so the bad site stayed up until they lost the contact because of that. The only way they finally got a new site was to hire an outside company!

  32. Matthew

    Couldn’t agree more – as far the article goes! But I think there are actually 3 facets to a successful website:

    1. Content that serves the right audience and business goals

    2. ‘Findability’ to ensure that people reach the site

    3. Usability, so they can achieve their (and your) goals

    Amazon & eBay may be exceptions, but they’re arguably exceptions that help prove the rule.

  33. juan marcos

    The points you raise are amongst those we have been discussing for years with our clients unfortunately many of our potential clients often come from the basis that a website is like a sheet of paper and they want a website because that is what businesses (or their competition) have.

    Very low level thought process I grant you but in this part of the world it is the reality still and the educational process appears very very long.

  34. Anthony Calzadilla

    Great points Paul. Although a designer and artist at heart, I’m a true believer in form following function. When we des/dev a website we concentrate on these issues. Who are the users, what is the goal of the website, etc. Once we have established this then we start throwing in all the cool graphics, css3 and jquery!

  35. Toon

    Wow, rarely does one come across an article on web design with almost 100% positive comments. That in itself is an achievement ;-)
    I agree completely, also with one commenter’s view that what you describe is actually at the core of what design is.
    Having clear objectives for a site makes my job as a designer so much easier, since I can make decisions and set priorities based on a shared view of what the site should be for. The alternative leads to chaos, procrastination and missed deadlines, and that’s hardly in the designer’s interest, never mind how pretty the first design mockups looked.
    I’m not as puzzled as you are as to why clients pay so little attention to clear website objectives. In my experience, the web is still a very novel and ‘magical’ medium for many potential clients, so they feel this urge to set very ambitious and vague objectives. Somehow, they’re sort of ashamed if their objective is: “I want people to see what my restaurant looks like and what sort of price range they can expect without spending a fortune on quickly outdated flyers and brochures.”
    A few years ago I built the website www.pug.be, which goes against every Jakob Nielsen rule. Yet, somehow, it served its purpose and managed to secure quite a lot of extra business for the client (a voice actor and comic artist/writer). I’m sure it scored very low in Google but he referred lots of people to the url directly, and those visitors instantly ‘got’ what he was all about.
    Time for a redesign on that site, though :-)

  36. Iaax Page

    This you are talking about happens very often to many people in the business, they focus so much in fixing what its obviously wrong, and very little time taking care of business issues.

  37. Bert Jackson

    Well done, Paul. Any successful site design or redesign must start with an understanding of objectives, else one is setting up an eventual failure. The challenge is that many clients have not thought through what those objectives may be. As the web becomes more sophisticated and complex, it is more challenging for the client (and quite honestly some web devs who are more technical than consultative) to establish recognizable and attainable web objectives. The redesign client should seek out the expertise that will guide them through a process, whether it be from the web designer or a third party consultant.

    Thanks again for highlighting this critical phase of successful development.

  38. Richard Johnston

    Great article Paul,

    I think you have really made a good point about calls to action and understanding the goals of the website.

    I my experience I do ask the clients why they need a website and what they expect from the website but in most cases I do not go into to much detail at the start, most people are really confused about websites.

    All clients seem to want a all singing all dancing solution but what they need is a smaller more simple site to start off with, once they have this and start to generate leads and interest they are more inclined to want to sit down and dedicate some time to the future of the site.

  39. John H

    More often than not people focus on how a web site looks rather than what it’s supposed to achieve. I’ve seen works or art that do nothing in terms of generating business and hand-coded html sites written in 1998 that still work pretty well from a business perspective.

  40. Rob Johnson

    It will be interesting to see the gradual change in web design as mobile technology gets used more an more to browse web sites.

    I’m starting to see user agent redirection based on viewing platform with the mobile phone-friendly web sites being far more simple and faster to load.

    I suspect this trend will spill over into the mainstream so that speed and ease of navigation will become more important than looks.

    Thanks for the post.

  41. Mandy G

    Richard’s right. Asking clients is usually as waste of time. They may know their business but they know didly-squat about marketing.

    Thanks for the post.

  42. Amy Cameron

    A well-designed site is one not done in a haphazard fashion. It takes careful planning and plenty of factors for consideration. Unless you are building an art web site or you want to showcase your designer skills, a page that jumps right at you with glitters, flash and all that jazz might compromise loading time and visitors leave before your site filly loads.

    Amy Cameron
    BuildMySiteforFree.com

  43. Ivan

    Great article!!!
    This is really “The shocking truth”, and simple business case question can solve popularity risk.

    But again, we, web-designers will never understand that :)

  44. Kamenets

    Great food for thought! While designers tend to make websites competitive and attractive for the clients it’s not a rare case that the focus is shifted off business objectives. To avoid creating window dressing but make sites work for clients they should be handy and serviceable for users. First we see the point of the clients’ business strategy. Then put ourselves into user’s shoes before tackling the design and code.

  45. Daniel Wild

    “I do believe design, usability and code matters. I just believe that they only matter if the fundamentals are already in place.”

    This is the fundamental truth here. Clean code, usability, design etc. are just the supporting bells and whistles for the real objective: the business goal/s!

  46. Danny

    A very refreshing article, Paul.

    I hear and read so many different views on what are the main factors site owners, or those working with sites, should focus on to achieve a higher level of success.

    Of course quality content is one of the first things thrown around in many conversations, often followed by site design(navigation,etc) and making sure a clear purpose(what the site can do(provide)….(what the visitor’s needs are…) and the (call to action prompts)..where the two objectives meet…… is provided on the site…

    I have seen some sites with great designs and very poor content, that are achieving some really decent success…*which may just be due to people being so visual(vision) orientated….

    Also, there are some sites who’s content is of a very high standard( a lot of work went into it)…yet, they seem to be struggling….

    Going by how I see many sites performing and the way they are set up, I think Branding(site ) and the site owners rep(how they are perceived) can make a huge difference….

    .

  47. Jamie Newman

    Great article! It’s always good to take a step back and ask “why?” to make sure everyone really understands what they’re trying to accomplish before building on a shaky foundation of confusion and misunderstanding.

    Web devs/designers/IA’s etc. bring the clients business objectives to life, but if they’re not sound and well thought out it’s the online equivalent of, to be crude, polishing a turd.

  48. Adam

    I really enjoyed this article but still have one question (and if I’m the only one wondering I apologise for it’s slight irrelevant nature).

    How does your Aunt make such a great Christmas pud, that you now wont eat and why?

  49. Tracey

    True, but if a web site looks dodgy and unprofessional, a lot of people will lose trust, and trust is so important on the internet to win the sale.

    Even changing small things like font style can engender trust. Ever notice how banks tend to have traditional fonts.

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