Not all websites are created equal (do you have the right formula for yours?)


Dave Prince

11 min read

‘Website’ is probably the vaguest, most opaque, shapeshifting term on the internet today.

Depending on your needs and budget, when enquiring about building a ‘website’ you could be in the market for one of the newer ‘build-your-own-website’ offerings, or a simple off-the-shelf WordPress template. Or maybe you want a clever click funnel, that leads to another click funnel, that leads to another…(you get the idea). Maybe the agency is selling you a ‘custom website’? — which can be industry speak for an off-the-shelf-template, where some of the images and colours change, your logo is slammed up at the top and mum’s the word.

Or have you done the rounds and had chats with some reputable design shops who build lovely designer websites that make your brand smell like roses but fall way short when it comes to usability and functionality? Let’s cue in the technical designers, who design by data alone and the precision of a German automaker — not a sniff of brand can be found, we don’t deal with feelings here!. There’s barely enough attention span to cover differing CMS option, progressive web apps and other futuristic stuff, so let’s park that to one side for now. Bottom line, it’s a minefield of options, differing approaches and outcomes.

Browsing the aisles

Let’s imagine for a second you’re in the market for a website, and you can buy this website from a magical digital supermarket by browsing the aisles of web goodness. If no-frills is your thing, look on the bottom shelf and head to the register, there’s nothing more here for you to learn. If on the other hand, you don’t mind reading the back of the box, the ingredients of a great website are ahead.

Building a modern brand website has never been more complicated. There’s a convergence of factors driving the revolution of the brand site;

  1. Brands want more. More functionality, more leads, more engagement, more conversion.

  2. Landing pages & click funnels work. Love or loathe it, the user is responding, the market needs to pay attention to this.

  3. User experience (UX) is fundamental to any successful website build.

  4. Apps & plugins are facilitating more functionality. Bots are still conversation dummies but heck we still want one.

  5. Data. There’s plenty of it, but few know how to do something useful with it.

  6. API’s are helping websites talk to each other and get more done in one place.

  7. Design matters more today than ever.

  8. Brand positioning and messaging are grossly undervalued in a web process; ignore it and you will wither.

To bake the website cake, we gotta have the right ingredients, in the right quantities. So let’s start at the beginning and work our way through this bake-off.

Users are actually people and they have feelings.

A myth exists about brain dominance, you know the one where you are either left or right brained? Turns out we all use a combo of brain power depending on the situation and circumstance — meaning humans use both feelings and logic to make decisions. Therefore, a solid place to start any web build is right at the heart of your brand story because we want our audience to connect with the way we do business, our values and ourapproach.

That feeling is what hits your user between the eyes and either binds them or blinds them to your company.

The words you use, the messages that lob into the reader’s brain, photos or illustrations, the typeface and design style, all compound to create a feeling. That feeling is what hits your user between the eyes and either binds them or blinds them to your company.

So think about it for a moment, are you being truthful about your brand, are you underplaying your story, or flat out confused about your sweet spot? Get clarity on this early and work it into your build process.

Content architecture is critical.

When you pick up a book it has a structure. The chapters are paced at a certain reading cadence, the page count has been edited within an inch of its life and the type is set just right — all this for the benefit and ease of reading.

In a similar way, website content requires deep consideration:

Where is all your ‘stuff’ going to live?

Do you have too much content?

Is the story disjointed and told out of sequence (how do we connect it together)?

How do you move from one section to the next?

How will you influence the user to take an action (like signing up, logging in or purchasing)?

The websites you visit frequently are not accidental. You visit these brands because you like what they say and how that message is constructed, what information is served up along the path and in the right context.

Same pie, more eaters. Let design differentiate.

Competition is hyper. It’s never been easier or faster to get started in just about any industry. The pie is being eaten by more players, so we are being wrangled into thinking deeper and finding the edge in every aspect of our business models. Making your core offering different and having design systems that support this position should lead to more customers and bigger market share.

Design is two things. Aesthetics and function. Let me explain;

Aesthetics create a feeling about your brand. If we want to make a brand premium, we use restraint, white space, classic typography and authentic imagery. But if your brand happens to be about loudness, boldness and fun you are going to need a different visual strategy to achieve this goal. Being clear about the feeling you want to create is the key to leveraging design effectively. More importantly, portray your company honestly. It’s okay if you are not the hipsters on the block, play kindness or relationships as your strength or use some other key value — but always portray honesty.

Function is less understood or related to design when we typically think of the word. That’s because we tend to focus on visuals first. But if you lean in closer you’ll realise a lot of great design in web is about making things easier to see, scan, search, read and take action.

Design is so fundamental to standing apart in the market, leverage it.

UX is not a nice to have. It’s a core element.

Getting inside the head of the user and mapping out the journey is entirely necessary for delivering a high standard of usability. Understanding what your customer wants to achieve should be really high on your goal tree. By interviewing customers and understanding motivations, habits and practices we can get a sense of how we can better serve our users.

UX was once the domain of big-budget web builds but as knowledge has been acquired and shared, best practices have become established, UX design should be at the core of every custom web project.

What if I click this?

While design takes care of creating the ‘feelings’, user interaction design is a whole other kettle of fish. User interaction or UI for short is the practice of thinking deeply about what might happen for each action a user might want to take. For example, at a basic level when I click this button what will happen? Do I get taken to a new screen, or instead see a pop-up or a modal? How confident do I feel that I will find what I want there?

As more brands look to shift the burden of filling out forms and data collection from customer service to the end user, interaction design comes to the fore.

The rise and rise of apps.

Back in the day of early web development if you wanted something a little out of the box or some big functionality (like search) it was a major expense. Today we have a ton of platforms and apps that can be integrated to provide enterprise features at a fraction of the development price. Out of the box they provide impressive features. Things like chatbots, advanced search, CRMs, customer service and voice.

Leveraging pre-built apps makes a lot of business sense. You can offer greater functionality, automate your manual business tasks and provide a better experience for your customer.

Measure & react.

Building a web asset and launching it out into the world is cause for celebration, and rightly so. Suck up a big breath, enjoy a few weeks off, and know that the next phase has begun. Leaning into the data is important but we need to mix that approach with heat mapping, watching session recordings and speaking with customers because the real gold is in post-launch.

Browsing behaviour leaves clues about what’s working and more importantly, what’s not. By focussing on the things that are causing users to drop off we make the overall experience better.

In the app store, you’ll see version history notes which are the updates the app team push to the code base to improve the user experience. The same concept applies to building websites. By pushing new functionality you are improving the value of your asset because these changes should make the site more valuable to your user, which in turn creates value for you.

Two tips on this point;

  1. Set aside a budget for post-launch updates. Drip feed monthly investment into small improvements that over time will lead to big increases.

  2. Think of your website like any asset. If you contribute to its upkeep, it will provide the returns.

The rise of the performance website.

Not to be confused with website performance (speed and optimisation), a performance website is the emergence of a new class of website build that combines brand identity, messaging, design, technology and process to create higher performing digital platforms.

A performance website is a different lens in which to frame up your next website build. As we seek greater returns from each channel—functionality, automation and revenue come into focus. To achieve these goals we need to go deeper. The need to combine business brains with design thinking has never been more critical to lay down the project ideas and plans. By combining the powers of positioning, brand, messaging, UX design and development muscle plus leveraging new tools and web apps we have the ability to build more robust, functional and performant digital products.

We operate in a global economy where a user expects an AirBNB, Uber, Xero, Instagram (insert-any-unicorn) level of user experience and brand story. That’s changing the game because it’s rewiring an entire generation of customers to expect the highest level of brand execution and user experience, even for businesses operating on a local level.

The performance website opens up the opportunity to rise to the challenge.