Introduction

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In the fast moving world of the digital economy, your website has as important a role to play in your digital suite of tools. As increasing amounts of transactions take place online, and consumers are undertaking the majority of pre purchase research using the Internet, having a website that is current, well designed, easy to find, easy to use and easy to share is critical to your business. As many businesses will have a digital presence before or instead of ever having a bricks and mortar outlet, getting your website right and understanding what type of site and level of functionality suits is important from the outset of your business and digital journey.

Websites are not a set and forget tool. They need updating regularly at the content level, and also at the design level. Everyone will have encountered a website relic from the days where Apple’s logo was a rainbow and computers were the size of a microwave oven, and know what an enormous turn off that is to engaging with the business and its brand. As web functionality and design trends are swift moving, if your website is even three years old, its probably time you had a refresh. There are a few fundamentals to consider with your website, and whether you are about to build a brand new site, or are giving an existing one a makeover, let’s look at what you need to consider.

Hello customers

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Customers are the reason your website and your business exists. Even if you have a web presence primarily for information, you want to be sure that the people who you need to inform can find you and your message quickly and easily. Getting found is the first step to engaging with your customers. As discussed in the Mobile Accessibility Factsheet a significant percentage of your customers will be doing their searching on a mobile device, so your website needs to be mobile friendly. Most contemporary web building templates are mobile responsive, but its important to check that this is the case for yours, and make sure that it works on a variety of devices and platforms.

You also need to make sure your site is optimised for search engines. Many future customers won’t know your name, but will be looking for your product or service in a region or location that suits them. You need to be sure that your business will come up when they type some generic terms into Google. We cover off on all your SEO needs in our Search Engine Optimisation resource, so once you have finished with fundamentals, make sure you get up to speed on your SEO.

When your customer has found you, there needs to be a call-to-action to spur them to do something such as a purchase, a booking, an enquiry, a sign up or even to engage with you on social media channels. Customers should be able to do all of these things simply and easily on your website, so you can capture them at the moment they decide to act. This is called conversion, and ensuring that your website not only is compelling in content, but then enables a seamless user experience once you have given your customer the call to action is essential. 

A clear image of who your visitors are and why they come to your site helps you focus on relevant content delivered in an effective way. After knowing what moves people, you will be able to draw them in and convince them of what your business has to offer. Your website tells your customer the story of your brand, it gives them context to your product or service, and often practical advice about its uses, origins and unique selling points. It can also be the place for a two-way conversation in relation to forums, customer reviews, FAQs and further product development idea from your users. 

The website is often the first experience a customer has with your brand – think of it in that way and how the moment of discovery and engagement might feel through fresh eyes. If you think of it as a guest coming to visit you - you want your customer to easily find the door, be welcomed and guided in, treated with respect and gratefully acknowledged for their contribution to your business and your community. Does your website do that?

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Key design elements

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Good, responsive web design makes all the difference to retention and engaging the call to action for your customer experience. It is assumed that before you begin your website design and build that you have already established what your brand looks like, and done the necessary investigations for your IP like trademark searches and protections. Your website needs to reflect your brand visually, and it is recommended that a consistent suite of logo, colour and image is used not only on your website, but across all of your digital channels to assist customers to have an integrated experience of your brand online. With this in mind, you need to think about how your brand is going to look on a screen, especially on a mobile screen, and make sure your designer is briefed on how and where your brand will be exposed.

Fonts are a good case in point, as what may work well for print will not render properly on every user’s computer and will end up defaulting to something that is unrecognisable as your brand or worse unreadable. Aim for standard fonts on your site, Sans-Serif fonts (like Arial) are better online, Serif fonts (like Times New Roman) are harder to read on web. Current trends favour simple larger size font, header design with a lot of space, a less is more approach enabling better rendering and readability on any device. Colours play an important role on a website as they influence how people feel about your site. They should align with your target market, your products and your key messages, and as mentioned, should have been already factored into the visual part of your brand design strategy. Many DIY website templates will already have done that work for you and its up to you to harmonise them with your existing palate.

While compelling content is very important, only 10% of people will read your text, so keep it short, to the point, and broken out into easily read blocks that guide your customers to their next call to action or click. Spend some time carefully crafting each page, and making every word work for you. If this isn’t your strong skill set, there are plenty of freelancers who specialise in this area of writing, and depending on how you are approaching the build, some businesses will do it for you as part of the brief (more on this in the Building Your Site section below). Storytelling is integral here as you are essentially taking your customers on a brand journey. While brevity is favoured, if your brand and products lend themselves to longer form writing, consider including a blog in your website like Jen Murnaghan from Dish Pig did and make you story an integral part of the customer experience.

Images are also critical to tell the story, as are short videos. Images should invoke emotion, show action, and be used generously on your site to keep readers attention. Remember to make sure you use images that load quickly – at around 400x300 pixels and resolution max 72 dpi, you could have around 2 to 6 images per page. The images you choose should match the colour branding of your graphic design, and look professional. If you are an ace photographer you could do your own, but consider the investment in professionally shot correctly sized images that speak directly to your market and product or service. You can have logos and or slogans put over the top of your photos using a graphic designer or canva.com and if you want to source other images there are plenty of Creative Commons license photos or stock photos available for purchase and use at sites like dollarphotoclub.com. If you have an active following on image driven social media sites like Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, you could engage with your community and ask them to provide you with images that you are able to use on your site – but always get permission first.

Key usability elements

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Your website doesn’t just have to look good, it has to function in a way which makes it easy for all users’ abilities. Usability means user centered design. Both the design and development process are focused around the prospective user, to make sure their goals, and requirements are met and to build products that are efficient and easy to use. Design plays heavily into this, and features mentioned above such as readability (short text blocks, clutter free, appropriate fonts, strong images and contrasting colours on the text) add significantly to the user experience. Ensuring that your site is accessible to all people is part of a global protocol of access you can read about here. Did you know that 20% of internet users have disabilities, and simple design inclusions such as providing text alternatives for any photos or videos so special software can convert it to large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language make a big difference. 

Good usability benefits all users and you want to test your site prior to going live with a selection of users both familiar and unfamiliar with your brand. You can ask staff, friends, relatives and past clients to achieve specific tasks that you wish your prospects to be able to do on your site. Alternatively, you can use online usability testing services such as UserTesting.com, Loop11.com or FeedbackArmy.com. It will cost you less than $100 and could highlight some key design mistakes that could impact your conversions. 

Most people are familiar with a lot of design concepts used on the web. By using these concepts consistently, you meet your visitors’ expectations. As human beings, we like patterns and recognition. If you use new concepts in your design, make sure to use them consistently and give people a hand during the initial learning phase so the design and the usability meet in the middle. For example, you can offer additional information, or instructions the first time they use your site or product. Keep it simple and visual to help people remember new concepts.

Make sure that where you have a call to action, there is no barrier to completion of that call. Do all of your links work? Are all your forms active and easy to complete? Is your shop simple to make a purchase in? Are you getting customer details and payment options as quickly as possible? The least amount of steps between decision to purchase and completion is best practice here.

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Building a site: DIY, freelance, or agency?

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One of the big decisions you will need to make when building a website for your business is whether you will DIY, use a freelancer to interpret your website for you, or whether you hand it over to an agency to manage the end to end process. There are two key determinants to your decision making process: your budget and what your website needs to do. Typically, the less functions your site needs to perform, the cheaper and simpler it will be to build. Think carefully when designing your website brief – what are its critical functions, how might your business website need to grow and scale in the next couple of years, how complex is your inventory and logistics if you have an online store and in a very basic sense, what will allow you to fully tell your brand story. Control of your content management systems (CMS) is integral to being able to update content on your site and if possible you should be able to change everything when required. Having to hand these changes over to a third party can be on the spectrum of irritating to disastrous and you need a really good reason why you can’t be master of your domain.

DIY

If your website is simply a place for customers to find you online, learn about your product or services, make contact, undertake simple transactions, host a blog, connect to your social media channels and showcase what you do, then there are many options for a DIY build using some of the cloud hosted services designed for DIYers. These services are by no means a poor option for web building and design. They are built to be intuitive, have strong inbuilt SEO, span a range of designs for different markets and businesses using contemporary design principles and are all responsive and meet the required usability standards. Many have a freemium model where you can upgrade to a premium option that gives you more features. Another bonus is that most of these DIY sites offer email, analytics, blogs and a you can pay for the service with a low monthly fee. They are intuitive to use and often work on drag and drop principles, with extensive how to and help sections to get you started. Have a look at Weebly, Squarespace, Wix and Wordpress to see if these DIY models suit your needs. Some of the cons of these type of sites is an inability to integrate with common business systems and using them can be time intensive when you start. For many users this is balanced with the control and ease of CMS and the cost savings.

Freelance

If you haven’t the appetite to DIY, a freelancer is another option to consider. As freelancers are usually solo operators, their overheads are lower, and so their costs are less than an agency. Freelancers will often use the template sites, but fully utilise all of their features and be able to tweak and manipulate them to provide a polished end product. If you provide a comprehensive brief to a freelancer they will be able to ascertain the right product to integrate your business systems. 

The main cons of using a freelancer is being able to find one that can meet your needs, budget and deadline, as good operators are often in demand. When working with a freelancer make sure you are comfortable with the communication and have a clear contract around deliverables, and who owns the IP created. Here’s a tip – it must be you. You also need to consider the CMS that comes with your site, and that you have the capacity to change content when you need to. If the freelancer holds the reins of change this can be very awkward especially if there is a communications problem or they shut their business down. Communication is key to these relationships working so find someone who you feel really gets you, your product and especially your brand.

Agency

Agencies are expensive, and you will typically pay upwards of $4000 for a basic website and anywhere north of $12000 for custom made solutions. Agencies will provide you with end-to-end service usually including content, graphics and a full range of functionality. Like with freelancing, your end product will only be as good as the design brief you can give, and the experience will be enhanced with good communication and a synergy of values and shared vision. An agency should give you a very clear timeline for deliverables, with detailed costings and a justification for the expense against your brief and functional requirements. All your systems should be integrated and agencies will often also bring you some big picture and blue sky thinking, making your ideas a component of the greater sum of parts. 

Agencies will have often encountered businesses like yours before, and can offer you solutions to future problems you may not have known existed, and of course there is the greater level of surety and continuity of service with a larger business. Clarity from the outset on IP ownership and milestones for delivery is a must with agency contracts. Look for an agency that works with businesses in your sector, and ask to talk to their clients to get a sense of what their experiences were. If you feel you are being sold a bigger faster shinier site than you need, make sure you feel comfortable to express your concerns, and manage the contract on your terms. Your site should come with built in CMS, and many agencies will train you and your team in how to use the site and its systems as part of the cost.