Web Design hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur yet, but User Experience (UX Design) is becoming a crucial adaptation for professionals looking to stay relevant in today’s world of DIY website options.
The Web Design world is always changing. A decade ago, all websites were static, hard-coded monstrosities. A business either needed a special professional on their staff, or a partner business with great deal of technical knowledge and training to build one and maintain it. Eventually proprietary systems were developed that provided limited ability for site owners to update their own content without needing a computer science degree, but most had their shortcomings – you were tethered to the developer’s hosting environment and at the mercy of enormous royalty fees. They certainly weren’t very user-friendly.
Then, five years ago, open-source software platforms like WordPress, Drupal and others came into their own and changed the game, making website creation and maintenance much more achievable. While the technical aspects of building the site were still beyond the grasp of most, once they were up and running, the average person with a little bit of computer experience and knowledge no longer needed to have their local web design shop on speed dial any time they wanted a word changed. Now, companies like Wix or Web.com and others are promoting free or low-cost DIY websites. They advertise that people with little or no technical skill can take control of the entire process, creating a website for their business themselves, and thus skipping the expensive step of paying a designer/developer to do it for them. Amazing!
Even if the real-life results from people using these DIY website platforms prove that it’s not nearly as easy as they make it look, there are still plenty of technical whiz kids in their basements who could help out or create it using some other free platform without costing a fortune.
(Just for the record, my home office is in the bonus room above my garage – not the basement. Big difference.)
The Death of the Professional Website Designer?
Colleagues and friends have asked if these “free” website products are impacting our bottom line or changing the business? I’d be lying if I said they didn’t. Of course, who can blame anyone for not wanting to pay for something that they can supposedly get for “free”? When you tell a potential customer that it will cost thousands of dollars to build the website they need, and then a commercial during their favorite TV show tells them it’s easy to do it themselves for next to nothing, it can obviously have a tremendously negative impact on the perceived value of what you’re selling.
Over a long enough timeline, almost any job or industry will be rendered obsolete by advancing technology, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that web development shops around the world are at the end of days. And in truth, some that cling to old business models might be. But you might be surprised to find out that for many of us, business hasn’t dried up on account of these new products. In fact, business is booming, and it’s mostly because many business owners are coming back to us after less than successful forays into the DIY world. People who have they learned the hard way that Wix or Web.com’s products are not the simple, easy-to-use magic DYI bullet they are advertised to be. More importantly, they’ve made a major realization; there’s always been a lot more to creating a successful website than just picking colors on palette or dragging photos and text boxes around the screen.
Let me put it a different way. Being given free software doesn’t make you any better at building an effective website, than a free set of tools will suddenly make you a master home builder.
So while there now may be less intrinsic value to the technical aspects of building a website, smart and successful designers have adapted to add important value in other phases of the web design process. We’re not just Photoshoppers and coders anymore, we’ve also had to become pseudo-marketers – an aspect which has far more importance on a business’s bottom line than whatever software is used to make a website. The difference between those of us that thrive and those who are soon to be extinct is that we understand and know how to create not just a website, but an effective website.
Adapting the Approach
Wait, what’s the difference? Well, the Internet is full of millions and millions of zombie websites – a term I use to describe sites that don’t provide their visitors with what they need, nor their owners with any return on investment. They exist, but don’t provide any value. Though it may seem like a simple idea, good website builders understand how to take a website from a glorified phonebook ad to a finely honed tool for business success. It’s the skill of designing a site that finds the sweet spot in addressing both the needs of specific visitors in a way that also achieves the goals of the business. You may have heard the term used to describe this process: User Experience (UX) Design.
A successful website starts long before any software is opened. A good User Experience Designer will spend time early in the process, talking with their clients and strategically defining success, both in terms of what the visitor needs, and what the business needs. The key is always to ensure the website accomplishes three things for the target visitor: It needs to be useful, relevant, and valuable. If your web designer’s strategy session includes questions like “what colors do you want for your website?”, run the other way immediately. This is an obsolete way of doing business – a throwback to when a website with a logo, a picture and a “Welcome to our website!” message was all you needed.
Too many designers and DIYers fail their websites by concentrating on “Happy Talk” or long-winded “welcome” messages – self-aggrandizing business-speak that provides no real value. You’ve no doubt read it, a business bragging about how it does everything better. when they should instead be focusing what target customers really need to know: How can that business help me fulfill their need, and why should they choose that business to fill that need? It’s the User Experience designer’s job to know HOW to and WHEN to provide that crucial information to them while cutting through the irrelevant fluff that most websites fall victim to.
During the strategy phase of a recent project for a wholesale spice distributor, one of the company’s partners suggested that the site should prominently feature generic information on their home page about the different seeds and spices they sold in case visitors wanted to know. Do you think that the target visitor – a foreign buying agent who purchases shipping containers full of raw commodities is looking to be educated on the basics of the products they deal in? Of course not. That person wants to know how to get the product to his warehouse as quickly and easily as possible, so obviously that’s the information that should be prominently displayed.
While many business owners are smart people and experts in their profession, this is perfectly illustrates how they can go wrong with their websites. How many times have you gone to a company’s website and been frustrated because you couldn’t find some sort of basic but important information that should be absolutely easy and obvious to find? Probably many. This happens when business owners don’t take their target visitors into account, and instead plan their around what they think is important, instead of understanding what’s important to the people they want to do business with. Trying to be all things to all people only means your message is going to get diluted. Focusing your website strategy so that it appeals to and helps the visitors who matter will lead to much greater success.
In the end, your website is likely going to be the most important marketing tool your business has. It’s the last place you should try to skimp on costs. A DIY approach may seem cost-efficient and easy, but in the long run, it’s far more beneficial to your business to hire a professional. A good web company will ensure that your site meets the needs of both your business and your visitors, and in turn help your business thrive.