Web design aesthetics

by Paul McCarthy on 1 September 2007

You may have spent months of time and a lot of money getting your site up and running, but a first-time visitor will give you less than five seconds to 'wow' them. No 'wow', no how - that visitor has moved on before you've even said, “Welcome”.

The Internet can be a cruel place, where the laws of evolution apply. You have to adapt, be adept and adopt a new attitude about your site's aesthetics - and the look and feel and the impression these design aspects have on visitors.

Look at your homepage

Is your homepage engaging? Does it pique visitors' interests? Is it clear what you do or what you sell? Or is it a mass of text with 14 links around the screen's border? Does it look 'hypey'? Does it bore even your best friends? Any doubts and you're in trouble.

Even if you're working on your own, with free website templates, you still have to consider that first impression on your site visitors. If the website looks cheap, it won't instil visitor confidence. In fact, most of them will click off before your dancing bear Flash animation fully downloads (and you thought it was so cute).

You may have the best product on the planet and prices that “just can't be beat”. If your site's aesthetics don't sync up with your target demographic and market expectations, then don't quit your day job just yet.

Site design and eye appeal

In real estate, it's called 'curb appeal'. Does the home make a good first impression before buyers have even left the curb? If so, you're well on your way to making a sale. The same is true of your website's homepage. Eye appeal is everything, but what's appealing to one pair of eyes can be singularly unattractive to another.

Consider the elements of visual design. Are the colours appropriate for your target demographic? If you're selling quilting supplies, pinks and lavenders are perfectly appropriate. However, if you're selling roller blades, you might stay away from the pastels and go with a spray-paint type font and dramatic, glowing colours. Put yourself in the place of the ideal visitor (the one with something to buy) and ask yourself if the colours work for that individual.

Scale matters too - if you've got tiny button links off the homepage casual visitors might not even see them. Consider the balance and proportion of the elements on your homepage. Is that gigantic banner attractive? Is the fireworks motif right for your goods or services? What effect do the design elements have on the visitor?

(Special note: Don't ask your spouse, your kids, siblings, parents or friends for their opinions. They're biased and you need the raw, unvarnished truth about the impact your homepage has when first viewed.)

Site demographics

If you haven't considered a demographic analysis to this point, now's the time to get started. Product selection, tone of screen text, motifs, marketing strategies, links - virtually everything about an online business must be targeted with laser precision on a known demographic. It's not likely you'd open an online store for aquarium enthusiasts unless you were one - or at least you knew the difference between a guppy and a goldfish.

Make a list of words that describe your target market. What are their concerns? Their needs? Their emotions regarding your products?

Do some market research. Visit other sites - successful sites - to see how they're doing it so well. It's unethical to rip off an existing site, no doubt, but you can't copyright an idea and ideas - the right ideas - are what you're after.

You can also track down a ton of demographic information on the Internet. You can learn how much TV teen-aged boys (ages 16-18) watch daily, or how much seniors spend on travel to different world destinations. This information has been collected, collated, sliced and diced for your convenience. Looking to reach men ages 38-50, dog owners, duck hunters, van drivers and lawyers? Someone's done a study.

Market expectations

Often overlooked by unseasoned site designers, market expectations are an essential element in the online success equation.

For example, you may have seen sites where they sell one product (usually an e-book download) employing sorry-looking clip art and bombarding you with page after page after page of the most unbelievable sales hype. If you're like most of us, you run screaming for the nearest exit when you see these get rich, lose weight, buy now websites, right? You can spot them a mile away. But what's important is that they work for that product.

Now, would that approach work for a non-profit, children's organisation? Not very likely. Why? Market expectations. You (the market) don't expect to see e-book hype text on a site dedicated to improving children's health - and vice-versa.

So what does your target demographic expect when they shop online? A certain attitude? Certainly the 'right' look and feel. Warm and fuzzy? Razor's edge? Comforting and welcoming? All of these come into play, along with one other key ingredient: quality - an intangible design element, but something we all look for. Let's face it, discriminating buyers don't spend a lot of time on cheesy-looking websites.

If you're wondering why your online emporium isn't doing so well, why your conversion rate is close to zero or why everybody's making money except you, do a top-down analysis of your site's aesthetics. If you don't know much about graphic design elements, outsource the work to professionals. It's low-cost and very cost-effective when sales volumes increase.

If you aren't a writer, outsource the writing to capture the right tone, the appropriate slant and the most cogent organisation of content. You may be working on a shoestring budget, but this is one area of ecommerce where it pays to get professional help if you don't know much about effective written communication and visual appeal.

You may know sales. You may be able to sell anything to anyone, anytime - face to face. Your website is different. Without that eye appeal, no one is going to stick around to hear your spiel. You have 5 seconds. Go!

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