Four tips for more effective web design projects

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I want to share some strategies for maximizing the productivity and effectiveness of  web design projects.  I’ve used them when the project has a large scope but minimal budget for a professional design team, such as non-profit organizations.

1: Visualize your users with analytics, personas, and user stories

The most important consideration in web design is to meet the needs of your users. There are two aspects to this:

First, collect statistical data on the demographics and usage patterns of existing users. Use web analytics, (GA), in-page analytics (GA events, crazyegg) to understand exactly how users use the site, what content is popular, and how that relates to revenue goals.  There is no need to rely on hunches and guesses when the relevant information is easily available.

Second: visualize the kind of customers you have and want to have with personas and user stories. Understand their goals and visualize the best way to meet them.

2: Steal ideas from the best

Web design consists mostly of weaving together design patterns from other projects. Coming up with entirely new design paradigms is very rare, difficult and risky. With that in mind, how can we choose the best design patters for a projects? By systematically borrowing from other successful designs.

One of the nice things about web development is that it is much easier to copy successful designs than in other fields. So why not pick the very best websites on the web? There are many websites which have spent millions on market research and high-end design firms. I systematically research successful designs and borrow the best elements from each. Many people make the mistake of only looking at their competition for inspiration.  But looking just like the competition won’t inspire users and limits you to a very narrow sample.

Here are three ways to find sources for inspiration:

  • Look for winners of web design awards
  • Frequent web design blogs & magazines
  • The easiest way: go straight for the websites with the biggest design budgets.

For #3, I sometimes use Wikipedia as a resource to find proxies for design budgets and just go down the list. For example, I use the list of the wealthiest charitable foundations or the largest market caps.  I go straight down the list and note the designs I like.
For example, #5 – the Ford Foundation has a very effective design.  The useful information we can gather goes far beyond visual elements.  By researching their site, press releases and job ads, I was quickly able to identify their technology platform, content management system, the person in charge of their information technology (technical people at non-profits are often willing to share expertise) and some of the contractors they hired to work on it.  The cross-section of people visiting the Ford Foundation and your site is likely to be very small, so you can borrow more liberally than you could from a competitor.

3: Develop a design language

A “design language” is a set of visual concepts which we can use as building blocks for a web design. A design language helps us share ideas visually and then create consistent look and feel for the site, even if multiple people or multiple iterations are involved. A coherent design pattern is very important for a site. I suggest something like a Google Docs document with screenshots of elements from other sites and mockups. Eventually we can weed it down to unique elements representing key building blocks: header, menu, tabular data, form, product list, etc.

A design language is also important for controlling costs, as it is cheaper to pay a designer to create a reusable set of elements than to pay them to create each page from scratch.

4: Aim for the web technologies of the future

The lifetime of the average web design is about three years, though many last much longer. Three years is a long time in web design – paradigms come and go very quickly, as does the need to respond to competitors. That’s why it’s important to find the right balance between targeting emerging technologies while controlling risk. For example, most people don’t have smartphones with full web browsers, but they are likely to in a year or two. It thus makes more sense to invest in full-featured mobile sites and not the last-generation WAP version. At the same time, we don’t know if the Apple, Android, or Windows Phone platform will be most popular in the future, so it’s best to build mobile web versions than native apps in today’s hottest platform.

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