Mar 11, 2010
Make it Simple, Focused, High-Performance, and Polished: My Web Philosophy
I was asked recently by a potential client what my “philosophy of the web” is. What seemed like a strange question at first made perfect sense when I thought about it a little more. We have an approach or philosophy about business, art, relationships, science… almost anything involving a verb. So why wouldn’t we have one for working with and on the web?
"mediocrity now howls in protest" by Hugh MacLeodWithout sounding overly simplistic, I think there are 3 types of businesses on the web, each with their own web philosophy:
- Ones that try to milk or exploit the web (think spammers, Zynga, the “make millions on Google” crowd). These people aren’t always dirtbags nor are they breaking the law but they’re looking to take everything they can get without giving much back.
- Ones that just see the web as another medium to conduct business. Decisions on the web are made the same way any other decision in the business is made. Should we change our health care provider? Should we move our office to another city? Should we invest time in a Facebook page?
- Ones that have a sincere passion for the web and what it can do for people. These are people who contribute valuable work to open source projects, manage vibrant communities of people, and write about these things because they can’t help themselves.
I whole-heartedly fall into the third category; I love the web and everything it can do. I’ve been using this crazy conglomeration of pipes and nodes since its birth and have been contributing and building for at least 5 years in various capacities. The breadth and depth of humanity expressed on the web never ceases to impress me and I’m proud to be a part of this amazing global community by giving where I can and helping others do the same.
Being a designer/developer, I have a unique perspective on the web compared to other small businesses. I know what it looks like under the hood and can tell the difference between a Yugo and a Lexus. I know what works most of the time, what doesn’t work any of the time, and what needs to be explored and tested before putting it in place. I’ve also worked with many different businesses in many different industries and can appreciate different needs and approaches.
I took a hard look at what I’ve learned about being on the web and wanted to share my complete web philosophy. If you’re reading this on my site, I invite you to add your own pieces here or address anything I’ve said here in the comments. I’d always rather have a conversation than a broadcast.
- Look for the path of least resistance
The best way to build something on the web is rarely the most expensive and never the most complicated. If it seems insurmountable then you haven’t done enough exploring. Every great developer will tell you that their most valuable tool is Google. I’ve found solutions to problems I didn’t even have, saved them, and found a use a year later. Finding the path of least resistance is simple with a few questions:
- Does what you want to make already exist? This is for anyone with a web-based business idea that revolves around a tool or a site. If you think you have a great idea for a productivity tool or a web application, it’s time to do some major research on what’s out there. If it doesn’t exist, are you looking hard enough?
- If so, are you sure you’re not the only one who would use it? It might be hard to be objective about a great idea you came up with so ask around and make sure that what you want to make actually needs to be made.
- If it does exist, does it need improvement? If so, does it need major improvement? Breaking into a segment with existing products is going to be tough if what you’re offering isn’t a big jump ahead of what is there. If your potential competition is open source, can you contribute instead of starting something new?
- If it kind of exists or exists in a partial form, can you extend or customize what’s there already? If you want to build a site with a lot of different features and functionality, you’ll need a starting point. Custom-built software starts around $20,000 and can easily cost 10 times as much depending on what you want to do. Check out Drupal, WordPress, Ning, Facebook, PHPBB, Joomla, Magento, and KickApps.
- For those looking to sell products on-line, who is your competition? If you want to sell shoes on-line you’re going to be contending with a big dog, Zappos, so you better be offering something very unique. If fact, that advice goes for anyone wanting to sell anything on the web. If you’re not standing out in some big way, you’re wasting your time.
- Have a goal in mind
This is the first thing I ask everyone I start working for: what is your goal with your web presence? For many, this seems like such an obvious question but there is usually more than meets the eye.
If, for example, you’re a dentist, you might want a site for people to read about your practice and call you to set up an appointment. Sounds pretty normal but is it really a phone call you want or would you rather have an email with a bit of information? Are you looking to increase the number of appointments or improve the quality of your inquiries? Are there common questions people have about a service you provide?
Being clear about why your site should exist makes every decision down the road a matter of returning to your goal. If a feature or function doesn’t support what your goal, don’t implement it. Having a fun, exciting, pretty site is great but if it makes it harder for people to buy your product or contact you then you’re doing everyone a disservice. Be clear about what you want to do so you don’t buy yourself into non-performing site.
This speaks mostly to business websites, i.e. one that promotes a product or service but the same idea goes for community and informative sites. Even if you’re not selling anything your site still has a function to perform. If you’re providing information, then your structure should be simple and well-thought-out. If you’re building a social site then it needs to be easy to sign up, get started, and contribute. If you’re promoting a cause then you need to make your message clear and give people easy ways to take the next step (donate, volunteer, sign up for more information). Don’t fool yourself: every site has a goal.
- Always consider performance
The more I construct on the web, the more I understand how important this piece of the puzzle is. I was tempted to put this first since it is so often overlooked but making something work well isn’t going to help you if you’re building for the wrong reason and don’t have a goal in mind. Also, a great idea with a well-designed but poorly-performing site can be corrected.
I see three major components to web performance. These are measurable and correctable and can make the difference between success and failure.
1) Page load speed – This is the low-hanging fruit of most sites. I’d estimate that 90% of the sites I come into contact with could have their loading speed improved (mine included but it’s in the upper percentile :) ). A faster site has been proven to increase the number of pages a visitor views (people are more likely to click around and stay on a site that moves quickly) and increase the likelihood someone will share a site with others.
Page loading speed comes down to how many things you’re loading on your page and how large those things are. The less your load, the faster the page. Keep your code small and combined into as few files as possible, optimize your images in an image editor like GIMP or Photoshop, and load as few external scripts (like share buttons and widgets) as possible and you’ll be in good shape.
2) Search engine optimization (SEO) – Another piece of web site performance is how well it’s constructed for search engines. On average, about a third of your traffic should be coming from search engines (more if you’re a content-based site like mine). If you’re under 20% then something might be wrong and you may need an analysis.
SEO is a set of rules dictating how a site needs to be structured to allow the search engine spiders to do their job. It’s also a strategy that comes from picking the right words in that structure and content to appear as high as possible on the results pages. Though there are outstanding questions on the finer points, there are also agreed-upon standards and it would behoove a business owner to understand the basics.
3) Conversion rate – I’m talking more and more about this as time goes on because I believe it to be the most important metric for any site that’s selling something. Your conversion rate, put simply, is the number of people who do what you want them to do (buy something, sign up, submit a contact form) divided by the number of unique visitors to your site. If I get 10 contacts a month and I have 1000 unique visitors then I’ve got a 1% conversion rate.
It’s really tough to say what a conversion rate should be and how, precisely, it should be calculated; it’s different for every site. What is universal, however, is having a sense of what your rate is and where you’re potentially going wrong. Conversion rate problems I’ve seen very typically come from an unclear path to the goal, convoluted verbiage leading to a confused user, and too many steps to take to reach the goal.
A final note on site performance. While it’s something that needs to be an important part of a site’s initial build, your performance, particularly in the areas of SEO and conversion, need to be monitored and re-visited. People change over time and so does what you offer. Collect data and watch the patterns and you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve with what you already have.
- Put your best foot forward
If you’re talking to a designer, this is the only thing that matters. If you’re talking to a developer, this doesn’t really matter very much at all. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Aesthetics are, for the most part, relative though there are a few general rules to good design that should always be considered (alignment, grouping, negative space, and balance to name a few). That being said, there are some important things you can do to put your best foot forward on the web. These rules apply to everything from your Facebook page that you have fairly minimal control over to your own site that has few limitations.
1) Check your spelling and grammar. The web is rife with juvenile spelling and painful grammar errors (just look at all the pages devoted to calling them out). Because much of the web is informal communication, it isn’t efficient to spend a lot of time editing and proofing your blog comments, Facebook status messages, and you IM messages. But, on the important stuff, an obvious error could turn off potential customers, employers, or connections. Marketing content, slogans, emails … re-read at least once before sending and you’ll put forth a much more professional air.
2) Check your pages thoroughly for errors. It seems like the web just wants to break. As entropy in the world increases, so do the number of broken links, server errors, missing images, and layout problems. Finding an fixing errors on a web page, unless your a complete nerd like me, is tedious and feels unrewarding but it’s a very important part of upkeep. Click around your site on a regular basis looking for text that shouldn’t be there, missing page titles, broken links, and embedded code that doesn’t work. There are also tools to help you like Xenu for broken links and missing images.
3) Pay a WEB designer. This shouldn’t sound too strange from a designer but it’s a rule even I follow for certain projects. Design is unlike many other disciplines in that it seems like anyone can do it. In fact, anyone can do it since Photoshop and Illustrator don’t require a license to use. What some people fail to understand is how much work actually goes into a professional design. Designing for the web takes into account human interaction guidelines, information architecture, business goals, branding conerns, performance, eye movement, and so much more. Before you call your nephew in high school who just took a digital art class, talk to a professional designer about your project and what it would entail. You’ll thank me later.
4) It needs to look good to you. I say this knowing some people have a very strange idea of what looks good and what does not. I’m of the belief that there is always a sweet spot that can be found between someone’s person taste and a designer’s eye. This sweet spot can be exceedingly hard to find, so much so that there is usually some compromise. If you hire a designer (I should say “when”), take their advice but make sure you feel good about what they made. A web site is your face to the world and you should feel proud to show it off. Bonus tip: ask in the beginning of the process how many revisions are allowed.
Am I missing anything? I welcome your feedback and insight in the comments below.
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