Ten design tips for small companies creating a website

Man at workbench crafting small products

Recently I’ve been helping several small companies to re-design and re-launch their websites. On projects such as these, the designer often acts as an advisor and guide to the digital world, helping people who may often not have much experience doing so to craft an effective online presence that brings in new business.

After many years of doing this with small to mid sized firms, I’ve recognised some common challenges and assumptions that come up again and again, regardless of the industry the business operates in.

More often than not, my clients initially assume the main challenge is a technical one, and that the project should be guided from a technical viewpoint. In my experience however, the technical solution most small companies need is actually fairly straightforward. The website often works as a sort of digital brochure, making the company’s offering clear and inviting customers to buy. Usually then, the challenges actually lie in delivering a clear message to customers, and in engaging people in the business to keep working on and contributing to the site, for it’s a never-ending responsibility. The barriers to an effective and continually evolving commercial site are far more likely to be about communication, people and on-going effort than they are technology.

Based on years of practical experience, these are my top ten tips for small to mid sized companies looking to build or overhaul their site. In my first meetings with clients like this, I often refer to this list when discussing what the project team should devote their time to for best effect.

1. Know who your customers are and what matters to them

Every good design starts with a solid understanding of its users. Before you make any design decisions, pool the knowledge you have in your company about your customers – not just who clicks where on your existing site, but what kind of people your customers are. What matters to them and what might they be looking for if they use your site? Are there several different types with different needs?

Those in the business who have the most direct customer contact – such as sales and customer support teams – should be able to help you build a good picture of customer needs through anecdotal evidence and feedback. The designer will also be able to help you gather information here by conducting user research activities such as interviews and focus groups. If you engage customers directly, it’s important you start not by asking what they want from the website, but simply what they need from a business like yours and what matters most to them. This foundation of understanding is key to producing an effective design.

2. Decide what you want the website to do for your business

Ask yourself collectively how investing in the website should help your business. Who is paying for its development and what do they want out of it? Will it be a sales tool to generate new leads? Will it answer common customer questions to reduce support calls? Will it aid recruitment? By knowing the intended project outcomes, the designer will be able to fine-tune the design to more effectively meet your targets. Post-launch, you will also be able to measure against intended targets to determine your return on investment.

3. Bring a designer in early, and let her /him help you shape the design

Understandably, many companies are concerned about cost and want to produce their new site as efficiently as possible. Not having worked with designers before, they often attempt to lock down a detailed specification themselves before engaging a design professional with the idea this saves money. In my experience this is rarely what the designer needs to do good work, and it often incurs additional cost in the long run.

Instead, a clear understanding of users and business goals is the best starting point, and you will find it quicker to work with a designer through an iterative process of research, creation and testing than to detail everything out yourself. First and foremost, the designer can help to ensure you’re building the right site for your customers, and do it quickly with user research and prototypes, helping you avoid costly changes later during development.

Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive at first, it actually saves time and money to bring in a designer early to help you scope and detail your site design.

4. Know what your competition are offering

Customers browsing your site will probably be comparing you to competitors, as well. How do you rank for search? How well are your competitor’s sites designed and how often are they updated? Getting a sense of where the benchmark is for your industry will help determine whom you have to beat and how you should position yourself. It will also help to compare how competitors present themselves in terms of language and visual design – are there common ways to do this in your industry, or is everyone different? How can you position your business to stand out from the crowd? These strategic aims are worth time and thought before any design or specification is done whatsoever.

5. Figure out how to explain what you do simply

One of the biggest pitfalls I find when I conduct usability testing on company sites is that they don’t explain who the company are and what they do clearly enough. New visitors to your site need to feel confident you can offer what they’re looking for quickly, and if you don’t communicate that in seconds via simple language on strap-lines and page titles, they will go elsewhere.
Despite being initially hired for interaction design, I often spend time helping small companies to concisely describe their offering in jargon-free copy that resonates with customer expectations. You need to invest time in getting this messaging right or potential customers will likely not stick around to read anything else on your site.

6. Choose language that your customers will understand

This is a common issue that I’ve encountered often, in industries as diverse as printing, insurance and healthcare. Companies often develop their own internal jargon and it is all too easy for this language to make it’s way on to the website, too. Unless you can be certain that your customers use and understand the same terminology, you’re probably confusing and frustrating them. User research early-on can establish what language is most familiar to customers, and a good designer or copywriter will help to craft effective messaging that gets across what your want it to, but she /he will need your help to co-create this and get the details right. Plan to devote some time and energy to getting your language right and you will reap the benefits.

7. Design your navigation for customers, not the company

Much like language, the site’s navigation sometimes also ends up grouped in a manner which makes sense internally, but which may be unexpected and jarring for your customers. It’s common to see navigation grouped by company departments or teams, as this is how you’re used to thinking about your offerings every day. Get this wrong though, and you’re making it harder for potential customers to find the information they need, which may even mean they give up and try your competitor instead. As with language, user research will help establish the mental models people use when they’re browsing for the kind of product or service you offer, and give you a good idea how to organise things. As navigation labels also have a bearing on how you perform for various search terms, they are worth consulting a designer or SEO specialist on.

8. Be prepared to pay for good quality photos and videos

Engage a designer and naturally, you expect a beautiful and easy to use website by the end of the project. They will of course be able to help you present your company in the best possible light, but whilst the visual design of the site is a factor, you’ll undoubtedly need good quality photo and video content of your products, services, staff etc. Collect together what you have internally and be prepared to commission a photographer to help you get good quality imagery that does your business justice. You will not be able to match this quality yourself, so it’s worth a little investment. The quality of presentation on your site will influence visitors’ perceptions of your company, and you’ll be surprised what a measurable difference great photo and video content makes.

9. Find engaged people within the business to help create content

Once you’ve encouraged customers to visit your site and persuaded them to stick around a little longer with good messaging, it’s the quality of the content that matters next. Can you describe your services and products well? Have you got well-written articles and news posts? Are you providing information that’s of value to your visitors?

It will be the collective responsibility of your staff to produce this content and with their in-depth knowledge of your business, they’re often best placed to provide the detailed information you need, so make sure this is seen as habitual and important work. The designer meanwhile, can provide guidance to ensure language used is correct and avoids jargon or internal terms that might confuse customers.

10. Assign and train an internal team to keep working on the site

A website is a constantly evolving thing, and the work is never really done. Even with a great new design launched, you will need to keep producing new content, updating your product line and maybe even building more complex features that you didn’t have time to finish before launch. Post-launch, you need to ensure a stream of work continues so that your site doesn’t become out-dated – nothing makes your business look bad quite like a site with old information or irregular updates.

This will need to the responsibility of your company, so assign an internal team who can ensure work continues and the site is maintained. Train people up if needed on your CMS system and make sure there is a plan for when new content will go up.

Finally, ensure someone knows how to review analytics data and make regular checks – it will help you to know who is visiting and your site and what they’re getting up to – for example which articles draw the most readers or which products are most popular. Make this another habit and be prepared to change your site again in the future as you learn more about what works for your business and what doesn’t. This is how you optimise and reap the benefits of a great website, and it requires that you see it as an on-going commitment.

If you’d like to learn more or need help creating your site, then I am now available for contract design work and would be happy to discuss how I might help you with your project.
You can get in touch with me at mattcorrall@gmail.com or via LinkedIn.

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