How to compete with the big guys

Microsoft bCentral

Creating a business website can be a major investment of time, money or both. How do you  make sure that you get the most out of that investment?

Here are six pieces of essential design advice for making your website work harder for you.

1. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Too many small businesses are enamoured with speckled backgrounds, unreadable type fonts and a bewildering gaggle of buttons and animated gizmos running across their websites. Resist the temptation to do this yourself.

A simple, clean design will do a better job than a site which looks like a flashing slot machine. You don’t see the big guys like Amazon or Yahoo using pink marble or shadowy logos for their site backdrop - with good reason. The background can quickly get in the way of the site itself,
so the best advice is to keep it clear and keep it simple.

2. Catch them in the first 10 seconds and make the site’s purpose clear.

Your front page must be designed to act both as a stop sign and a fast, effective messenger.
In two to three seconds the person should know exactly what the site is about and what the
business does.

Determine what image and message you want the customer to "get" in those first few seconds, and design your website’s front page with that objective in mind. Ask yourself, What’s in it for them?, as this is all your website visitors are interested in. Convey clear benefits in a few short sentences, summarizing what your business does.

EXPERT ADVICE: Jakob Nielsen, CEO of Nielsen Norman Group, suggests you "include a
one-sentence tagline."

"Start the page with a tagline that summarizes what the site or company does, especially if
you’re new or less than famous. Even well-known companies presumably hope to attract new
customers and should tell first-time visitors about the site’s purpose. It is especially important
to have a good tagline if your company’s general marketing slogan is bland and fails to tell
users what they’ll gain from visiting the site."

3. The first page should load FAST.

If you want to catch them in the first 10 seconds, your front page had better not take 20
seconds to reveal itself. Test it to be sure!

Photographs are usually the culprits when pages load too slowly. Many small businesses scan photos for their websites, but you need to compress photo images so they are small enough to load quickly. You can reduce file size and optimise graphics for the web by removing some colour information from your photo and reducing the quality of the image.

It’s a balancing act to remove enough information so the photo loads quickly but not so much
that the image look like an amateur pointillist painting.

EXPERT ADVICE: Usability expert, Jakob Nielsen again: "Users don’t care why response times
are slow. All they know is that the site doesn’t offer good service: slow response times often
translate directly into a reduced level of trust and they always cause a loss of traffic as users
take their business elsewhere. So invest in a fast server and get a performance expert to review
your system architecture and code quality to optimize response times."

4. A navigation system that a 6-year-old can master.

Make it extremely easy for people to find their way around your site. The navigation system
(which guides users through your site) should be designed so that a young child can master it. Website navigation is best placed on the left side of the screen, because this is where visitors EXPECT it to be (like the contents page of a book). Since some surfers still turn off graphics, you need to provide text-based navigation, as well. Most sites do this at the bottom of each page.

5. Update your website regularly.

Bring people back to your site by providing important or difficult-to-find information. The one
caution here is that you must keep information up-to-date. Recently, I visited a restaurant’s
website where the front page proudly featured a special menu for New Year’s Eve 1999. If you
don’t have time to keep it current, avoid time-sensitive information altogether.

Keep these pieces of advice in mind when it’s time to create your website or to give it a serious facelift and you’ll get more from your website and more from your visitors. There’s little point spending effort promoting your site until you know you can build customer loyalty and convert website visitors into customers. By keeping your website clear, fast and fresh, and conveying your message in a brief and compelling manner, you’ll generate better results from your web investment.

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