eSites Network Website Design


Do We Need Eye Candy?

Everyone has heard arguments dismissing the role of beauty in the design of websites and user interfaces. What is lost in these arguments is the powerful role that aesthetics play in how we come to know, feel, and respond. If we focus on aesthetics, or “the science of how things are known via the senses,” we come to realize that this distinction between how something looks and how it works is artificial.

Why aesthetics, you ask?

For starters, aesthetics is concerned with anything that appeals to our senses — not just what we see, but what we hear, smell, taste, and feel; ie., how we perceive and interpret the world around us.

Aesthetics is not just about the artistic merit of visual effects, but it is about how people respond to these visual elements. Hence, our question now becomes: how does aesthetics choices influence our understanding and emotions, and how do understanding and emotions influence our behavior?

Knowing what is what

Based on our experiences, we learn how to understand the world around us: What happens if I push that? What does this color suggest? Aesthetics plays a critical role in the processing of how people know things. In the example below, which one of these is clearly a button? And why?

Here, aesthetics communicates the function. The example on the right resembles a physical button. The beveled edges and gradient shading remove any doubt about its function. Translation: if it looks like a button, it must be a button.

Similarly, there’s a reason good confirmation screens have a check mark and are likely to involve some shade of green: Green is good. Red is bad. Yellow is something to think about. In graphic designing, we must consider how our brain interprets the meaning of color, shadows, shading, etc. We rarely notice these choices, except when people get them wrong! When we use these cues on a screen, they carry with them the same real world ideas.

How it affects us

When we talk about “affect,” we are talking about feelings and emotions — about the ways in which they influence the perceived and the actual usability. Let’s revisit our button example, with a slight change:

Both of these are obviously buttons. Neither button is “wrong” as in our previous example. However, the more attractive button is likely to be used more by people.

“...emotion is not a luxury: it is an expression of basic mechanisms of life regulation developed in evolution, and is indispensable for survival. It plays a critical role in virtually all aspects of learning, reasoning, and creativity. Somewhat surprisingly, it may play a role in the construction of consciousness.”

Good looking is trustworthy

Consider this, according to a 2002 study, the “appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size, and color schemes,” is the number one factor we use to evaluate a website’s credibility.

This makes sense. Think about how our personal appearance, our personal aesthetic, affects how people perceive us; or how product packaging influences our perception of the product inside. Clearly, appearance does affect our trust. The attention to design details implies that the same care and attention has been spent on the other less visible parts of the product — which implies that this is a trustworthy product.

Why should we really care about perceptions? Consider these findings from research presented at CHI 2007:

“…users judge the relevancy of identical search results from different search engines based on the brand… Participants in the study indicated that the results from Google and Yahoo were superior to identical results found through Windows Live or a generic search engine.”

What is a brand but perceptions? In this study, functionally identical results were perceived as better due to brand attributes such as trust, personality, and perception. What’s rational about that?

Attractive things work better

Okay, so maybe perceptions are important to product design. But what about “real” usability concerns? Do attractive products actually work better?

Researchers in Japan setup two ATMs, “identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked.” The only difference was that one machine’s buttons and screens were arranged more attractively than the other. In both Japan and Israel researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. The attractive machine actually worked better.

So now we’re left with this question: why did the more attractive but otherwise identical ATM perform better?

Basically, when we are relaxed, our brains are more flexible and more likely to find workarounds to difficult problems. In contrast, when we are frustrated and tense, our brains get a sort of tunnel vision where we only see the problem in front of us. How many times, in a fit of frustration, have you tried the same thing over and over again, hoping it would somehow work the seventeenth time around?

Another explanation: We want those things we find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive.

Stitching it all together

We can’t actually separate cognition from affect.

“affect, which is inexplicably linked to attitudes, expectations and motivations, plays a significant role in the cognition of product interaction… the perception that affect and cognition are independent, separate information processing systems is flawed.”

In other words, how we “think” cannot be separated from how we “feel.”

In short, our rational choices aren't so rational. From studies on choice to first impressions, neuroscience is exploring how the brain works—and it’s kind of scary. We’re not nearly as in charge of our decisions as we’d like to believe.

Industrial product design, automobile manufacturing and other more mature industries get this. These disciplines already know: the most direct way to influence a decision or perception is through the emotions.

So, is “pretty design” important?

When we think about design and development, how do you think of visual design? Is it a skin, that adds some value — a layer on top of the core functionality? Or is this beauty something more?

In the early 1900s, “form follows function” became the mantra of modern architecture. This changed to “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union,” using nature as the best example of this integration.

The more we learn about people, and how our brains process information, the more we learn the truth of that phrase: form and function aren’t separate items. If we believe that style somehow exists independent of functionality, that we can treat aesthetics and function as two separate pieces, then we ignore the evidence that beauty is much more than decoration. Our brains can’t help but agree.

To Say No Or Not To Say No...

I’ve been doing website design and development work for over 10 years, so you’d think I’d have this stuff licked.

Hardly! I used to think the hard part was “getting to the yes,” but over time, I’ve learned that the hardest part isn’t closing the deal, but figuring out which deals are actually worth closing. It all begins with taking a hard look at the prospective client you’re talking to, and keeping an eye on early behaviors that all too frequently lead to problems.

“You can’t afford to be picky”

Determining which client you want to work with is often considered a luxury. Don’t think of it that way. Even if the economy is in the dumps and you absolutely need the work, you should be very critical of the prospective clients you’re considering working with. These are the people who will become part of your immediate and potentially long-term future, and you want to make sure you don’t spend that time drinking whiskey to get through the day or grinding your teeth at night.

Remember: the prospect you’re considering is the client you’ll have.

The Five Red Flags

Years ago, when I first started noticing these signs, I’d often ignore them or say, “They won’t be this way when we start working together.”

Oh yes they will. Bank on it.

Be on the lookout for these classic signs that can lead to Costco-sized bottles of antacid.

If you find yourself unable to come to terms after negotiating ten versions of your contract or design with your prospect, or if they keep asking for updated project plans before you’ve even signed an agreement, beware. They may show similar tendencies during the actual project. All deliverables may be scrutinized to an extraordinary degree. In rare cases, such scrutiny garners better results, but it more frequently results in watered-down, design-by-committee mediocrity.

Be sure to ask your prospect up front about how many people from their side will be part of the project effort. If it’s a number greater than three, be careful. Large project teams, especially those in which everyone has equal input, often lead to unfruitful compromise and watered-down results. They also tend to extend timelines, because receiving and digesting feedback from large groups can be a tedious process—especially since it can be delivered in contradictory fragments.

A simple pre-project-questionnaire helps identify the prospect’s project goals and expectations. Often it uncovers valuable nuggets of information that help decide whether or not the opportunity is viable. If the answers are vague or unanswered, it's a sign that the prospect may be hurried or disengaged, or that they don't fully comprehend what they’re looking for. On the flip side, if the answers are verbose, well constructed, and even conversational or witty, that’s a sign the prospect “gets it” and that the relationship could be very rewarding.

If your prospect comes to you in March and says the site needs to be up and running in April, be very careful. Not only should that seem unreasonable, it also means you need to figure out why the timeline is so short. Is the prospect simply trying to use up the budget? Are they rushing to beat a competitor to market? Are they being pushed by higher-level management not familiar with the work the project requires? You'll need more time, especially if you already have other projects cooking. Another situation: You receive an inquiry from a prospect asking you for an immediate phone call to discuss an project right away. Like in an hour. You should ask yourself why they are in such a hurry. If a prospect imposes a deadline for an introductory meet-and-greet phone call, imagine the deadlines you’ll see pop up during the project.

If you’re dealing with an organization (say a startup or small company) with a head honcho who has a lot of things on their plate, learn what role the boss will have with the project. Often, a prospect may tell you that the boss will be peripherally engaged, but the day-to-day management and approvals for the project will come from the boss’ team. Don’t buy that for a second. It’s not uncommon for the boss to be present at the kickoff, vanish for the entire project definition and architecture phases of the project, and then pop in after you’ve presented your second round of design comps to tell you “it’s all wrong.”

Just because I’ve focused on some warning signs here, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of positive signs to look for when evaluating prospects. There are, but that's another article. And it’s always easier to point out the problems, right? My hope is that with these five red flags in mind, you'll avoid potential headaches in any engagement, making your life a happier one.

The Matter is What Matters!

People use websites to make decisions — from what product to buy to what health treatment to seek. When someone consults a website, there is a precious opportunity not only to provide useful information but also to influence their decision. To make the most of this opportune moment, we need to understand the concept of targetting.

A definition

Greeks defined kairos as saying or doing the right thing at the right time. Clues to understanding this lie in its dual etymological roots: Weaving and archery. In weaving, this occurs in the instant at which the shuttle passes through an opening in the loom’s threads; this is the moment when all the threads come together to create the fabric. Similarly, on the web, the threads of technology, design, content, culture, and user science intertwine to form the fabric— or context — that swathes the opportune moment.

But what seizes the moment? That’s where the other etymological root of kairos, archery, sheds light. Something has to act like an arrow and — ZING! — hit the mark, with enough force to stick. For Greeks that something was spoken language. On the web, that something is the written language.

On a website, we craft a context for the opportune moment. But we then need to aim at that context with words that zing like the proverbial arrow.

Writing that matters

Dubbed “captology,” or the study of computers as persuasive technology, it studies the intersection of influence and technology. Research shows how people are influenced by their relationship with technology. It is the value of getting information to people at the right time.

Similarly, another research explores writing, technology, and literacy. A recent work analyzed student writing in a range of contexts — from chat sessions to academic papers. It was found that students’ use of technology does not damage their writing abilities but, in fact, improves their awareness of the right word at the right time.

As this study suggests, social media, such as blogging and tweeting, turns users into writers who can respond to the opportune moment with the right words quickly. For example, social media allows companies to respond to an angry or confused customer. Importantly, what social media users write is published publicly for anyone to see, a situation that requires writing quickly yet carefully. Users of social media, therefore, need to know the basics of writing for the opportune moment. Influential words for planned opportune moments, such as a landing page, are more critical than ever.

To select the right words, take cues from rhetoric and psychology. I do not mean use unctuous sales language or manipulative mind control, nor do I necessarily mean use catchy words. I simply mean add influential weight to web writing based on centuries of rhetorical wisdom and a growing body of scientific knowledge.

More than an opportunity

People make innumerable decisions using websites. Our websites, then, offer countless possibilities to influence. We can turn these possibilities into realities by understanding and writing for the right word at the right time — but we often do not.

To push for quick word choices by playing down their consequences, I’ve watched more than one web professional shrug and say “We’re not saving lives here.” Sometimes, I even nodded in agreement. Our websites could help people help themselves — and the people around them — by guiding them into good decisions.

When I think about that potential, I’m convinced that we have more than an opportunity to say the right words at the right time. We have a responsibility to do so. Let’s embrace the responsibility, not shirk it, by investing in words that matter.

Should you do email marketing?

The simple answer is yes and here’s why:

  • Its targeted – very fine segmentation is possible.
  • Actionable data is available – with email marketing you can find out who opened your mail, who forwarded it and whose email ids are bouncing.
  • It builds trust and creates relationships thereby increasing your chances of winning new business.
  • It establishes your expertise. If you were sending out an email newsletter on your industry it shows your readers how much you know about it and therefore builds credibility.

The Direct Marketing Association released a study called the "Power of Direct" economic impact every year. The study says that commercial email returned $43.62 for every dollar spent on it in 2009. The next best medium was Internet Search advertising that returned $21.85 to every dollar.

So how do you go about it?

The easiest way is to sign up for an email marketing service that allows you to:

  1. Manage lists – different lists for different mailings, segmentation for targeting.
  2. Manage emails – maintain copies of emails sent so you can reuse them.
  3. Track open, forward, bounce, subscribe, unsubscribe rates – key statistics in determining if your campaigns are working.

Assuming you want such a service, what should you be wary of?

While it seems like a no-brainer to start email marketing, there are some pitfalls you need to be vary of.

Email marketing is also pretty highly regulated as it is an official and legal form of communication. So several countries have legislated laws against unsolicited email. In the US the law is called CAN-SPAM and is one of the strictest laws. Also please note most web servers are in the US. So if some one sues you, even if you wont go to jail, you may not be able to send out another email ever as any server holding your site will be shut down. So its important to ensure that your emails are compliant with all relevant spam laws.

Simply sending thousands of emails is no use if ISPs ban your emails as spam. Since Spam laws are very strict, ISPs usually have a very strict policy of not allowing what looks like spam to go through their servers. Google for instance does not allow you to send out more than 500 mails per day. So an email marketing solution should enable you to send a potentially unlimited number of mails while still ensuring the mails are sent out and they ultimately reach the addresses they are sent to.