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Bad Web Designer, No Cookie:

Why You Shouldn't Hire an Ad Agency to Design Your Web Site

In these latter days of the Big Web Business Push, a lot of companies entrust the design and construction of their sites to an advertising agency. It makes sense, right? Agencies already design billboards, brochures, and corporate identity you give them the web site too.

Big mistake. Why? Ad agencies generally not only lack the expertise to design a successful - as opposed to eye-catching - web site, but their training and mindset lead them into practices that actively work against good web design.

By the time visitors arrive at your site, you already have their attention. Your job is to avoid losing it.

Ad agencies are, unsurprisingly, used to the advertising model of communication. The advertising model is based on first attracting people's attention, and then getting them to pay attention to you long enough to absorb your message. To this end, advertisements use unusual typography, loud colors, attention-getting noises, and lots of glitz. They have to - their mission in life is to grab the viewer's attention away from something else they're doing - reading a magazine article or driving down a highway or heading out to the kitchen for a beer during the commercial break - and they typically have only a few seconds, if that, to do so. The ad that doesn't stand up and yell for attention won't get it.

But Web sites don't work the same way.

To get to your site, a visitor has to have deliberately looked for it - looked it up in a search engine, clicked a link, or typed your URL. The visitor's there for a reason, and if you're a business, that reason usually is to get some kind of information about you and your products or to make a purchase. By the time visitors arrive at your site, you already have their attention. Your job is to avoid losing it. And paradoxically, the same tricks that can get attention in an ad become obnoxious and distracting if they're used on a person who's already focused.

What are the most common annoyances you see on commercially-designed web sites? Well, mostly they're things that you're used to seeing in print ads: creative but hard-to-read typography; distracting background sounds and animations; big colorful images that irritate visitors with long download times; fixed-width layout that forces visitors to scroll constantly back and forth. The very practices that can benefit advertising turn into negatives when they're used on your company's web site.

A Brick Wall Blocking Your Customer

Imagine a potential customer walking off the street into your storefront, who's come there to get information or to buy. If the first thing he sees is a wall that prevents him from taking a look at your products, even if there's a way around the wall, he'll probably just leave unless he's very motivated to buy from you. Web sites work the same way. The visitor's actively decided to go to your site, but visitors who run into a blockage are a lot more likely to walk out and shop elsewhere.

In web design, a blockage is something that keeps you from getting at the content you want until you change your setup preferences or get a new browser. For example, if a site has spec sheets that consist of text, anyone ought to be able to read them...but not if you have to use a spiffy Javascript navigation sequence in order to get to the spec sheets page. In this case, the Javascript navigation is a blockage point for anyone who either doesn't have a Javascript-aware browser, or has it turned off. (This space recently discussed some common blockage problems.)

In fact, sloppy design can make a site not just hard to use, but completely inaccessible to part of your customer base. For example, if you go to Maytag's site with a text browser (or a graphical browser with image-loading turned off, an option many people choose who are on low-speed connections or have to pay per-minute charges for their online time), this is what you see:


And that's all you see. Imagine a customer walking into a Maytag dealership and finding nothing but a blank wall blocking his view, and you get some idea of the irritation this web site is causing to Maytag's customers and potential customers. If you're in business, it's not a pleasant thought.

What Makes a Good Site

Let's look at the other side. What are the factors that will keep the visitor on your site?

We already said that the average visitor is there deliberately, and is looking for information - usually some specific bit. If your site makes it easy to find this information, it will be successful for this visitor. Careful attention to quick download and rendering; ease of navigation; broad accessibility to any kind of browser or configuration, so all your potential customers can see what you have to offer without being insulted by demands to reconfigure their browsers. Surprise! The average ad agency has experience with none of these things, because none is needed in a typical ad.

Navigation ease? Ads are usually deliberately simple and quickly absorbed; they don't try to present a lot of complicated information, so they don't need innovative navigational solutions. Performance and speed? Most ad formats don't even use such a concept (what would "speed" mean for a brochure?). Accessibility to different configurations and preferences? TV commercials sure don't have to worry about this, other than to make sure the type size is big enough to read from the couch.

A good web site is easy to use, rather than frustrating; rich in content, rather than stuffed with glitz; easy on the eyes, rather than distracting; and aesthetically pleasing. The graphic artist at an ad agency can certainly help you with the last item, but for the first three, you'll need someone with additional skills.

What You Can Do

If your company already has a web site, consider having it tested for usability. These tests should measure download and rendering time for your pages; accessibility of the information on your site to a wide variety of browsers and configurations; and the ease or difficulty of finding information on the site. You can do some quick testing yourself, or ask someone else in your company to do it. Here are a few simple ideas:

Check the site at different speeds.
Instead of using a corporate Ethernet connection, log in using a 28.8K modem. Do the pages load quickly, or do you find yourself waiting impatiently for something to appear on your screen?
See what it looks like without pictures.
Use the preferences to turn off automatic image-loading. Can you still tell what the page is about? Could you navigate through it easily, even if you'd never seen the graphics? If you have access to a text-mode browser such as Lynx, try using it with the site. Does it work? (Remember that any blind visitors to your site will see only the text. That's also true of the "spiders" that index web pages for search engines.)
Try different browsers and versions.
If you have access to a WebTV, or a personal-computer browser other than Internet Explorer or Netscape, or an older version of these prominent browsers, try that out too. Browser capabilities change from version to version as their hardware requirement grow, and many people don't bother to upgrade.
Perform the "Mom Test".
Ask your mom to locate some information on your site - the price of a particular car model, say, if you sell cars. Don't tell her where it is; just give her the main site URL. Ask her about her experience: did she find the information easily? Was it in the logical place? Was the site easy to use, or did it intimidate or annoy her? (If your mom isn't available, or if she's very web-experienced, substitute another relative or friend who isn't an expert and will give you a candid opinion.)

If you're considering hiring a web design firm, do this kind of quick testing on some of their other sites, and particularly the firm's own site. Don't just check what it looks like on a fast connection with a high-powered computer and large screen; if you're a typical business, most of your visitors won't have that sort of setup, and you want to make sure your site will work for all of them.

If your site is currently in progress, ask your designer about accessibility issues: will the site be usable from any browser, or is it limited to a few? How much time has been spent on making sure navigation is easy and simple? Is the site aesthetically pleasing for a wide variety of user preferences - fonts, window sizes, and other variables that a browser user can change - or has it been designed only to look good with the defaults? If the answers don't satisfy you, do some simple accessbility testing yourself, and discuss your results with your web designer.

Be careful if a prospective web designer doesn't want to talk about compatibility issues. Some danger signs include:

So who does have the experience you need? Who should you get to design your site? There's no ready-made answer - web design is a new field. But when you're hiring someone, look for designers who have experience in ergonomics, usability testing, and computer user-interface design. Many of the same issues come up for websites as for software. (From one point of view, a web page is a very specialized form of computer software.)

You'll need graphic-arts skills at some point along the line, certainly, but these skills are not central to the task. A web designer who is not a graphic artist can work with one to get advice about color choices, well-designed logos, and so on; but a web designer who doesn't understand performance and compatibility issues will have a hard time even knowing when to go for help. In fact, there's no reason advertising agencies and graphic artists can't develop these competencies, along with the skills already in their toolbox. Just don't assume an ad agency already has them.

Links of Interest

Hiring Web People
A FAQ by Kirrily 'Skud' Robert for nontechnical people who need to hire a web person. Describes web job classifications, the skills needed for each, and good and bad signs to look for during the interview.
Whom to Hire
A brief column by Jakob Nielsen on hiring for web design. Written in October 1995, an aeon ago in web time, but still well worth reading.

Jeanne A. E. DeVoto
Copyright © 1998 Jeanne A. E. DeVoto