Website Design, Readability and Usability

Mention the concept of readability and most of us think of things like Flesch-Kincaid scores and grade levels. But there’s another side to readability that is too often overlooked: design. Here are a few points to consider when you are guiding your design team or evaluating their content-related work.

Mention the concept of readability and most of us think of things like Flesch-Kincaid scores and grade levels. But there’s another side to readability that is too often overlooked: design.

As a new website is being designed, layouts are typically created for all page types. Even if dummy or “greeked” content is used, that content is styled to match the overall design and with the intention that content on the site will match.

That’s a good first step toward ensuring solid usability, but placeholder text rarely has the same range of elements as real text — the headlines and subheadlines, bullet points and pull quotes, and most critically, the links that are an important part of any website.

To combat the problem — and to keep coders from making design and usability decisions as they build out the site — here are a few points to consider when you are guiding your design team or evaluating their content-related work.

Readability: Content vs. Control

If a website does not create a distinction between editorial content and navigational controls, you will sense a problem. You may not notice it in the way a design or UX expert would, but you will notice it because the site will make you stop and think, perhaps just momentarily, about whether what you’re looking at is information to be processed or a way to move around the site.

This is rarely an issue for the main menu on a site, which are set apart from page content quite plainly and is usually consistent on nearly every page of a site. You’re more likely to run into issues with submenus and, especially, with content that doesn’t quite fit the site’s overall structure.

The latter occurs when a site wasn’t built with, say, a third level of pages in mind, and there is one small area of the site that needs that extra depth. Hardly ever will a content manager want to be bothered with calling in the designers for so small an issue, so the extra level is created as an afterthought.

Without a designer and with the inevitable focus on speed, it’s no wonder you can wind up with content that looks like navigation and navigation that looks like content.

Linking Properly

Menus always make links obvious, but there are times when it is necessary — and more appropriate — for links to appear as text within the page content. How you set these links apart is an important part of usability and a key design consideration. That said, this is a place where a designer can sometimes get in the way.

While nobody wants to see text links that look like they came straight out of 1996 — except maybe Craigslist — but from a usability standpoint, that’s a far better alternative than links that are designed to “match” the page design to the point that they are nearly undetectable. Yes, a dark gray link will match black text better than bright blue, but nobody is going to know it’s a link — especially if it’s not bold, underlined, or a different typeface.

Craig's List Screen Shot - High Readability?

There’s a lot of ground in the middle between these two options. Be sure to maximize usability first and design second.

Does It Scan?

There are hundreds of resources that will offer opinions about how long each line of text should be on your website, how large your type should be, and even whether serif or sans serif fonts are more readable. You can drive yourself mad trying to find rules to follow. Your best bet is to keep it simple.

Thinking: The Mistake Your Website Shouldn’t Make

Anyone who’s spent any time around me at all knows I’m a fan of Steve Krug’s book, “Don’t Make Me Think.” But what exactly does that mean? Clearly, we do want them to think about our content. What we don’t want them to think about is how to find our content or the contact form or anything else for that matter. We want to avoid playing with expectations. Cleverness should not get in the way of clarity.

Anyone who’s spent any time around me at all knows I’m a fan of Steve Krug’s book, “Don’t Make Me Think.” But what exactly does that mean? Clearly, we do want them to think about our content.

What we don’t want them to think about is how to find our content or the contact form or anything else for that matter. We want to avoid playing with expectations. Cleverness should not get in the way of clarity.

With that in mind, and the hope that you’ll find a copy of Don’t Make Me Think for yourself — it’s a quick read! — here are some of the practical applications of the “Krug Philosophy.”

Keep It Simple

If you overproduce a web page — as can often happen if it’s the design team that’s leading the show — it’s more likely that visitors will dismiss important information as marketing fluff. This goes for the big picture as well as granular elements like buttons and links. That isn’t to say that your site needs to look like Craigslist, but you should be sure that user-friendliness doesn’t take a back seat to design for design’s sake.

Two notes on this: first, simplicity may be, well, simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’re going to have “less design,” you’re probably going to have to sweat the details more to get it right. And second, laugh at Craigslist if you want, but first have a look at the website of perhaps the world’s leading usability experts, the Nielsen Norman Group. Chances are, they’re site resembles the Craigslist site more than it does yours.

Keep It Digestible

You might be tempted to tell them everything you can. Don’t. If you think that laying it all out there is the way not to miss anyone who might be even vaguely interested in what you’re selling you’re wrong.

First of all, doing so makes you sound desperate, like a kid laying out every possible reason, most of them entirely irrelevant, why she should be allowed to go to the big party this weekend …

Second, well, it’s too much. People will skip the wall of text in search of something that can give them the information they want quickly.

But be sure you understand why speed is so important here. I don’t buy the whole “short attention span” argument in this case. Most of us have plenty of attention to give to the things that are important. But we’re all busy and we want to solve our problems quickly. Concise copy make that possible. Give me the supporting data at a secondary level. I’ll seek it out if I want it.

Make Search Matter

It has to work, its granularity has to fit the needs of the site, and results pages have to be useful. In other words, don’t provide more facets/filters than you have content to support. The result will be too many empty search results pages, which never looks good.

Don’t Make Me Think — Or Choose: Marketing From a Position of Strength

You think you’re being helpful by offering your site visitors and email subscribers a lot of choices. You’re not. You’re being counter-productive. And you may even come across as a little desperate. The counter-productivity is a result of our natural inclination to shut down when confronted with too many options to process.

Position of StrengthYou think you’re being helpful by offering your site visitors and email subscribers a lot of choices. You’re not. You’re being counter-productive. And you may even come across as a little desperate.

The counter-productivity is a result of our natural inclination to shut down when confronted with too many options to process. You’ve probably heard of this referred to as analysis paralysis or the paradox of choice.

These phenomena are very real, and offering too many choices, even if they are presented in a visually compelling fashion, leads a higher percentage of your audience to opt for “Door No. 3” — doing nothing.

Offering fewer choice requires that you do the research and planning work before crafting your offer so that you know what will resonate with each of your audience segments. Once you’ve done the work to establish your audience’s needs, there’s no risk in offering a manageable number of options. You already know what they want.

Reducing that risk has the added benefit of eliminating even a whiff of the desperation that comes with trying to please everyone all the time.

Appealing a little to everyone isn’t the goal. The goal is to appeal strongly to those best suited to benefit from your product or service. This allows you to market from a position of strength. You’ve built a great offer around a product you know to be of value to your target audience. Now you know your marketing is much more helpful than intrusive. (Assuming you’re backing it up with great content.)

Don’t dilute your message with extraneous choices or choices designed to appeal to other segments. Those belong elsewhere, on separate landing pages or in emails targeted specifically to those segments. (You are segmenting your email list, right?)

The action you want your audience to take should be immediately clear, apparent, and transparent. This isn’t the Penn & Teller show. You’re not going to trick anyone into taking meaningful action.  You can only convince them that what you’re offering is worth their time.

That isn’t to say that you want to offer your audience no choice. Frequently, a choice of options is appropriate for even a tightly segmented audience. But that choice should be limited to just a few options. As in two or three — tops.

And your CTAs should not be equally weighted. As I mentioned above, there should be a clear objective, with everything in the email or landing page pointing toward that desired action. The secondary action(s) should be just that — secondary. They should be an acknowledgement that our research and data and segmentation might not be perfect and that some members of our audience might be just slightly off the target you’ve created. That’s OK. Those secondary choices also serve to re-affirm the choice the bigger part of your bell curve is making.

Experience vs. Expedience in Digital Marketing

As a marketer in a time-starved world, you are walking a fine line when it comes to gaining your audience’s attention and keeping their attention. These are two very different things. One requires an experience with personality. The other requires a streamlined presentation.

Experience MeterAs a marketer in a time-starved world, you are walking a fine line when it comes to gaining your audience’s attention and keeping their attention. These are two very different things. One requires an experience with personality. The other requires a streamlined presentation.

In order to gain their attention, you need to establish personality on some level. You need to create a brand that gives you the space to establish the all-important emotional connection. Without that connection, you have little chance of standing out from your competition and rising above commodity provider status.

At the same time, a significant portion of your audience at any given moment isn’t really interested in your story. They just want the facts. As in, “Answer my questions so I can be on my way.” No fluff, no filler, no backstory.

Brand and Content Must Be Married

Together, these two truths mean that in order to create a great online presence, you need to find a way to bake your personality into the experience itself. So rather than having a really clever animation occupying center stage on your home page (and annoying those folks who really just want to get where they’re going), your personality needs to shine through in how you present not just your story/brand, but also in how you present “just the facts.”

New Content Formats

This will have an impact on the content you create. The spreadsheet that was OK a decade ago — and may still be just what the doctor ordered, depending on your audience — is, in many cases, better presented as an infographic now. The thousand-word treatise on how a client can tell whether they’ll benefit from your expertise will be more effective as a short video. (With an illustrated, annotated version of the treatise available for those who prefer to consume your content that way.)

So you don’t just need great content now. You need to produce that content in ways that take more creativity, effort, and, yes, budget, than a couple of paragraphs of text would.

As if that’s not challenge enough, we marketers also need to keep in mind the venerable ideas of Steve Krug. The title of his book says it all: Don’t Make Me Think. It is about web usability most directly, but applies to digital marketing much more broadly. It is well worth the read.

Exceed Expectations, Don’t Explode Them

His message is that your creativity can’t challenge your audience’s expectations to the point of confusion — even momentary confusion. People expect a contact link on the right-hand side of your main menu or your header. Is there any compelling reason to move it to the lower left? Or to call it “reach out” instead of Contact? Maybe, but you’d better be sure that your audience agrees with you.

Have you been wrestling with this balance? I would love to hear from you if you’d be willing to share your story, even anonymously, and would be thrilled to share the experiences of any of you who have succeeded in striking a balance that works for your marketing and your organization.

5 Effective Audience Segments for Digital Marketing

Too often, we talk to marketers whose idea of audience segmentation is not just limited, but terribly egocentric. You are, I’m sure, at least a few steps ahead of the worst offenders, but you may still be leaving opportunities unaddressed. Here are some new ways to think about your audience.

Hitting the Target Audience SegmentToo often, we talk to marketers whose idea of audience segmentation is not just limited, but terribly egocentric. By egocentric, I mean that they view their audience segments in terms of their own product or service lines: Segment 1 is the folks we sell this service to. Segment 2 is the folks we sell that service to.

You are, I’m sure, at least a few steps ahead of the worst offenders, but you may still be leaving opportunities unaddressed. Here are some new ways to think about your audience.

1. Industry

Industry considerations are probably the grand-daddy of all segmentation. Even folks who think egocentrically about their audience are smart enough to realize that their products are likely to be appealing in different ways to different audiences. The features are the same, but the benefits change depending on the industry’s needs.

You can capitalize on this by creating content that is industry-specific and highlights the benefits that are most pertinent to that industry’s most common needs. As with all of the segmentation examples we’re discussing, this can be implemented in some combination of your website landing pages, email marketing subscriptions and even speaking engagements, among other things.

2. Company Size

Just as different industries will have different needs, so will organizations of varying sizes. Again, you’ll want to focus on differentiation of benefits of your product or service. For example, your product’s ability to eliminate the need for more staff as business grows is likely to be more valuable to a large organization than a small one — saving a few hours a week isn’t going to change the head count in an organization where those savings are multiplied by only one employee. But if the multiplier is dozens of employees, that’s a different story.

3. Role

The CFO may be the decider-in-chief when it comes to adding products or services for accounting and compliance teams, but her interests will be quite different from those of an in-the-trenches accountant in the same organization. If she’s smart, she’ll let those accountants have their say in what tools they get to use for their tasks. If you’re smart, you’ll position your solutions differently to each role. For one group you might want to highlight how your solution makes their lives easier day-to-day. For the other, cost savings or consistency across the organization might be the pain point to address.

4. Past Purchase Behavior

You don’t interact with your close friends the same way you do with acquaintances or complete strangers, do you? So why wouldn’t you differentiate your marketing for new prospects, lapsed customers and key accounts?

Technology is getting all the press these days, but good solid relationships matter, too. Talking to your customers can help you understand typical paths as companies grow (or contract) and mature or morph into new businesses. With that understanding, you can pro-actively engage with customers who are starting down similar paths. There’s real magic in knowing what a client will need before he does!

5. Content Consumption Behavior

Technology again gets a starring role in the realm of content consumption behavior. Tracking what content is most popular in aggregate is fantastic; it guides you to create more content like it. But tracking individual preferences is powerful, too, since it can help you make content recommendations that are most relevant to that prospect’s needs — and most useful to you in helping them through the buyer’s journey.

Not all of these segmentation approaches will make sense for your business, but technology continues to make tracking behavior and segmentation easier than ever, so you should be revisiting these concepts on at least an annual basis. As your business changes so might the ways you drill down into your funnel to best meet your prospects’ needs.

Your Website Is a Conversation, Not a Presentation

Is your website a conversation with your clients and prospects? Or is it a presentation?
This can be a tough distinction to make because, of course, your website is a proxy for you. You’re not actually sitting face-to-face with your prospects. But even without the back-and-forth of an actual conversation, you can get better Web results by striving to create a dialogue by encouraging engagement with your audience.

Social conversationIs your website a conversation with your clients and prospects? Or is it a presentation?

This can be a tough distinction to make because, of course, your website is a proxy for you. You’re not actually sitting face-to-face with your prospects. But even without the back-and-forth of an actual conversation, you can get better Web results by striving to create a dialogue by encouraging engagement with your audience.

In Other Words, You Want to Control the Narrative, Not Dominate It

Of course, you can’t control where your site visitors are going to click next. That’s the beauty and the curse of the Web’s non-linear nature. You can’t even control whether they start at “the beginning”. (If your social media, SEO and email marketing are relevant players, your website home page isn’t always going to be their entry point.)

But You Can Encourage Them to Take the Action You Desire

Strong copy, intelligent presentation, and a little bit of coding savvy can work wonders for your site — but for starters, you’ll want to define a solid set of goals. You have to know the action you ultimately want your site visitors to take. And you have to know, as the conversation moves along, what you want your audience to be thinking about. The thoughts your website provokes in consumers will be the best determinant of their course of action.

Recognizing that your audience has more options than “previous” and “next” has the added benefit of forcing you to stay tightly focused on your topic and think in terms of your audience’s interests, not your own agenda.

This is where many marketers go wrong. Staying focused does not necessarily mean diving into the minutiae of a topic. Nor does it mean forcing prospects to move forward with no destination possible other than your conversion point.

Because, of Course, There’s Always Other Options

But not options you want pursued: the browser’s close button, or your competitor’s website. Instead, you must guide them toward the action you ultimately want them to take by offering a range of possible paths. They may feel it’s time to reach out and contact you by phone. Or if their need is less pressing, they might want to subscribe to your newsletter and learn more over time. Or a trip to your “related materials” section might be in order, so they can dive into a topic in more detail.

You have to offer these options because there’s no way of knowing where a prospect is in the buying process when they arrive at your site.

There’s a fine line to be walked here: Just as droning on and on about a topic is likely to turn off prospective clients, so too can offering them every option under the sun.

With the exception of certain pages of your website — the home page, most notably — most of your digital marketing should be focused enough to appeal to just a select segment of your audience. They should be reading your email newsletter because it is likely to be of interest to them. That newsletter should contain links to the pages of your site that will be most relevant to their needs. And the calls to action embedded in that page should lead them to the next piece of content that addresses their needs and creates your case as the best solution for them.

The more audience segments you are trying to appeal to, the more difficult this can be, so it is important to craft your online marketing with specific segments in mind. Next time, we’ll talk a bit more about effective audience segmentation.

Digital Marketing: It’s Not About You

Your prospects don’t care about you. They don’t care about what you do. What they care about is what you can do for them.

It feels appropriate to kick off this new column with that cold, hard truth because it’s how I start just about every presentation I give these days. The ideas captured in that assertion are the foundation for just about everything we’ll cover in this column: websites, content marketing and digital marketing.

digital guyYour prospects don’t care about you. They don’t care about what you do. What they care about is what you can do for them.

It feels appropriate to kick off this new column with that cold, hard truth because it’s how I start just about every presentation I give these days. The ideas captured in that assertion are the foundation for just about everything we’ll cover in this column: websites, content marketing and digital marketing.

The key notion here is that your marketing can’t be about you. This, of course, is no revelation. It’s been a basic tenet of marketing since marketing’s existence. Think of all the times you’ve been advised to talk about “benefits, not features” or to focus on your prospects’ pain points.

With the persistent encouragement to apply these techniques, it’s shocking how many corporate websites take exactly the opposite approach — it’s all about them and their products and why they are better than the rest. Remarkable, isn’t it, how every company is above average?

If you’re feeling brave, take a look at your own website right now. Does the me/we/our count outnumber the use of you/your? Is the first item on your main menu “About Us?” Does your home page copy talk about your decades of experience? If you said yes to any of these questions, you may have a problem.

You’re in luck, though. Solving these kinds of problems is exactly what we’ll devote this column to, along with:

  • Big picture strategy discussions
  • Tool recommendations
  • Implementation ideas for the Web, email marketing and social media
  • Integration recommendations for specific departments, including sales, customer service and product teams

Let’s get back to that home page of yours. In addition to checking whether the focus is on you or your customers, check if you’re committing any of the following deadly sins — we’ll lay them out here and dive into addressing them over the next few months.

Saying Too Much

One of the most common situations we find ourselves in when developing a new site is mediating between stakeholders in different parts of the company. They all believe their work is too important not to be featured on the home page. Of course, emphasizing everything means nothing stands out. You’ll be better served by editing ruthlessly and testing content to see what really performs best and deserves to be on your home page.

Saying Too Little

Currently there is a website trend of heavy imagery use paired with sparse copy. I’m sure the argument in favor of this practice centers on the emotional value of a powerful image packing the punch of a thousand words. But aside from looking like every other website out there, don’t you want to convey at least some basic sense of what you do and whom you can help? Don’t get me wrong — emotions matter in buying decisions. But it’s not all that matters.

Speaking to Everyone

Considering the topic of whom you can help, “everyone” is not a good answer. Even if your offerings really can help everyone, it would be foolish to believe you can stake out that territory successfully on a website home page. You need to pick your most important audience segments and speak to them. Yes, someone is likely to feel left out. The increased effectiveness you’ll have in your best segments, however, will more than compensate for losing out on a small number of less-than-ideal clients.

Making no Requests

Your website visitors will be more likely to take action if you suggest they do so. Having well-crafted offers and prominently featured calls to action are key to your website’s success. Now, that doesn’t mean asking for a credit card number after offering a prospect a small blurb of basic information. It might simply mean suggesting that they click through to another page that helps them get to know you better.

I look forward to getting to know you better over the coming months. Please reach out to let me know what digital marketing questions you’d like to see answered and I’ll include them in an upcoming column.