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What Small Business Owners Need to Know About Web Design

As I work on designing websites for many different types of businesses, I often come up against the same issues.  Regardless of the industry, there are a few things that every small business owner needs to know about their company website.  The way I see it, these things break down into four areas: Form, Function, Format and Information.

Form:
Your Audience Has Presuppositions

If you have customers, clients, members, supporters, subscribers or readers, you have an audience.  If you have an audience they will bring their presuppositions to the table.  Therefore, you must intentionally target them based on (and around) those presuppositions.  Do not try to target everyone or you will target no one.  Ilya Pozin, in a Forbes.com contribution, encourages small business that, "It’s best to figure out your most frequent users and focus on creating the best possible experience for them."

Think through who your audience is and what presuppositions will shape the way they view your site.   Are they male or female, young or old, affluent or struggling, versed in technology or opposed to it, shopping for your goods and services or just browsing?  Is this for business, or is this personal?  All of these factors (and many more) can shape the way a client sees and understands your site.

Sometimes you have to target someone other than the actual buyer.  I recently gained a client whose services are geared toward children.  The decision to use said services were almost always made by the father.  However, the initiator was always the mother!  So who did we target?  We felt that the competition was really in the shopping, not in the buying.  Our target audience was the mother who would convince (or not) the father.  Thus, the website we built was geared toward mothers with motherly presuppositions.  The form (or the look and feel) of the site, the pictures and even words that we used would have been somewhat different if we had targeted fathers, vastly different if we had targeted kids.

Function:
Your Website Has Purposes

Websites can be great tools, but they absolutely must be used for the right job.  Sadly, many businesses do not have a clear understanding of how their website is supposed to function, what it's supposed to do.  They don't understand their websites purpose.  If you find yourself with this same confusion, Brad Shorr warns in one of his articles, "there’s a good chance you're squandering your best online asset."

It is easy to forget what it is your site is supposed to be doing.  We can get caught up with the excitement of visitors and reposts, but if those numbers don't do what they are supposed to do, they are all for not.  Let me give three basic business-related purposes for website.  Odds are that your site should fit into one of these three.

  • E-commerce: With e-commerce you are actually selling a product or service through your website.
  • Leader Sites: With a leader site you are trying to gain followers to your site or gather leads for potential clients.  (This might include sites and blogs that sell ad space.)
  • Brochure Site: With a brochure you are merely trying to represent your company well and establish your expertise for branding and future sales.

Each of these purposes can and should be tracked through various analytics.  However, it is important to keep in mind that for any business site one should always ask, "Does it lead to more business?"

Format:
Your Viewers Have Many Platforms

I absolutely cannot stress enough how important it is to have a website that seamlessly translates from one screen size to the next.  It can be very difficult to navigate the browser statistics that are available to us.  We hear all day long that mobile is the next big thing, but mobile browsing has yet to make up 5% of online browsing.  What does all this mean?  Well, it's important to remember that no one screen size controls even a third of browsing, but the majority of browsers WILL visit a site on multiple devices.  I will actually speak against the conventional wisdom of the time and say you should not have a mobile-first mentality but rather a cross-platform mentality.

This is achieved with responsive layouts that adjust themselves based on the width of the browser.  Whether your competitors have caught up or not, this is the new standard.  Elizabeth Rosales has a great post in SD Internet Marketing in which she goes so far as to say, "Having a responsive website is not only about staying ahead of the trend, is more like a 'you-have-to-do-it-or-else-you-will-go-out-of-business' thing."

It is so important because as users we demand instant access from anywhere.  I recently heard a podcast in which a man I trust suggested a website that he trusts.  I was very intrigued and pulled it up on my phone the first chance I got.  The screen said the website was, "not yet ready for this screen size."  It is likely that I will NOT use this site at all until it is—not because I browse mostly on my phone (I don't) but because I require the ability to browse on my phone.

Information:
Your Content Has Potential

Back in 1996 Bill Gates wrote an essay entitled Content is King.  The essay begins with the prophetic musing that, "Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet."  Oh, how right he was!  When it comes down to it the content on your site, what you site actually says, will make or break it.  Your site can look great, work well and be consistent across all platforms, but if it doesn't say anything worth hearing no one will want to come back—no one will want to invest in your company.

My wife is a very tough critic.  I often show her my designs before I ever show my clients.  Because she was the target audience for the aforementioned website, I was very intrigued to hear her thoughts.  She was the company's target audience, but she was also generally opposed to the services they offered.  She looked at it first on her ChromeBook, then on her iPad.  She asked a few questions, made a few remarks and then finally gave me her opinion.  "This is a great site, but their copy has the potential to ruin it."  She was right, of course, but she's always been the pessimist.  I on the other hand see "the good" where none actually exists.  I responded, "Yeah, but it's got the potential to really drive it home!"

Content can make or break a site.  It has the potential to ruin a great site.  It also has the potential to save a mediocre one.  It even has the potential to "sell" despite an awful site.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Remember that a website is a tool.  It must be used to accomplish its purpose or it will never really work properly.  If you keep in mind the presuppositions of your audience, you can work around them or even use them to your advantage.  Put a premium on your content and please be consistent.  If you keep these things in mind your company website will be on its way to bringing a good return on your investment.