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4 Things I've Learned
2018 marked our 20th anniversary as a digital agency. Here are a few things I’ve learned about design, technology, and marketing that can help inform an effective web strategy.
The digital experience is complex and fragmented. This has lead to shortened attention spans — presently at 8 seconds. Consequently, a well-designed page continues to be a challenge but is slowly becoming simpler and more effective. This is in part a reaction to the overall complexity of the digital environment and the reduced size of mobile — both need simplicity.
A web page is typically a mashup of competing goals — a battle between communication and commerce. Words, pictures, and community vs calls to action, pop-ups, ads, and related content — calling the viewer away. This innate tug of war diminishes the UX. There are ways to accommodate the competing factions with a simplified design, but often effective principles are ignored or too time-consuming. "Simple is harder than complex" Steve Jobs said, "You have to work to get your thinking clean. But it's worth it."
Which leads to a question... Why do people spend more time with a printed newspaper (over 4 minutes), than a website (15 seconds)? Simplicity and less distraction are two reasons. A newspaper doesn’t list the table of contents on every page. Why should websites? Are websites really that hard to navigate that you have to show primary, secondary and third level navigation? Is it helpful or more of an established convention? I think it’s due to a lack of awareness and tradition that leads to adding extra stuff besides the main content of a page. The same reasons why people often want web design features such as everything above the fold, minimal scrolling, and a carousel of images rotating on the home page. All of which studies have shown to be ineffective.
In short, web design should be simple and focused on communicating a message. The less distraction and competing elements, the better.
Easy page creation and layout editing continue to be a challenge. Web page editors are better, but still hard to use with limited control. It seems like an editor that provides easy layout control (for pages and templates) is always a year away. Back in the 90’s Macromedia Dreamweaver was popular and is still in use today. Not a CMS but a WYSIWYG editor, DW provided easy access to the CSS and a check-in/check-out feature to prevent overwriting - popular with people looking to publish content easily.
WordPress’s popularity today is based on ease of use for front-end users as well — both for editing and digital asset management. This will continue to drive innovation with the CMS since there are more people who want to make websites than there are web developers, and it costs less.
It’s interesting to see the new acclaimed editor of the future “Gutenberg” is available for Drupal in addition to WordPress. Drupal is also releasing their own page builder in May of this year that provides design control for templates as well as individual pages.
Will 2019 be the year of the breakthrough WYSIWYG editor? Hmmmm... probably yes and no. It will get better but the web, and consequently a website’s back end, is still too complicated for there to be a simple front end editor IMHO.
Which leads to a new development — the interestingly named “Headless CMS.” This decouples the presentation of the content from where the content is stored and managed. This sounds nice and will eventually become a more elegant solution for presenting content with more channels e.g. different kinds of mobile devices. But I'm not sure this will be very practical or mainstream for a while. The largest developer community and user base is with WordPress, and for those who can afford it Acquia/Drupal. It looks like it will take a while before the Headless CMS concept becomes a practical solution.
And will it really become the best solution or will other issues appear making it a wash?
What to say and how to say it? This is the often awkward and overlooked part of the website design and build process. "Content." That oddly used noun that is "put" into a website. "Send the content and we’ll put it in." As if the messaging is a thing that fits into a box.
What are you saying and why you are saying it is important but it often takes a back seat to a slew of other things e.g. navigation, design elements, what theme to use, hosting, sitemaps, wireframes, prototypes, the logo, WordPress or Drupal, social media, colors, or whether to use a JS framework. The list goes on. The minutiae of the website design, build, and marketing process often overshadows the primary purpose of a page.
What are you saying and why are you saying it? What words and images will be used to communicate to which audiences? Why are you saying what you are saying and who are you saying it to? Why will people care? Visual communication is based on the simple combination of an image and words, always has, always will be.
But the question should be, "Are we focusing on that or are we distracted by less important details?"
SEO is easy to understand but complicated to implement. Email marketing is easy to do but rarely done well. Social Media is what people want but doesn’t pay off. Pay Per Click works but is expensive, fast. Analytics are awesome but actionable takeaways are elusive. Internet marketing is alluring, powerful and critical to a company’s success but it’s hard to do well and provide a return on investment.
Google is the 900 lb gorilla in the room with marketing. It’s changed how things are bought and sold. It puts the customer in charge. It prioritizes an individual’s intent. People find what they want and buy it based on what they learn. SEO is about communicating authenticity, relevance, and value. Google solved a critical problem. People hate advertising (mostly). SEO seemed like a fad back in 2000, now it’s more important than ever.
But the SERP (search engine results page) is crowded. Google keeps finding ways to dominate the SERP with innovative features. They’ve made page one impenetrable for a lot of keyword phrases except for the directories that can outspend any individual company or organization. But with change comes opportunity and SEO will continue to grow and evolve.
In summary, these 4 areas: design, publishing, messaging and marketing were just as relevant and challenging back in 1998 when I started as they are today. The change that has happened is incremental. The tools and processes have morphed but the goals and difficulty achieving them have remained the same. It takes hustle, collaboration, research, talent, and resources to achieve ROI from a web presence.