Websites play a big role in how companies engage with their customers. So when you're responsible for designing and building a new one, it's important that the site properly represents your brand.
But how much importance should be placed on the look?
I contend the look is very important, but not as important as how the site meets the needs of its audiences. Not to get too political, but the recent blowup of healthcare.gov, the website for the Affordable Care Act, is living proof of my thesis.
The site looks good, but I'm guessing not a single person really cares about that. Nobody's critiquing fonts or drop shadows or animations or whether the site displays the latest responsive design techniques. What they care about is can they access the information? Can they explore coverage options? Can they get a policy? Can they engage with a person to get assistance? Can they get what they came for?
I'm not picking on the policy or the website, really. Trust me: there are lots of other examples of good-looking sites that don't deliver what their customers are looking for. I'm just making a point for those of you planning websites. Looks matter, but meeting needs matters more. Meeting needs is the killer app.
So how do you do it? How do you stay focused on the things that matter? Put down your buzzword bingo. It's really just about roles.
One of the beautiful things about a website is the many roles it plays. It is at once a poster, a library, a channel, a store, a street sign, a suggestion box. And these website roles don’t play out discretely; they are manifest simultaneously, determined only by the person engaging with the site.
Although the website can play many roles, it doesn’t play the branding/messaging role in a vacuum, either. It is merely an ingredient of the aftertaste that comprises a brand experience. Other ingredients are your products, your sales force, your customer service … anything that touches or impacts the customer, community or others who shape or are shaped by your activities.
The website’s place in this mix isn’t fixed in time, either, and that’s a good thing. It can evolve and adjust to meet subtle changes in the brand, the marketplace and the customer.
Because of this multidimensional, through-the-lens-of-the-customer role, I believe the most important thing we can do when building a website is to make sure the structure can support the various roles it will play and accommodate any changes that may be required going forward. This, to me, is where we meet needs.
When you're planning (or leading a team that's planning) a website or other digital platform or tool, make sure you've built an organizational structure that enables those needs to be met. Set aside the look of the site. By this I mean focus less on creating permanent visual manifestations of the brand and, rather, think of ways to support that branding because it might change in the future. It's kind of like creating an art gallery. You build a gallery with the right spaces to accommodate the permanent and traveling exhibits because you know they'll come and go. With a website, you build the structures to allow what your customers need to flow through it – and how the brand is presented to flex and adjust with it.
Today's technology makes this thinking possible. Because of powerful Content Management Systems and other deploying technologies, it's easier to think about the structural aspects of branding on a parallel track to the visual and message aspects.
And, because of powerful analytics tools, we have in place mechanisms to measure how it's all working to support your customers' needs (not just yours). And we can use the learnings (OK, bring out your buzzword bingo card) to refine the platform moving forward.
If the structure's right, you can fine tune it over and over again.