Is your Web site a dog's dinner?

It is considered essential in business these days to have a Web presence, but a poorly-designed Web site can do more harm than...

It is considered essential in business these days to have a Web presence, but a poorly-designed Web site can do more harm than good. Jane Dudman reports

Who is Web site design being driven by? Whether Web sites are used by partners,customersor internal staff they should enable you to get the information you need, quickly and simply. But many companies are finding this more difficult to achieve in practice than in theory.

Good design is not just about pretty screens - it should involve people across the whole organisation. Far too many businesses still fail to understand just how difficult it can be to build a good Web site. But the perils of getting into the Internet without doing it well are being highlighted all the time.

A recent survey by e-business software house Onyx revealed that financial firms are failing to respond to customer demands received via their Web sites. Of 126 financial firms, including major high street banks, investment banks and building societies, almost a third either did not have a Web site or had a Web site that did not allow customers to contact them electronically to get information. When the researchers did contact firms via their Web sites, a quarter failed to respond at all, while a further 17% took six days or longer to reply.

Samia Rauf, marketing director at Onyx, says one of the reasons for this failure to respond might be because of internal communications problems. For example, the marketing department may have set up the Web site but not consulted the IT department about how best to use it.

All this rings a bell with Jonathan Etheridge, head of e-futures at direct banking group First Direct, who has been working with his colleagues on developing the bank's Web-based services. "Typically, the commercial and marketing departments of a high street bank will be physically separate from the technology department, and there will usually be different commercial and marketing departments for different aspects of the bank's business, such as credit cards, cheque accounts and so on," points out Etheridge.

"We are different from most organisations in that we are all under one roof. We have in-house technical developers, including both full-time and contract staff, and a third party design company to do a lot of the design and branding work. What is important is to control the whole mix."

Functions

As the Onyx survey highlights, there is little point in getting a wonderfully designed Web site if it doesn't provide either customers or the organisation with the functions they need. This balance between design and usability has been taxing the minds of many in the business, from top Web designers to IT managers.

"We work with our commercial department on the look and feel, but then we give the design to a whole bunch of people to investigate the navigation, because that is something else," comments Etheridge. "Just because something looks nice, doesn't mean it is usable. Equally, though, a technical person could come up with a great idea that looks like a dog's dinner."

Perhaps surprisingly, Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman design consultancy, says usability, which is one of the hot topics among Web designers, is not necessarily the most important factor. "Usability is always secondary," he contends. "You go to a Web site to get something done, to find something, to purchase something, to have a good experience. You want the usability simply not to get in the way."

Norman says one of the biggest problems in building any Web site is getting the balance right between the different and often conflicting forces within any organisation. "In most companies, there are many diverging forces," he comments.

The marketing people are concerned about selling the product, while the engineers are concerned about building it. The manufacturing people are concerned about how to make it while the usability people try to make sure it's functional. And to top it all you have the financial people trying to keep the costs down. So what you need is a concurrent design process where everyone is in from the beginning, who recognise that while they disagree, each of their points are valid, says Norman.

As yet, there are few companies that can really claim to have such a concurrent design process, although First Direct is well along the way, according to Etheridge. The bank is now working on producing a Wap-based service and, as with its Web-based service, is taking a multi-disciplined approach to the issues involved, including the use of focus groups to test out new designs as they are put together.

"Because of the limitations of Wap screens, there is not a huge design issue," comments Etheridge. "The service will be text-based. But even so, the way we structure the content will be important and because this is so new, we don't know what will work yet, so we are doing a dummy demo of our Wap site and will take that to our focus groups." Norman agrees that getting design for smaller and smaller screens will take a lot of effort. "The smaller the screen, the more you need to get it right," he says.

Getting a Web site right can take a long time. The Royal Society of Chemistry has just added the opportunity for its members to register online (at www.rsc.org/lap/ conf/confshome.htm) for the society's conferences, as well as providing reports from recent meetings for its 47,000 members.

Nicole Morgan, conference officer at the society, says it has taken 18 months of hard work to get the Web site facilities ready, working with the in-house technical team and external supplier Commerce NTI. "There has been lots of going backwards and forwards, but that is partly because this system is seen as a trial for other departments, so we had to get this right," comments Morgan. "From here on, further developments will be much easier."

How to get Web site design right

Jonathan Etheridge, head of e-futures at First Direct, offers the following tips:

  • Accept that people with different agendas need to be involved - but not too many. Keep the initial design process tight, but broaden it out as the Web site develops

  • "Focus groups aren't popular at the moment, but it is fundamental to listen to customers," says Etheridge. Seeing how real people navigate in the real world can be an eye-opener

  • Where third-party companies are involved, on either the technical or graphics side, ensure they understand the core business and branding and, wherever possible, aim for a long-term partnership

  • Cross-discipline communication is vital - and don't be precious about who owns the project

  • Everyone involved should themselves visit as many Web sites as possible, to get a real feel for what is out there

  • Read more on Business applications

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