Web Design Lives!

I'm not dead yet!
I’m not dead yet!


Someone over at UX Mag has declared that web design is dead, and we all need to be UX designers now. Hmm. Now I know how those medieval scribes felt when Gutenberg came out with his fancy new printing press. Or painters when the dagguerotype meant no-one would ever have their portrait painted again, or, much more recently, graphic designers when the introduction of the web meant no one would ever need print collateral again.

Over and over, we hear about the death of one artistic discipline in the face of a new technology, and over and over, the old tenaciously survives. Often, the shift exemplified by the new highlights unsustainable practices in the industry surrounding the old field.

Take music, for example. Record labels built their business model around having control over the expensive technology needed to record and distribute music. Powerful home computers, ever-improving software, and digital distribution gutted the foundation of that model. So for (at least) the past decade, the industry has been in upheaval as it simultaneously tries to patch a desperately broken system and reinvent itself. And yet, music is not dead.

I have friends who work as wedding photographers. A difficult industry in the first place, it’s increasingly hard to explain the value to consumers. As digital cameras have become ubiquitous, everyone’s got a friend with a decent consumer DSLR who they’re pretty sure can just get some pictures for them for free, or “as their wedding gift.” Meanwhile, people who do hire photographers now expect to have full rights to their photos to reprint and redistribute as they please, without coming back to the photographer each time. Yet my friends can still make a living. They’ve responded to the changes in technology and culture, and adapted their business models to work.

What wedding photographers have done, what musicians are doing (and labels are still figuring out), what practitioners of all sorts of disciplines have done throughout the ages is what we need to do. We adapt. This isn’t a big deal. Frankly, we’re better positioned than those who’ve worked in most of these fields throughout history. Web design has always been in flux, and we’ve always been racing to keep up with the latest trends and technologies.

So now there are new trends (template sites, social media), and new technologies (mobile, automation, the ever-elusive AI). What do we do? Adapt. We learn how to work with, through, and against these things as necessary, and we build better websites. We look at the trends and tech that we need to integrate, and we figure out how to do it well. We’ve always designed user experiences. We just do it on the web, so we call ourselves web designers. Web design lives on.

Responsive Web Design 101

responsive-design-crop Four years after Ethan Marcotte coined the phrase in his seminal article on A List Apart, responsive design is recognized by web designers not as just the way of the future, but as an essential technique for the present. But while we designers all agree on this, we often fail at the most basic needs of any new technique: explanation and advocacy.

What is responsive web design?

If you’re still unclear on what responsive web design is after reading that first paragraph, it’s a perfect example of the way in which designers sometimes fall short. Responsive Web Design is the practice of designing a single website which intelligently adapts to various screen sizes. From this brief explanation, let me give a demonstration: we recently created a website for our client Host & Keane. If you pull it up on your smartphone or tablet, elements on the page reflow to maintain their hierarchy, but better fit on the different screen sizes. This is the core of this technique.

Why do it?

Now that we’ve got a clearer picture of what responsive design is, the question is: “why do this?” Well, first of all, when we build websites that are semantic, with a clear hierarchy, adding responsiveness to that isn’t incredibly difficult. Sure, it’s additional work, but if the site is well-built, it’s not overwhelming. So that’s “why not,” but again, “why?” The fact is, since modern smartphones came on the scene (ushered in by the iPhone in 2007) mobile web use has exploded. Even on our decidedly non-responsive agency website, over the past six months, nearly 50% of our traffic came from mobile visitors. Now you’re probably thinking, “Great! If your site is seeing such a high percentage of mobile traffic, clearly this technique isn’t necessary!” But the real picture isn’t so rosy. While desktop visitors on average spend nearly 3 minutes on our site, and visit 6.5 pages; mobile visitors seem to get quickly frustrated, as they leave (on average) before 30 seconds, visiting 1.3 pages. Now the Host & Keane site gets a lot less mobile visitors as a percentage of its total traffic, but of those it does get, they visit only slightly less pages than desktop visitors, and they spend time more in line with what desktop visitors do. As an agency, this is an area where we are constantly working to improve, but for the time being, I hope you’ll come away from this with a better understanding of what responsive design is, and why it’s necessary as a part of your web strategy.

Why do you have a website?

Like the rest of your marketing toolbox, the purpose of your website generally can be traced back to “maximizing profits”. This may seem overly crass, but of course, the details of the execution here are crucial. Depending on the industry, maximizing profit may look a lot different on a case-by-case basis. It’s important to figure out early on in the web design process how your website is intended to support your overall marketing efforts. The important question is:

What do you want people to do, and how easy is it to do that?

Say we’ve got three different clients looking for websites. The first makes custom smartphone accessories and wants to sell them directly to consumers. The second is a fairly well-established tool & die manufacturer looking to secure its position as an industry leader, and accrue new clients. The third is a local restaurant looking to bolster their marketing with a website.

Our smartphone accessory maker wants people to buy their accessories. They’ll need a mobile site that loads lightning-fast, with great pictures of their products in action, and an easy way to buy them. These users are bandwidth-constrained, so we’ll reduce the overhead of the site as much as possible by optimizing images or using other techniques to get a suitable aesthetic while providing a great user experience. Their e-commerce solution will need to be fast, easy to use, and thoroughly integrated with the site. They want people buying their accessories, so we remove every little bit of friction possible from that process.

In the case of the tool & die manufacturer, they’ll be emphasizing business-to-business marketing. We’ll want the site to work well on smartphones & tablets, but that probably won’t be our primary concern. We may need to pay extra attention to compatibility with older browsers, as their clients may not be on the cutting edge. We want to make information about the company readily accessible, and give good reasons for companies in need of manufacturing assistance to consider them first. It’s also important to consider how people in the business search for manufacturing partners, and tailor the web content to that. On top of that, we want to make it easy for their potential clients to become actual clients. We’ll streamline the contact form, and recommend that they name someone specific to be in charge of responding to submissions within hours.

Restaurants want people to visit them, order a lot of food, and tip well. For some reason, many restaurant websites do nothing to help these goals. Much like the smartphone accessory maker, it’s crucial to tailor this site to at least be accessible by smartphones. After all, if a group of friends is out & about and trying to decide on a dinner destination for the evening, we don’t want them going elsewhere because they can’t find the restaurant’s address, hours, or menu on their site. So we make a nice quick site with all that information quickly & readily accessible.

As you can see, the goals of any given website could vary wildly. With this in mind, careful consideration of your goals is essential as you add a website to your marketing efforts.