Sight For Sore Eyes

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 01, 2000
by Doug Gantenbein

When Terry Dennis took over as CEO of Planet City Software, a maker of business software located in Sedona, Ariz., he had a top priority: Fix the Web site. Planet City's site (www.planetcity.com) was, as he puts it, "horrible." The site's original designers had attempted to give the company name a too-literal graphics spin, with a logo that was a little planet Earth with a city skyline jutting out of one side ("It reminded everybody of the Jetsons," says Dennis). Even worse, the site was littered with errors such as misspellings and formatting mistakes. "The image it presented just wasn't professional," says Dennis. "We had to give the company a focus on high quality, and one way to do that was by revamping the Web site."

Planet City is hardly alone. All across the Internet, companies are finding that their Web site, launched with a burst of pride and enthusiasm a year or two ago, is now looking a bit frayed around the edges ­ sort of a like a cheap, older tract house surrounded by the new homes of Microsoft millionaires. There are many reasons why businesses are looking to revamp their Web sites. Some, like Planet City's, were put together too quickly and without careful attention to detail. Others started out life looking clean and simple, then over the years became freighted down with bells, whistles, buttons, and knobs until they became the Web equivalent of a '59 Cadillac. Still others were redone to take advantage of new technology, such as Shockwave, which allows animation without a huge download-time penalty. To find out more about who has redesigned their Web pages and why, we spoke to close to a dozen companies that, like Planet City, decided it was time for a new look on the Web.

One principle emerged from those conversations: A Web site must be seen as more of an exotic houseplant than a traditional catalog or brochure. Dennis started by having a team clean up the most egregious mistakes and put the site in basic working order. Then he assigned a Web design group composed of people in a company Planet City had recently acquired to work on a new site. The result was a clean new home page with lots of white space, a clean new logo, and easy-to-find buttons to guide a visitor to the desired site section. "A big improvement," says Dennis.

When to Upgrade
Motivations for revamping a Web site vary widely. Some are launched for the simple reason that the site is ugly. This is probably understandable. Many early sites were designed by the first generation of Web-savvy designers. Most of them were ­ face it ­ propeller-heads, not people whom you'd trust redecorating your home. Also, the World Wide Web was a new experiment which meant many missteps. The result: Awkward technologies combined with unattractive sites.

Take the case of eWanted.com. This is an "upside down" auction site, in which buyers rather than sellers post what they wish to purchase. Sellers "bid" to win the person's business by offering a better price than another guy. Prices are bid down rather than up. That idea alone confused many visitors. It didn't help that the site was, as re-designer Jeff Rosenblum of Web-design company Questus describes indelicately, "Butt ugly." The founder of eWanted.com, Tony Ghanma, concedes a little sheepishly there were some problems. "We launched with a front page that we did ourselves," he says. "We found pretty quickly that people were getting confused about where to go and what the site was about. They thought it was a regular auction." The site also proved difficult to navigate and lacked visual snap.

Rosenblum's firm, which also designed Web sites for such companies as AskJeeves.com and Merrill Lynch, ran usability tests to figure out how people were using the site and where they got stumped. From there, they developed a design that made it clear to first-time visitors what they needed to do, had more visual pizzazz, and was quick to download. The home page is built around two simple questions: Do visitors want to buy or sell? The concept is clearly explained, and re-designed tabs and bars make it easier for people to reach the part of the site they want. Launched in the fall of 1999, the new site seems to be attracting new visitors and gaining many more "conversions" ­ people who figure out the concept and want to try it.

Ironically, some sites undergo a re-design because they were too spiffy. A great-looking, graphics-laden site may have lots of initial eye appeal, but users quickly tire of the slow downloads. That was the case for HotData.com, the site that sells HotData, an add-on to contact managers like ACT! or GoldMine that cleans up customer contact lists imported from direct-mail vendors and other data sources. "We went for a great-looking site," says Ellis Oglesby, director of marketing for HotData Inc.. "But it was too 'heavy,' and we got a lot of resistance from customers over the long download times." That was especially troubling since HotData touted the speed of its own product as a key selling feature. "People would say, 'You claim to have this fast product, but your Web site is slow as molasses," says Oglesby. Ouch.

HotData's new site is positively spartan ­ lots of white space, simple graphics. "Our spec for the site was a 15-second download on the heaviest page, using a 14.4 modem," says Oglesby. But it's not unattractive, the design incorporates a clean, but artsy Mondrian-like grid to give the new home page visual cohesion. The pay-off: No more complaints about downloads, says Oglesby. Now visitors just focus on HotData's products.

Stop, Look, and Listen
Other side redesigns are undertaken based on user feedback. Museumshop.com is a Web site that sells art replicas, posters, statuary, and other items from the gift shops of dozens of U.S. museums. First launched in the fall of 1997, by 1999 the site had gone from 10 museum partners and about 500 items, to 32 partners and more than 3,000 items. That had made the site complex and visually busy, as the home page tried to list all the museums and show several featured items. But the site's customers, many of whom are women, wanted something more intuitive, says Museumshop.com CEO Rebecca Reynolds Moore. "Many of our customers are catalog shoppers," she says. "What we found in our customer polling is that they really wanted something simpler. They wanted the look and feel of a catalog ­ a clean, uncluttered look."

To achieve that look, Museumshop.com designed a new site ­ unveiled this past October ­ that has a spare, elegant appearance. Considerable white space is used to set off the graphic elements on the home page: An attractive type-based Museumshop.com logo; a featured item such as a Georgia O'Keefe scarf; graphic representations of particular categories such as "clothing" or "sculpture" that double as buttons that send a visitor to those sites; and colored tabs representing gateways to customer service information and the list of museum partners. It's as tasteful as a Martha Stewart article, and informative without being techy. Speed is improved due to a simpler design, although, as is so often the case, this represents a compromise: Illustrations were trimmed in size to reduce file sizes. It seems to be a winner with Museumshop.com's customers. "We're getting great feedback on it through e-mail and customer comments," says Reynolds Moore.

Still other site redesigns are launched simply to make a site more attractive and modern. Ex-Microsoftie Toby Simkin, for instance, launched the Theatre.com site nearly four years ago, making him a virtual Lewis & Clark on the e-commerce frontier. The site's initial concept was to sell Broadway souvenirs ­ Cats T-shirts, programs, and similar merchandise. A good idea, but not necessarily what the site's visitors really were after. So over the years Simkin added news items, show listings ­ a whole host of new things. In time the site became cluttered and hard to follow. It didn't help that the HTML format it first was designed around was proving increasingly creaky as new Web technologies emerged. Plus, in an attempt to be theatrical, Simkin had first designed the site to visually mimic a darkened theater stage. Says Simkin: "One day we realized, 'My God, we're still dealing with technology that's three years old, the site is dark and ominous, and it's difficult to navigate. So we redesigned it from the ground up ­ we didn't use one graphic or typeface from the old site."

The new site, in contrast to its dark and even foreboding predecessor, is bright and warm.

A light orange background contrasts nicely with violet blocks that enclose color-coded buttons that send visitors to sub-sites on such topics as links to New York theaters, theater news, ticket information, and more. The home page also contains more detailed explanations of key links, headlines for theater news items, and a featured product ­ a new poster for a Hamlet revival, for instance, or a T-shirt commemorating the popular Rent. Color is further used to "code" each section, so news items have a blue background, the souvenir pages and sub-pages a yellow-orange one, theater listings a green background, and so on. "There was just so much complexity, we went to color-coding to simplify things," says Simkin. "We think it provides a compelling, inviting experience for the visitor."

The Brass Tacks
Still, for all the different reasons sites launch a makeover, some common themes emerge. HotData's need for speed, for example, is something that all Web entrepreneurs desire. The reason? For all the talk about "broadband" connections like DSL or cable modem, the vast majority of Internet users still are using 28.8Kbps modems. Even those with the faster 56K modems find they rarely can get on line at more than 40Kbps. So most sites ­ particularly those oriented toward e-commerce ­ now are opting for designs that are graphically light. "Attention spans (among Internet users) have shrunk," says HotData's Oglesby. "Using the Internet is not the exception any more ­ just about everybody is doing that. So now people who come to a site know what they want. And they want it now."

Of course, there still are instances where more is, well, more. The site for InteliData.com, a provider of Internet-based banking software, deliberately built a site that was rich in animation, graphics ­ even sound. "We sell a high-tech product," says Rob Borella, director of marketing communications for Virginia-based InteliData. "We wanted a Web site that showed it." Still, even InteliData's site ­ a black background with a cartoon-like rendition of how Internet banking works, a rolling "news" ticker, and colored buttons to different pages ­ takes pains to clarify the next step for a visitor with two clearly marked buttons labeled "Who we are" and "Internet banking." Plus, visitors can bail out to a plain-vanilla HTML version of the site. That was a retrofit, put in place after InteliData realized that much of the banking world remains decidedly low-tech. "We found in our investor base that a lot of these guys have pre-1996 browsers, which is mind-blowing," says Borella.

Along with the need for speed, most Web-savvy business people say that a site must be designed so a visitor can quickly figure out what the site's operator wants them to do next: Buy something? Read something? Click to another part of the site? "Web users are more discriminating today," says Toby Simkin of Theatre.com. "With 3.5 million commercially operated Web sites out there, the consumer has an incredible amount of choice." Says site designer Jeff Rosenblum: "You've got maybe 6 or 8 seconds ­ probably more like 3 or 4 ­ to hit people with a clear introduction as to who you are, what you do, and how the customer benefits."

The challenge is that you also have to make the site sophisticated and detailed enough so that repeat visitors can get what they need without having to click past a home page that is perhaps overly simplified. Eugene Tiller, a Web site analyst with American Management Systems, a Fairfax, Va.-based management-consulting firm that operates a Web-usability lab, says that the solution in those cases is to use both jargon and plain English. "If there's a slang expression or a way of talking about a certain feature that regular users will know, then use it," he says. "But always make sure the buttons and links on the site are marked with non-jargon terms." And don't make assumptions about what site visitors may or may not know. Museumshop.com, for instance, offers visitors a choice between graphics-intensive version of its site and a graphics-light version. For the latter, it marks the tab with a friendly query: "Slow (modem) connection? Click here."

Tiller also advises that considerable attention be given to navigation -- where a visitor goes from the home page. Poor navigation can lead to what he calls the "pogo effect," with a site visitor bouncing from the home page, down a level or two, then back to the home page to try another route. The home page should offer enough detail so that a visitor has a good idea of what is behind a certain button, Tiller says.

What of the future of Web design? Certainly, during the past few years the Internet has gone from what might be described as "brochure-ware" ­ taking a company's printed material and simply transferring it to the Web ­ to an arena where the Web is a critical marketing tool. "The Web is really coming into its own," says Renee Haas, a Web producer with Multimedia Solutions Inc., a New Jersey-based Web design firm (www.mediawow.com). "It's now an integral part of the marketing mix ­ perhaps even the top consideration." Site designers see several trends playing out during the next year or two. One is to give the much bandied-about term "community" real value. Marc Lawton, creative director for San Francisco-based Construct (www.construct.com), says that sites will increasingly enable visitors to talk to each other while in the site, sharing comments and advice. But this will go far beyond the text-based chat room environment of today. "People will be able to draw pictures for each other or swap audio files," he says. "It will be a rich experience."

Also, despite the need to keep file sizes small due to current connection limitations, the growing popularity of DSL and other high-speed connections has designers salivating at the possibilities. "DSL is changing the way we think about design," says Lawton. "Nothing has to be static ­ everything can be moving or interactive." Of course, notes Lawton, that creates its own challenges. "It can be a can of worms," he says. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should make everything move."

Improved technology will also allow for more personalization. In some cases that will mean cookie-based personalization that recognizes a visitor and even automatically directs them to new site features that might interest that visitor. Theatre.com, for instance, planned by early 2000 to allow visitors to do their own re-design of the site, changing colors, font size, and other features to suit themselves.

Still, Net users' increasing power won't let future site designers off easily. They'll still have to design a site that understands its customers and tailors the Web experience to suit that audience, that loads quickly, and that is easy to understand. In short, says Lawton, designers will have to ensure that surfers don't simply "find" your site, they "arrive" at it. And once there, they'll hang around.