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Guest Comment: How do you tell good design from just good-looking?

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New websites for fashion brands continue to pop up rapidly, and many are struggling to differentiate themselves. In an industry that is governed by image and aesthetics it seems many retailers are allowing this element to get in the way of ease of use for their online customers and, consequently, will be losing potential revenue.

A website’s design is more than just its looks. It relies on three separate sets of skills; visual, functional and technical.

Visual design is about how ‘pleasing’ a design is to the eye; the use of colours, fonts and form to create the right emotional response. Good visual design will allow you to spot in a fraction of a second whether the store is discount, luxury, classic, modern or any one of many other attributes. Good visual design principles are fairly consistent with print media, so a competent designer from any area should be able to help you set the tone of your site correctly.

Ensure you fully brief a designer on every part of the equation because this will help them to have real control over the end product.

Functional design is how your website works. It relies on skills more often found in software interface design than in graphic design. Whether your site ‘works’ can be discovered quite simply by testing your site designs on a user who has had no previous contact with the site. Can they find essential links, text, product information without help, and can they find it quickly? This can be done when your designs are still on paper, and well before a site goes into development.

Technical design is where your site starts to cross over into the realm of web developers. Can the beautiful fonts specified by your designer be created on a web-page? Can your slick sliding menus be created in a way that will work in all popular browsers and that can also be followed by search engines?

To create a website that will be successful in both developing your brand, and achieving sales, all three skills need to be present at the design stage, and close collaboration between them is essential. It is important to note that finding a design team which presents all of these skills is not an easy task.

Next, be clear about exactly who your website is there to serve, and what its objectives are. Statements such as: “I want our visitors to experience our brand”, are more for the benefit of the business than the customer, and often lead to frustrating sites with slow-loading graphics, confusing navigation and ultimately a poor experience and a worse perception of the brand by the consumer.

Try instead phrasing your site’s objectives from the point of view of the customer’s needs:

  • “I want to find the product I just saw in Grazia”

  • “I want to find out when my local store is open”

  • “I want to see if they have those jeans in my size”

After all, when have you ever heard a customer say “I want to experience the brand before shopping?”

“I want to find out if this is a shop I want to spend my money with” is a bit closer to what they are thinking and still gives plenty of scope for creativity.

Start with “I want to buy a product” and move on from there. Don’t imagine that your own needs for your website are the same as those of your customers though, and before veering away from tried and tested shopping routes use customer suggestion forms and focus groups and take time with your call centre staff to unearth the real frustrations your customers have.

With this in mind, look at each page of your site and see how well it supports these objectives above all others. Clear products, clear navigation and search, and easy to find add-to-cart buttons should be the basics, but we still see sites which fail to get these right. This is the point where independent user testing will work out of your design works.

If you are going to specify you site by copying elements of another company’s.

Many site owners justify their own wants by referring to what exists on other websites, essentially specifying their own site by copying elements of another company’s. This is not a bad place to start, but do be consistent, and consistent with your own brand — for example, a product page from Primark and a checkout from Prada are not going to sit well together.

This may be an extreme example, but even the differences between Asos and Boden can be marked. Different age groups, differences in the number of SKUs carried, the fact that one site stocks many brands while the other stocks just one, all influence how well different design decisions will work on each site. Understand who you are copying and why before you do it.

Don’t fall into the trap of emulating the website of an admired brand, and thinking it will work for you. We have seen sites from huge global luxury brands that even our own ecommerce consultants couldn’t figure out how to buy from without a considerable struggle.

There are no universal ‘right’ answers in web design, only what is right for your business and your customers. A good ecommerce specialist will uncover more issues than may be discovered by half a million visitors, but they will never guess the myriad ways every customer will try to use your site.

Get a site up that works as well as you can, then keep a little budget, and humility, in reserve for dealing with customer feedback and issues that your site analytics may uncover. The best sites are built on the back of hard-learned lessons and don’t expect to short-cut that process.

• Stephen Pratley is the managing director at award-winning ecommerce agency Shine Marketing. The firm’s clients include GIVe, Sahara and Amtico.

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