Just a quick one to have a small rant. We’ll get back onto the main topic soon, (I keep not quite getting around to it… I know, I’m a bad blogger…)
The Builder whose home is falling apart.
(A study in four gripes.)
I’ve seen quite a few websites for web design companies lately – mostly due to scoping out the competition and seeing what sort of prices they charge, what services they offer etc, and it struck me how awful some of these sites were. Some contained spelling and grammatical errors while offering content and copywriting services, some touted themselves as being usability experts or consultants while having sites that were difficult to use and others were just plain broken. As a web designer your website is not only part of your portfolio, it’s the crowning piece. It’s your showcase and as such it should show you at your best, so you should take some time to ensure it reflects your best work. This can be problematic because as the title suggests, we’re all too busy working on other people’s stuff to work on our own. If you’re a freelancer and find yourself with some down time, spend a few hours checking over your site for errors and fix them. If you’re an agency you’ll have to find some way to find time.
But wait a minute – you don’t even have a site up! And isn’t this a default WordPress theme?
OK, you got me. But that doesn’t make me wrong about any of this, it just means that I’m in the early stages of planning to go freelance and still figuring out how to brand myself. (If you are too, I’d recommend this free pdf minibook and this ‘personal vs. business branding’ article.) My girlfriend and I both realised recently that the only reason we knew what the word ‘penitent’ meant was from watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. My point being that although we got that information from a film and not a dictionary, the meaning of the word is the same and so is the fact that we both know it, so you can either be a snob or you can accept that good information is good information, regardless of where it comes from. Once I’ve figured out my brand, I’ll do my own theme and put a site up.
Gripe 1: Asking the client to fill in a questionnaire
Many web designer’s sites include an online or downloadable sheet with a questionnaire that they ask clients to fill in. It seems like a good idea. Get the client to fill in a load of stuff about why they want a website, if they already have a logo, what colour it is, what they want the website to ‘do’ etc… It’s all information you will need in order to understand the client’s business and objectives for the website. Here’s a few example questions from a few I’ve collected:
What is your company profile?
* What do you do?
* How many staff do you employ?
* What is your niche market?Content
* How many pages will you need and what will they contain?
* Do you need help with copywriting?
* Do you already have pictures of your product or will you need help with photography / picture research to give a professional look?
* Do you just require a basic site or would animated pages work better for you?
Here’s another set:
For example, do you want to:
• Generate sales?
• Encourage enquiries?
• Gain newsletter subscribers?
• Obtain information from your audience?
• Encourage them to tell a friend?
All good stuff that will help you understand your client’s needs. Now while I agree that clients need to think about what they want their site to do and more often than not, also need to be educated about what they need to think about, getting them to do it via a form is a bad idea.
“But why?” I hear you cry, “online forms are quick and simple and we can get early feedback and information from the client.” Yes, some of that is true. What isn’t true is that online forms are quick and simple. To you and me maybe, but we’re techies and your clients probably aren’t. If they were, it’s doubtful they’d have need of your services in the first place. So while being faced with a detailed online form asking questions about the nature of your business might not intimidate you, the same may not be true of your clients. Think about it – they’ve come to your site to find out if you can help them, not to spend ten minutes of their day filling in a form when they could be using that time to make money.
“Ah!” you say, “We thought of that! We made ours a downloadable form so people can fill it in at their leisure!” OK, so pat yourself on the back for thinking of the end user and then slap yourself hard on the forehead for missing the point. Using a downloadable form does give the user the chance to fill it in whenever, but do they want to? If they don’t really like filling in forms, (I don’t and I don’t know anyone that fills in forms as a hobby,) then they’ll put it off as long as they can – perhaps permanently.
Besides which, you’ve actually created more work for the client. At least with an online form, they can fill it in there and then and hit submit. With an offline form, they now have to download it, figure out where it downloaded to on their computer, open it (if you supply it as anything other than plain text or a .doc you’re asking for trouble – even PDF’s might require them to upgrade their Adobe Reader…) fill it in, then figure out how to get it back to you – “do I attach it to an email or copy and paste it into the body?” Each of these extra steps is a new opportunity for the client to say ‘hell with this!’ and give up.
Also, using a form is impersonal. While you may do the majority of your communicating via IM, Twitter, Forums and Blog comments, your clients may not. Most people will prefer a face to face because whether they realise it or not, they are getting much more out of that type of communication – intonation cues, facial expressions (and micro expressions,) body language patterns… and they’ll use these non-verbal channels to determine if they want to do business with you based on how you behave, much more than what you say.
They judge how trustworthy you seem depending on eye movements and eye contact, among other ‘tells’ and judge how professional you seem to be – usually without even realising. Using a form to conduct your first stage of business suggests to me that your company has trouble dealing with people and that maybe I should consider looking elsewhere. Even a phone call is preferable as a client will be able to discern many things about you from your tone, pitch, speaking rhythm and speed, such as how friendly you are. Meeting or calling a client makes it personal, it says “I’m happy to spend the time talking to you to understand your needs and do the best job possible.” Using a form says at best “I’m trying to keep you at arms length” and at worst “We want you to do a lot of the work for us“. Faced with that, who wouldn’t start to wonder what they were paying you for? If this happens at the first stage, you’re kind of asking for trouble.
By all means have the information somewhere on your site. Have a page called: Things to think about when planning your website, and put the information there, so that your client can browse through it if they want to - but aren’t forced to.
“OK Mr. Smart guy, what do you suggest?”
Glad you asked:
Gripe 2: Make it easy to contact you
Most sites online have a ‘contact us’ page. It’s become a web convention, just like the ‘about us’ page. Most sites I see don’t use these pages to their full potential. Also, is the ‘contact us’ page really the best way of presenting this information? For all the talk over the years of minimising the number of clicks taken to get to the information required, people have still been putting contact information on a seperate page. Why not have your phone number and other contact details right there on your homepage, thus saving a click? If I go to two sites and one makes me click for a phone number, while the other has it emblazoned on the first page I look at, who am I more likely to call?
Give people a phone number. Many of the sites I visited recently didn’t even give a phone number, just an email address or worse – an online contact form. That really says you don’t want to talk to your clients. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most people have email by now, but don’t have it as the only way for people to contact you. A lot of people will prefer to speak to you on the phone rather than email, for reasons mentioned previously. Telephones are a long established technology that most people are comfortable using. Email by comparison, is still relatively in its infancy, so give your clients the option of how to contact you.
Gripe 3: Learn to write, but more importantly, learn to read.
This is fundamental. If you don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re; write and right; your and you’re; wear and where, (often even confused with we’re and were,) which and witch – then learn! There really is no excuse for bad grammar and sloppy writing, particularly if you are writing copy or content for the client. Recently I saw several web designer’s sites that contained grammatical errors, one of which was so badly written I wasn’t sure if English was their first language or not. If not, then I completely understand as English is generally recognised as one of the hardest languages to learn, but then should you really be offering your services in a language you aren’t native in?
For anyone who speaks English natively or as a first language – you should know this stuff. You should know the difference between its and it’s and when to use either. Apostrophe use is a slightly complicated subject, but there are some guidelines that can help. Usually it’s used in the possessive, i.e. The man’s hand – the hand belonging to the man and in contractions, i.e. That’s it’s lair where that’s and it’s are conractions of that is and it is respectively. Oh and, before I forget: apostophes only go one way.
It’s the same with spelling -you should learn to spell correctly. Most CMS’s, Blogs and writing software will have a spell checker built in. This is a great first line of defence and it astounds me how many people fail to use it. How can you see a page full of red underlined words and not realise there are mistakes? It’s just down to laziness at that point and is that really the image you want to give out on your homepage?
A better way of doing things is to learn the correct spelling once it’s been corrected by the spell checker. Take a moment out of your day to look at the correction and go, “oh ok, it’s spelled that way.” Maybe write it down on a pad to help really embed it.
What’s that you say? Your software doesn’t have automatic spell checking? Well I’m dubious, but in that case dictionary.com should be able to help. There – now you’re out of excuses.
Get into the habit of proofreading everything. Sorry, maybe that’s a little vague, so let me clarify – proofread everything you write ever, including text messages, emails, blog posts, blog comments, forum posts, letters to your Grandmother, post-it notes – everything. In today’s fast paced world, there is a temptation to just bash it out as deadlines are important and we’re all really busy despite using all the latest time saving technologies (Oh the irony.). Really though, you should be reading things back as you go and at least once all the way through when you’ve finished writing but before you post or send. I know, there’s a really big shiny button that says ‘post’ or ‘send’ and you’re worried that you’ll succumb to space madness if you don’t press it. But hold on there skippy, what if it’s actually a History Eraser Button?
OK, so it’s probably not a History Eraser Button, but it could be a ‘Lose Client’s Business‘ button, if your content is full of spelling and grammatical errors. Hold off on pressing it for a second and read back through what you’ve written. Whoops, there’s a mistake – edit – fixed. That’s all it takes and could be the difference between a client trusting you to write their content, knowing it will read professionally and the client going elsewhere. If you get into the habit of doing this with everything you write, rather than just the stuff clients will see, the effects will kick in that bit quicker.
So far I’ve spotted several mistakes in this post and fixed them as I’ve noticed them. Even grammar nazis like me aren’t immune from making mistakes – we just give ourselves the chance to fix them and avoid looking like an idiot. (If I’ve missed any, please be kind enough to point it out in the comments so I can fix it. You may jeer or gloat if you wish.)
If you’re only ever going to learn one language, then you’d better make sure you learn it well because it’s the only way you’ll have of communicating with other people. There are a bucketload of grammatical points I’ve not even touched on, such as not using commas before the word ‘and’, comma usage in general (use when you would take a breath when reading aloud,) correct use of capitalisation… but to be honest this post is already way longer than I intended and also I’m not your English teacher. If you write or speak badly, you’re basically saying “I can’t be bothered to learn how to express myself properly because my ideas are pretty worthless.” Would you hire someone like that?
Gripe 4: Broken pages.
I had a call the other day at work from a company who used to look after the DNS for our domain, asking if we wanted any web design work doing. Now, their first mistake was that they hadn’t done their homework. (This would be Gripe 5 if it fitted in with the theme for this post,) They had no idea that they used to handle our domain and had no recollection of ever having worked with us previously.
Needless to say even if we had needed work, that would have put me off. I visited their site to have a look at their portfolio and found sites with lots of problems, despite them touting usability as one of their cornerstones. Worse than that, some of their own site’s pages were broken. Maybe not like 404 broken, but images were pixellated or had artifacts due to bad compression, text was unreadable unless resized and my favourite – on their ‘web design’ page, the image for the web design tab was missing, so that the text link hovered above the other links, the next tab along was out of place and the design, as a whole, broke. Even their ‘portfolio’ link was way over to the right hand side of the page, outside of the main content area, with no obvious styling applied.
Even more sadly, I visited the site of a well known UK design agency and found their main logo/banner was cut off at the right due to overflowing its container’s boundaries. They had an image of a website they’d been working on recently with a text link saying ‘view more clients’ which was virtually unreadable due to being overlaid on the image instead of underneath or somewhere where it could be easily read. Other heading images were cut off too – one even cut off the last letter and a half of the company’s name and this was not due to text resizing as doing so did not fix the problem. A video overlapped the outside of the main content area and a text link for RSS feeds was cut in half by the image below it, making it very hard to read.
I say sadly because this is a company that gives a lot back to the web design community in various ways and whose articles I’ve read with enthusiasm. I don’t want to say much more but I hope someone from there will read this and fix those problems. (I’m using Firefox 3.0.6 on Ubuntu Linux by the way, but I’ll be checking it in IE and FF at work on a Windows box tomorrow.)
The difference between builders and web designers:
Builders generally don’t use their own homes as a showcase of their work - they have show homes for that purpose, so it doesn’t matter if their own houses are in a state of some disrepair. As web designers we don’t have that luxury – our ‘homes’ are the first piece of our work that clients will see. Make sure yours does the job it’s supposed to.