A version of this post originally appeared in the May 21, 2020 issue with the email subject line "How should a website be?" and a review of UX mockup tool Figma.

Wherefore lives your website?

When you’re deep in the content mines, composing eloquent and optimized text to enliven field of your CMS, or just filling in the fucking blanks, you probably ask,

Why is this behemoth here? Why so much work for something that changes so infrequently, the digital equivalent of an aircraft carrier?

Why does every word matter when all the research tells me that only 28% of the words will be read?

Why do I spend so much time updating this thing?

Some websites are set-it-and-forget-it. Some are ugly and useful, others are beautiful and confounding. Creating a website used to be a close-to-solo solo effort, with one catch-all developer tooling away in Wordpress, emailing a request to the copywriter when a field needs to be filled.

In 2020 a website redesign and restructure is likely to cost many thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars really.

So why a website? Why all the expense and headaches and constant breaks and changes and shifts? Is your website a brochure or a magazine? A lead machine, an advertisement, or a service hub?

A website is the full experience of your business, represented digitally.

How do you determine whether your website is a reflection of your business? Visit it. I recommend typing your brand’s name in Google once a quarter or so just to see how you show up, then click through from that search. What’s the first thing you experience?

The still-valid content strategy test remains: what do you perceive from your website in 30, 60, 90 seconds? After 5 minutes? What impressions do you get? (Did you immediately see a popup to subscribe to a newsletter with zero description why? A chat window that makes a sound?) Does that impression accurately reflect what it’s like to work with you or purchase your product or read your stories?

Websites are inbound. People who find them are actively looking for your business, whether idly clicking or deeply in need of your business. Remember that: visitors are there on their own. You didn’t trick them into being there. So keep the experience consistent.

Your audience members may not know exactly why they’re there. But they’ve stumbled upon your website.

So what are the tasks your website needs to accomplish?

1. Clearly communicate your products or services, using the language of your customers.

For a long time, branding meant inventing some new term or throwing some jargon around an established idea, meant to build mystique or something of the sort. That’s fine for branding. You can write “do things people love” on the wall of your advertising agency, and I’ll figure out that that means eventually, after the fiftieth time I’ve passed your agency in my car.

Moira Rose says, "I have never felt more lucid." [gif]

The kooky art kid approach doesn’t work as well on a website (there are so many other channels for it though!). On your website, somewhere, at least on the About Page, please use the phrase “advertising agency” if you are an ad agency. On my website, I call myself a consultant, because no one really knows what “content technologist” is. (I mean, no one knows what a consultant is, either, so… precision remains a challenge!)

Describe what you do specifically and precisely, using the words your audience might use to describe you. Being evasive is not being creative.

Find that data from two (or more!) sources:

Search data: Do some keyword research, even if it’s just comparing a few similar terms in Google Trends. Figure out the terms that your audience prefers that match your business.

A whole lotta SEOs fret over search volume and trying to rank for the keywords with the highest number of searches per month, without consideration of the intent or fit of the search query for your website.

My advice, to join SEO and customer experience more happily: Pick a core query that reflects how you want customers to talk about your product most often — and aim for the highest search volume while considering that audience and match to your brand. That core query can be the foundation for your entire communications strategy, if you want it to.

Don’t choose a core query that doesn’t exactly describe your business just because it has a higher search volume. Make sure the query you choose accurately reflects what you’ll find on the website and your brand. The intent and connotation of the search queries you’re using are the beginning of a relationship with your audience. Be honest. You’re not going to hack your growth by using words with the wrong connotation.

  • Audience surveys: literally ask how your users talk about your website— but corroborate those findings in tandem with your search volume. Your survey respondents are not necessarily representative of all your readers.
  • All that other fun linguistic research: Look at social communities, target hashtags, subreddits, traditional forums, even B2B media. When those words and phrases are checked against search data, you’ll develop a strong sense of how your website should describe your business.

Other tips:

Avoid pronouns, especially “it” and “this.”

Avoid language that could apply to literally any business. If you are going to use a generic term like “solutions,” couple it with both a descriptor of the target audience and the a description of the type of solution the product is for. “Solutions for curious antelopes who are frustrated by the lack of dikdik representation in cottagecore” works better than “Easy, more inclusive solutions for a better world.”

Discard the hubris and get more specific than “making the world a better place.”

You don’t always have to use words, either. Visuals, animations, flowcharts, etc., can all assist in the description.

But your mother or father have to be able to answer the question “What does this business do exactly?” after looking at the website for 5 minutes.

2.Explain all the information that you fundamentally need to use the business.

Whether it’s a sales contact, a business address and hours, or a description of how to sign up for your service, you need to tell people how to find you. That info doesn’t have to be on the homepage but it does need to be easy to find. (Footers can contain all this info pretty easily!)

If the business is the website — SaaS or ecommerce or digital publishing — make sure it’s clear what to do to access the service regularly.

If you’re sending someone to a sales rep, make sure the potential customer has opted in — that they’ve said yes, contact me. Ensure you’re not just going to send someone to a sales rep because they’re looking at a whitepaper that’s tangentially related to your core offering.

If you have updates for your customers — as many businesses have during the COVID-19 crisis — put those in the easiest to find place possible. Here, popups or ugly red bits are acceptable if they’re broadcasting changes in otherwise beautiful websites. The most important thing is that your customers know how to find you when they are seeking you.

3. Humanize.

Through tone, through bylines, through empathy, through original images, through clear language. Your website is made by humans; don’t try to fake that it’s a magic machine. (Note for the creative process: It’s super hard to represent your humanity if your writers have never spoken to the business stakeholders.)

4. Be logically organized.

You have two patterns to establish for your website’s audience: how a page works, and how the navigation works. If you’re not sure what that sentence means, hire a designer.

The navigation pattern needs to work consistently across devices, especially the most common devices that your audience favors. The patterns you create need to help the user find what they are looking for.

A girl cleans up her toys and says, "Organize!" [gif]

I recommend that you create this information architecture considering that on-site search doesn’t exist, because on-site search will never work as you think it will and very few use on-site search anyway.

And be sure that none of this most important direction lives in pop-ups. That’s like telling a filmmaker “we’ll just cover up that giant error in post.” Lipstick on a pig, that sort of thing. Avoid the pop up at all costs. (If a pop-up isn’t conveying the most important task at hand, what’s it doing there in the first place???)

You can do it.

5. Be accessible.

You don’t have to be for everybody, but everybody needs to determine whether or not you’re for them on their own. AA standards, y’all.

6. Collect only necessary, securely stored data.

Hard, but not that hard. Everyone working on the website, as well as executives and leadership, should know what data your website collects and why. Eliminate rogue floodlight tags and random tracking if you don’t know how it got there or what it does.

7. Load quickly on a phone.

Site speed is more important than pretty much everything else.

An X-man is moving really fast through a variety of rooms [gif]

After all of those are established, experiment away! Design and surprise and delight and add intrigue. Optimize to your heart’s content. Find your people. “Scale,” if you must, but not beyond what’s necessary. If the content you want to publish represents your business while keeping in those seven guidelines, bring it to the website planning meeting.

Remember, if they’re on your website, they’re already looking for you. Keep them informed and interested.