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Building a Good Author Web Site:

The Ugly Corporate Look

by David Dvorkin

Go to Introduction and Table of Contents

Every corporation worth its salt has a Web site. Unfortunately, every corporation of any size also has a marketing department, and most corporations put the marketing people in charge of the look and feel of the corporate Web site. In turn, the marketeers usually hire an outside Web design firm staffed by eager young people who, I suspect, drink far too much coffee.

The result is a weird split personality situation. Internal corporate Web sites, or Intranets, which are usually designed by normal people for normal people, are as a rule easy to negotiate and easy on the eyes. But external sites - "customer-facing sites" as they're called in today's ghastly corporate English - are usually unusable and visually repulsive. They can get away with this if their customers need the information on the sites so much that they'll put up with the crummy interface.

You don't have that luxury. You need to attract viewers who aren't looking for you because they need what you have to offer, and then you need to keep them at your site and visually seduce them into buying your books.

But you can learn from the sins of the marketeers and the over-caffeinated Web designers.*

Skip the Intro

Just because Macromedia Flash exists, that doesn't mean you have to use it.

No doubt Flash has its place. Just about everything does. Unfortunately, Flash is present in a lot of places where it doesn't belong, and that includes the opening or welcome page of a great number of corporate Web sites.

Did you actually think this is a real corporation's URL?

Needing a product produced by, or information about, Horribly Huge Corporation, you open your browser and innocently navigate to http://www.horriblyhugecorporation.com. Do you see a simple, clean interface, a usable display of the information you're after? No. Instead, your browser window is filled with noise and motion, with animated words or even actors telling you how utterly wonderful Horribly Huge Corporation is and how its products will fill all the gaps in your miserable life. Stupefied, you wonder what the hell they were thinking.

Fortunately, most of those corporate sites have taken to adding a button or link labeled Skip Intro which lets you skip past the Flash absurdity and get to the actual site. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the marketeers or designers, though, that the reason such buttons or links have become so common lately is that the great majority of viewers hate the Flash intro. Which would be reason enough for sensible folks to dump it completely.

Well, they aren't sensible. Perhaps, as I explained above, they don't need to be. But you do. You also need to accomodate visitors who are accessing your site over a dialup line, not a broadband connection. Corporations tend to assume their visitors have fast connections, which is a faulty assumption, but they make it anyway. With a fast connection, Flash intros are stupid and annoying. With slow connections, they're infuriating and drive people away from the Web site. So no Flash on your Web site.

Silence Is Golden

And while we're on the subject, don't have sound on your opening page. In fact, don't have it on any page. If you feel you must have sound, whether music or talking, on a particular page, add a warning to the link that takes the viewer to that page. Remember that people may be viewing your site at work. Or late at night, when other family members are asleep. So warn them so that they can decide whether or not they want to follow the link to the noisy page. Since they may not want to, decide whether the sounds are really necessary. Not whether they're possible or amusing to you but whether they're really necessary. If they're not, leave them out. You don't want to discourage a user from visiting a particular page. You want to do the opposite.

Fonts for Sore Eyes

For older eyes, anyway.

I mentioned the youth of the over-caffeinated Web designers. Not only does that make them like lots of quick moving stuff and noisy Web sites. It also means that they're comfortable reading page after page of really small type.

Well, that's just fine if you don't mind alienating older viewers. Or if, for some curious marketing reason of your own, you actually want to drive away older viewers. Most of us who want to sell our books don't share that attitude, though. We're delighted to have people spend their money on our books, no matter how old those people are. So don't drive them away with absurdly small fonts that strain their eyes, give them headaches, and make them dislike you.

Once again, we're back to our mantra: Web site viewers who like you are desirable. Viewers who find your site annoying or frustrating are not desirable.

Clean and Simple

Even if nothing is moving or speaking on your main page, that page can still drive people away if it's cluttered and has too many colors and separate boxes. Viewers should be able to grasp the idea of the site, or get an overview of it, with one look, or at least with one longish look. Corporate sites often violate that standard. For example, see the site of the CBS television network. For a non-media example, see the site of the Sheffield Cutlery & Flatware Company. Compare those to a company which is presumably a competitor and neighbor of the last one, Classic Cutlery. Or click on the Home link at the top or bottom of this page.

When I wrote that, I was too quick to blame the designers. Some designers have told me that customers often insist on an awful design for their corporate site and won't take the advice of designers who would rather keep things cleaner and more usable.

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