The world has become an interesting place in 2002. At the time of writing
this, I am sitting in my home in Southern Finland, tapping these words
into my HP notebook. By this evening, they'll have made the journey via a
floppy disk to my main desktop PC, and from there they'll be attached to
an email, and whisked across the web to Jerry Stern in Maryland, USA.
After he's finished "correcting" my British English into something that
his fellow Americans will understand, he'll then work to somehow combine
it with the other articles that he's been sent, and send this whole issue
off to a printer. From there it will pass through the hands of Rich
Holler, and enter the US Postal System, where it will spread at an
astonishing rate, quite literally across the world. My words will end
their journey on the very page that you're looking at right now, but
hundreds of other identical copies will continue to spread these ideas
all around the world. Amazing.
What's even more amazing is that this is the slow method of
communicating. Your website gives you an opportunity to spread your
thoughts, ideas and products far wider and far faster than any printed
medium can ever achieve. But I still have an advantage. You only receive
your issue of ASPects once a month, and chances are that you read it
cover to cover. I know who's going to be reading what I'm typing right
now, and what sort of things interest you. I also know that aside from an
unexpected problem at the printers, you'll be able to read this page just
fine. And that even if you choose only to skim through it right now,
you'll be able to give it a good look over later.
Back to the Basics
Your website, on the other hand, is an entirely different kettle of fish,
and ultimately it probably affects your life to a far greater degree than
this article affects mine. If you want it to succeed, and you want it do
whatever it is you're trying to do, then a little bit of strategy could
be a very useful thing.
Perhaps your visitor will find their way to your site from a search
engine, or a list of links, or a press release, or maybe even an email.
However as soon as they arrive, a clock starts ticking, and chances are
they are already thinking about where to go next.
So let's start with the basics. One of the most common mistakes that we
make with our websites, is that we forget the user. Your site shouldn't
be built around your product, your ideas or your aspirations. It should
be built around the user. All too often I see sites selling software,
with a front page that is little more than a list of features. The
average user doesn't want this. They need to find what they're looking
for, be it benefits, ideas or solutions. Features are for editors and
reviewers, or people who are already interested in your product. But not
for average visitors.
A typical advert for a car concentrates on appearance, implied lifestyle,
benefits, comfort and style. The actual technical specifications are
either mentioned in passing, or left until later. Take a look around - it
works. Follow the car makers.
Following on from this, let's assume that you've defined your target
markets, and know more or less who it is that you're selling to. While
some applications target a very focused and specific set of users, most
don't. If your product has different users, each of whom have different
needs and requirements, then can you honestly say that your website is
speaking the right language to all of them at the same time?
When it comes to websites, one size does not fit all, and if your product
can be used by a variety of very different user groups, then you have to
adapt your website accordingly. For example, SmartBoardXP by
(www.smartboardxp.com) is a very powerful clipboard utility, equally
suited to businesses, general home users, writers, programmers, website
developers, digital artists, programmers and so on. Do you think that all
of them speak the same language, or are looking for the same features and
benefits? No way. If you can setup a separate website for each, all the
better, but at the very least, make sure that you have separate content
for each of these user types, all of whom have different needs, and
communicate in very different ways.
Don't forget the NAPA
Next up is NAPA - navigation, appearance, presentation, and
accessibility. Okay so I made-up the acronym, but the importance of these
four elements is critical.
Navigation is one of the most important factors, and all too frequently
overlooked. Many websites start out as a small collection of pages, but
with time, the number invariably grows. A list of links from the front
page simply isn't enough, and you should always remember that a visitor
to the site may not even start at the main page. Make sure there are
links and a good means of navigation throughout the whole site, or your
visitor will invariably leave without even seeing what you have to offer.
Your site's appearance is also of utmost importance, and all to many
people assume that making do with an old copy of PaintShopPro and some
free clipart will do the trick. It doesn't. First impressions are
everything, and if the first thing to springs to mind is amateur or ugly,
you can probably wave their wallets goodbye. A couple of small logos and
graphics really won't cost you very much, and can have a massive impact
on the appearance of your pages.
But even the most impressive of graphics will be wasted if your website
looks clumsy, cluttered or plain ugly. The presentation of your content
is another stumbling block for so many good products, so if you can't do
this sort of thing yourself, then get someone to do it for you. There's
no shortage of low cost options to choose from, and trying to build your
own site with no real experience or skill is as absurd as trying to build
the walls of your own shop. Don't do it. You may think that the quality
of your software is what counts, but the new visitor may be so put-off by
what they see, that they never even make it that far.
Accessibility is also important. Don't use plugins that won't work in
some browsers, images that take too long to load, or funky scripts that
may crash your visitors browser. If your site is your main outlet for
selling your software, then you should have access to an absolute minimum
of two different web browsers. If you've never done this before,
particularly if you use Internet Explorer, then go and have a look at
your site through Netscape. You may well be in for a nasty surprise.