Digital Design from a UK Perspective
We speak to British web designer Jackie Blaker about digital design from a UK perspective ...
It's an interesting phenomenon of website design that a website designed in 1999 actually looks like any other thing/object designed in the 1950s - it's like there's a very distinct shrinkage of time as far as digital design goes - do you agree with that, and if so, can you explain why this is apparent even to laypeople?
I would say that this just illustrates the pace at which the digital world is working.
Technology is shifting on a daily if not hourly basis so when the technology behind a site changes, the design of a site, which is inextricably linked with the technology that drives it needs to reflect that change.
Technological innovation is driving our everyday activity – pushing us out of our comfort zones and forcing us to use technology in our lives for the most simple of daily tasks. The design of ipods, laptops, PDAs put us in daily contact with leading edge technology and therefore with high level design.
Naturally we therefore expect the companies that are marketing to us via their websites to reflect this level of design expertise.
People starting out in business nowadays - many of them are almost terrified of the challenges that lie ahead in creating a website that is precisely going to service all their needs. What do you suggest such people do as the first few steps?
Do as much research as you can initially. Look at your competitor’s sites and see what they do well, and also what they do less well. Think about your product or service offering and consider what it is that makes you unique or better than your competitors.
Be clear in your mind what it is you want the site to do for you – do you need it to drive traffic? Convert browsers into buyers? Provide a communication portal? Online shop? Then think about what you can afford to spend on your site and don’t forget that once you have built your site you will need to spend as much again on making it work hard for you through online marketing etc.
Once you have all this clear idea in your mind, go and speak with several web agencies.
Select ones where you like their websites and the work they feature on their sites . After this you need to select an agency that “fits” for you.
Chemistry plays a big part in this – If you like their work, the budget works, they have good references and you like the people there is a good chance you will work well together.
If you have found a good agency they should support you to help you identify exactly what you need and pin down a total project cost. You need to make sure they really know what they are talking about regarding online promotion – so many people claim to and actually don’t really have that experience.
I have a friend who spent AU$15,000 on a website using CMS and she's exasperated with her designer who is very secretive - even though she has a business that is going well, she's thinking about taking that website to a new designer. Would you recommend that people sometimes "cut their losses" and start out with a new design company? If so, what should they anticipate from there? Might they have to start again? Can a CMS site be successfully handed over to a new design team - or in most cases is that unrealistic?
It's really difficult to advise on an individual case without knowing what the technology is behind the site and how easy it would be to move away. In theory you should be able to move a CMS away from an agency but they may be protective over their coding and it will depend on what contract you have signed with them as to whether they will allow you to take the CMS or not.
If the relationship has broken down entirely there is a chance that things will never work well over a long period and it would be better to cut your losses. However, it depends how much has already been invested. If you have already paid for the design then you should be able to take the design to another developer and wrap it around a different CMS. Or, the existing agency may let you just walk away with the site (if you have paid for it), which is what we would do in this situation.
Many small businesses start out with websites that at most make it into the 10 - 20 page category - and serve as nothing more than an online brochure. Would you advise any new business owner to work much harder at the content so that for SEO purposes they've got a larger starting point?
Its important to get an online presence – even if it's just a holding page - providing it has full contact details - so anything is better than nothing, especially from the search engine perspective as the longer the site is up, the better. The key piece of advice I’d give here is to make sure you have a CMS in the site – then you can add pages and contact gradually, as you are ready, which will help with SEO. In my experience, the main barrier for small businesses is writing content – there's always so much else to be done that it keeps going to the bottom of the list. Either appoint a copywriter and pay them to do it for you - or start somewhere and add more pages and content as often as you can.
What would you rate as the most complex task you've had to carry out for a client so far?
We work for a huge breath of clients, all who have specific technical requirements. We spent a great deal of time with clients specifying their requirements as we strongly feel functionality on a website has to have a purpose. Not much point in having a load of bells and whistles if nobody uses them or if they don’t increase the interaction or traffic.
Our content management system has some pretty good basic functionality. As well as editing text, images and adding pages, you can create news items and events and build an asset library of PDFs and calls to action that can be added to your site on any page.
More complex modules include the ability to bolt on a media centre that allows you to add video, audio, attach your news and articles to RSS feeds, and even update podcasts.
We can add a recruitment centre where CVs and cover letters can be attached to an application and stored in the CMS database.
Intranets can be built which are controlled through the admin panel that are password protected. We built one intranet for a company who added financial data into the intranet and we built a set of PHP graphs to display the data.
Customer areas are also pretty popular, individual customers can be given specific logins and client managers can add information for their clients through the CMS.
We've produced membership areas for recruitment companies and we do a good deal of work with schools and have produced calendars, updatable fixtures combined with google maps to allow parents to get directions - and sections for specific staff to upload documents that are searchable.
So basically any technology can be built and bolted onto our basic CMS, but we would always maintain that technology has to be used for a reason which is either generating more traffic, increasing contact, or internally easing communication and the sharing of documentation.
Out of all the clients you've dealt with, how important would you say search engine optimisation is to their future business expansion & success?
It varies enormously. Some are completely unaware of the power of SEO, whilst others think it is a black art and believe they will be ripped off.
However there are also companies who invest heavily in SEO and social media and have done very well from it. We still find it hard to convince the sme’s to invest the required money and time. They all feel they need to have the work done on their websites but on-going commitment to SEO is harder to get. Some still don’t get the relationship between content on the page and listings, some still believe adding a whole list of keywords to the website’s programming will do the trick!
Our most successful on-going clients are those who are prepared to invest the time and money in creating good content, have complementary Google adword campaigns and write articles and add news regularly.
Has SEO, due to the intense competition between companies, mostly had its day in the UK, or is it something that British companies just have to work harder at?
There is huge competition in the UK for some keyword terms so companies who have the budget turn to adwords to get first page listings.
But there's a massive gap here between those who know and go for it big time and those who are sceptical. Plus with recession still taking its toll there is less money in marketing to take risks.
Email marketing is one of those aspects of marketing that a lot of companies attempt to do themselves and either fail at, or just never get off the ground and achieve consistency of action. What would you say to a business who wants to send, for example a monthly e-newsletter to 20,000 subscribers - but doesn't know where to begin - is it affordable for them to contact you?
The problem begins usually with the quality of the list. Much work needs to go into generating a list that is worth having, bought lists are full of issues and usually return huge bounce rates.
If you do have a list that you have created through web opt in then half the battle is won. Then you need to find a suitable mailing system that is reliable and can integrate with your website. We offer two solutions. One is using a simple online system. We've found this works well for smaller companies. We design the template and upload it then train people to update the text and images within the template. The system allow you to control multiple lists and you only pay for the email addresses sent to. Its cheap, easy to use and can be done in house once it is set up. There are more sophisticated systems that have a monthly charge and allow you to segment lists and copy to particular groups. This is better for larger companies and can be managed or set up for inhouse usage.
The most effective email campaigns are those that inform, a drip, drip effect can work very well, creating loyalty and buy in. Our big balloon race is an example of this, most people signed up for this through our email campaign, most were already clients, but several prospects have also applied.
Email also works best used in combination with other media and must always integrate seamlessly with your website.
In your mind are there still sharp differences between graphic design and digital design, or creatively at least have the two modalities fused so that they are indistinguishable from each other except for the actual physical medium that they appear in?
There are very few genuinely fused digital and design agencies. Most are graphic designers that outsource their web work, or programmers who outsource their design. We have tried very hard over the last four years to combine these two areas in one company and feel we have been successful.
Our designers have been trained to understand the demands of SEO and technical requirements of our content management systems and so produce brilliant design balanced with these other requirements.
There is often antagonism between the two areas, however the most successful marketing campaigns are those that span all media and we can do that in-house.
For More Info ...
Email Stewart Dawes firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on SEO, digital design and social media.
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