A Slightly Contrarian Approach to Website Design

The first request I had for content was to post an article on designing websites.  Sounds great!  I’ve been designing websites since 1995 or so, and there’s a ton of things I could get into.

But first, let’s tackle some of the larger themes that usually associate themselves with designing or starting websites.  My approach is probably best described as a mix of realism, specificity, and autophobia.  You be the judge as to which one dominates the following topics.

What do you want?
A very simple question.  What do you want from the website you’re going to create?  Why do you care? Why bother?  The more simple and exact you are (make money, get some attention, find a job, etc.), the easier it’s going to be from the start.  The harder part is usually figuring out what visitors will consume/scan/download that they’ll either come back for or tell their friends about.  But your numeral Uno goal should be hammering down what you ultimately want this digital online property to do for you.

The more ambiguous or vague you are about this, the more time you’ll likely waste on creating what you think is the right content for your site.  Those with healthy egotistical or rampant perfectionistic streaks will lollygag at every blemish or irregularity that they see on their site (be it content, visual design, or how their site looks on different platforms).   Other times, it’s simply being hamstrung with outdated notions of getting everything perfect and right before you show it off to a generally anonymous audience.

You’re almost always going to get it wrong
Which bridges perfectly into my next point… how many mistakes you’re going to make.  Alexander Pope’s famous phrase “to err is human; to forgive, divine” is central to everything about content and website/blog creation (i.e. 99.9% of your efforts are going to be wrong or misguided).  How you learn and recover from those mistakes, as well as your ability to forgive yourself for being such a miserable stupid wretch who can’t figure out a particular script on a WordPress PHP file (self-loathing mention here), will be the key to your longevity and determination in coming back for more punishment.

Getting it wrong is what you have to do.  It’s what most humans are engineered for.  You could get philosophical and say that right and wrong are subjective terms that could mean anything given any particular context or situation, and I would probably kick you for proper context.

So fail in a spectacular fashion, knowing you’re trying to refine these grand failures into something interesting.  It may take some time, but eventually you’ll have something you really like (and hopefully your audience will as well).  The Shawshank Redemption would be a fitting analogy, unless updating your website feels like you’re being beaten up by bull queers every day.

Leverage what others have already done
A political analogy for plagiarism is ‘inspiration’.  It should not mean misappropriation, which is not what I mean.  But when you just don’t know what to do with your website (be it content, visual design, coding or otherwise), it’s time to go out and see what others have done, and take ‘inspiration’ from what you’ve seen.

Think about it for a second.  There are commercial websites that have hundreds if not thousands of people working on their digital properties every day to improve or maintain them.  On top of that, there are many more websites that track the best and most inspirational examples from these companies that other designers can take draw impressions from.

While you can’t just screenshot/splice and apply their work for your own (which is lazy, likely criminal and not what I’m advocating here), you can take the visual metaphors and user experience examples they provide to break through any mental roadblocks you may have with your own work.  Most frameworks and code examples are provided for free by various digital communities willing to share and assist others.

In short, you shouldn’t get stuck on a design problem.  Look around, and you’ll find a solution (or a temporary one that’s probably wrong until you try another one (and that one doesn’t work either).)

Complete disclosure:  When I run into a design problem, I usually go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  When I come back two hours later from eating the sandwich, cleaning up the kitchen, checking my e-mail, and updating my to-do lists, I take a nap.

No One Cares
Seriously, no one cares what you’re doing or what you’re writing about.  This may seem like a counterintuitive thought when considering the endeavor of building your own website, but it’s absolutely true.  For example, my initial volley for content requests generated 50 visits (47 of them unique).  The “Meh, what’s on Reddit…” reaction that is the ‘Average Visit Duration’ averaged 6 seconds.  In summary, I could have put video of flying goats with wings and glittering rainbows (not Photoshopped) and it still would have averaged 6 seconds.

In time, a small fraction (and I mean miniscule) will check back and revisit your site for their own personal reasons.  With this blog, it’ll probably be my immediate family members with a combination of curiosity and self-preservation (as in ‘Oh man, what did he write about himself/me now…’).  I’d like to hope it’s more than that, but I’m keeping my expectations in check.

Learn to love web analytics
If you don’t know what web analytics means or what it does, don’t start a website.  Just don’t.  Endeavors like reading, paying attention to your children, replacing the air filters on your furnaces or planning a vacation will all be more beneficial than posting content and not knowing if anyone cared to read/scan it.  Actually, all of those activities are probably more beneficial than creating websites anyway, but I digress…

I’ve worked with every conceivable web analytics tool created since time began, and you can’t go wrong with Google Analytics.  It’s free, not hard to implement, and can track literally everything you want.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you could hook up a train whistle to your USB port and have it belch out a lot of noise whenever you have a major event happen… like a returning visitor to your site.   It think it’s on Amazon, but you’ll have to search around.

In short, web analytics will tell you who’s coming to your site.  It can also tell you where web visitors are coming from, where they eventually go, and how much they don’t care (see above).  Using this information, you can literally see how much of your content is ignored and how much of it is actually read.  If you take the red pill, you can dive even deeper in areas such as demographics, goal setting, and real-time performance of your website.  Though if you’re only averaging 25 hits a day like I am, watching real-time performance is the equivalent of watching paint dry.

————

That’s it for now!  Feel free to comment/spam/pound back of hands on keyboard and let’s exchange some think-ins.

Next Monday:   I delve into a request to revive the legend of Lord Foul, a Curmudgeon-like persona I employed back in my 20’s for various stupid reasons.