A Q&A with the Author of 7 Essential Elements of Effective Websites
Your online presence is an expression of your identity — it's a tangible representation of your business, your goals, and your value to the visitors that find you. Now, after 20 years and some 30,000 hours of design and coding, Jim Infantino, founder of Slab, is about to publish a book on the craft of creating web pages that bolster brands.
In 7 Essential Elements of Effective Websites — which Jim introduces to readers as a manual for brand leaders seeking to better reach their active and inquisitive audience — the author takes us through several core concepts of online content, from personalized and brand-specific design (versus template-driven trends) to the basics of theory and structure that help well-built sites succeed.
In the way of a preview, let's talk with Jim about some key ideas in the book.
Q: One of your points, in the book, is that we expect more from websites than we did in the past. What do we tend to demand from our online experiences with a site, these days?
Jim: Our expectations of how a website should behave has changed significantly. They've become more a part of our daily walking-around lives. Your website is a key element in your online reputation. The reputation market is rapidly replacing the Search Engine Optimization market, as we begin to think of our identities online more holistically.
Social integration is important — we have the expectation that a website not only links to the most popular social-media sites, but automatically publishes to those many sites with a click. Mobile layouts for all phones and tablets are also a part of it — making your site work more like an app for visitors checking information on the go. Better data-reporting is key— but so is presenting your information as data to search engines with better structure for search-engine optimization. We want better audio and video that is mobile-device friendly.
In general? The growing Internet of Things and our increasing involvement with social networking is driving the need for constant innovation in web design and web programming.
Q: What are some ways that a website can make a brand look bigger than it might actually be — meaning, in a good way?
I think any small- to medium-sized business should always want to present themselves as an expert. That is part of what your website does for you. If it's well designed, it makes you look more competent — inspiring more trust from your visitors.
This really depends on design and content. You might be a freelancer, but if you have a great design and sizable portfolio, no one needs to know it's just you. In this way, so long as your work holds up, you can attract larger jobs than you might have if it was just you and a business card — or you and a hastily created, generic, template site. This goes to the value of custom design for your business.
Q: In your book, you make some distinctions between what is a trend and what is a gimmick when it comes to website design. How does one walk this line during the design phase, and what keeps trendy design elements from becoming problems for site owners, later on?
There was recently a study on whether the parallax effect — a background image that scrolls at a different rate, or in a different direction, than the rest of the content (very popular right now) — entices people to stay on a site longer, absorb more information, and/or engage the website's target action areas. The study found that between identical sites, one with and one without this effect, there was no discernible difference in visitor behavior. This could mean that the parallax gimmick has little or no benefit for sites that use it, or that the study was not structured correctly to take into account overall brand perception.
The only downside to using a feature like this is that at some point it will look dated. When that happens, you want to be able to remove or replace that gimmick without having to redesign your entire site. The best practice is to keep the gimmicks discrete from your main design. That is one reason templates built around them can be problematic down the road.
Q: You raise an interesting point about planning and launching websites: sometimes you need to consult experts other than a graphics designer. What kinds of other-than-designer advice would you recommend owners seek?
If you have access to a user-experience (UX) expert, that would be excellent. Most web programmers have some understanding of UX. In general, you need three minds at work, here: a graphics designer, a web developer, and a UX expert. Sometimes you can find two or three of these minds in the same person — but not very often.
Q: Are Facebook, Tumblr, and other social-media sites capable of doing the same job as a brand's home website with a blog? What's the best role that a brand's social-media pages might play?
When you are at Facebook, the branding is all about Facebook, not about you. Visitors come and find you and then see something shiny, like one of their friends liking your status, and they are gone. Social sites like this are best for luring in visitors via excerpts, images, and links.
Of all social-media sites, Tumblr comes closest, but none of them is a substitute for your own site. We don't recommend that people blog on any of these sites but Tumblr. We have a script that integrates your Tumblr content into Slab — but we have found that most of our clients who used to use Tumblr for blogging have eventually switched over to blog only on Slab.
Q: There's a point of view out there: mobile web is dead, long live the app. Is there any advice in your book that you would you highlight as being applicable to app design?
Only when you are offering something really essential that will stand repeated use do you need to develop an app. Ninety percent of the time, a client of ours who says they want an app doesn't really want an app. What they could be better served by is a mobile-friendly website.
Apps are not connected to the Internet of Things in the same way as websites. For example, if you integrate something in your app with social media, people can't like or link to a screen in the app the way they can on a website. I heard on Marketplace, on NPR, recently, that in general people only use a total of 20–30 phone apps per month with any regularity. Whereas, they may visit thousands of websites per month. It's very competitive and a high hurdle for your app to be one of the 30. Add to that the issue of how to convince people to download it — and then it uses up memory on their phone which cuts down on the number of pictures of their kids, or songs by their favorite band on that device — and you might be able to see why I don't agree with the mobile-web-is-dead point of view.
There is a great xkcd cartoon where the stick figure announces that he has a solution for this: you don't download apps all the time, you just use them as needed from a remote server. In the next frame he realizes he has invented "the webpage".
Managing your business is hard enough. Managing your website should be easy. Slab offers high quality, custom designed, easy to edit websites. Talk to us about building your site, one that you can update yourself with ease. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us at 617.566.3433.