Words Come Before Looks in Web Design

    January 27, 2004

Advertising agencies tend to design awful websites because they are obsessed with getting attention. When people come to your website, you have already got their attention. They want to do something. They want detail. They want facts. The thing they value most is their time. So don’t waste it.

Advertising is about standing out in a crowd. It’s about getting a clear signal through a world overwhelmed with noise. You don’t turn on TV specifically to watch ads. You don’t read a newspaper to look at them. So, advertising is like an army unit entering behind enemy lines to win that vital prize: your attention.

Advertisers tend to think in intervals of 30 seconds or less. This has a huge influence on the type of communication. It becomes much more emotional and visual. The Web is a very different world. The Web is a result of an increasingly literate consumer. It is no surprise that the Web started off in universities. The Web works better with facts rather than emotions.

What was the first e-commerce success story? Books. People who buy books like to read. Why do people go to a car website? To find out what sort of safety rating the car has. To find out if there are any deals going. (People are cheap on the Web.) Last night, my 12-year-old son went to a James Bond website. He wasn’t looking for film clips. He was looking for a list of all the James Bond films.

It is more difficult to deliver emotion on the Web. A website is a place where information thrives. In many ways, the products that sell best through traditional advertising don’t do well on the Web. My kids love Coca Cola. They have never once visited the Coca Cola website. Why on earth would they? To find out what ‘the real thing’ actually means?

Humans are much more visual than literate. For millions of years we have understood our world through images. It is only in the last couple of hundred years that the written word has achieved any sort of mass market reach.

However, the primary activity on the Web is reading. It’s very fast scan reading by impatient people who find web reading harder than print reading. Therefore, a foundation of web design success is to ensure that all your pages are as readable as possible. It’s not that the look is not important. Just that, on the Web, words come before looks.

A graphic designer complained recently that I didn’t understand professional web design. So, I decided to go to his website to see just how a professional does it. I found that:

1) The first paragraph I read was 139 words long. I would recommend 70 words or less.

2) The first sentence of the first paragraph was 39 words long. I would recommend 15-20 words.

3) The font was grey on white. I would recommend black on white.

4) The font size was 8 point. I would recommend a minimum of 10 point for body text.

5) The font size was locked.

I once asked a graphic designer why he had locked the font size on his website. “If users were able to change the size, it would ruin the look of the page,” was his reply.

For your web content management solution, contact Gerry McGovern http://www.gerrymcgovern.com

Subscribe to his New Thinking Newsletter: subscribe@gerrymcgovern.mailer1.net