Templates, features, and cute plugins seem like a good idea at the time, but are they killing your identity…
The economics of building and promoting our brands online will always be central to how, when, and how big our efforts go. Technology, frameworks, content management systems, plug-ins, and templates continue to advance, generally to the benefit of all. At the same time are too many businesses getting caught up in the simple "building-block" mentality of it all just to end up looking and feeling like everyone else?
Recently, a I came across a business I had become acquainted with many years ago and decided to visit their website to see what they had been up to over the past few years. I was dismayed to find an extraordinarily bland collection of uninspired templates, generic imagery, generic (and sometimes annoying) plugins, and content presentation that felt unfinished and without any thought to user experience, flow, and human motivation.
It felt like no one really cared what I would do in experiencing their brand online. The fact that they were just there should be good enough.
Don't get me wrong, there was nothing functionally "wrong" with their website. It just didn't feel like anyone considered their brand, feel, message, mission, and goals when creating it. This could have been anyone's website. Anyones.
Now that I think about it, it's not quite true that's nothing's wrong. Their site isn't mobile responsive. Why don't I start my critique there?
Mobile responsiveness, I'm sure you've heard over and over is no longer optional. Well over 75% of visits to most of our produced sites and systems are using mobile devices. In some meaningful way, even in B2B interactions, mobile devices must have a reasonable interface and experience for the user. To not acknowledge this in your sites and systems now is, frankly inexcusable. If you don't have this now, you should at least be planning an update to your templates to happen in the next few quarters.
Remember, your interactions and conversions don't have to happen entirely over mobile, but the interactions with your users are more than likely going happen at some time over mobile – not to mention for many years now, search engines are penalizing non-mobile interfaces.
Plug-ins and effects used carefully are wonderful. Used because "they're there" or because they "came with the template" is infuriating to the user. Designers, managers, owners and stakeholders need to ask themselves when considering interface effects whether they add anything to the user experience. If it's a slideshow-slider of images, does it have a transitional effect that is distracting such as images flying in from top, left or right? Could it be done more simply like a gentle slide or fade? Do you even need a slider of multiple images?
The same goes for videos, calls to action buttons and inset content call-outs: are they genuinely part of your brand presentation, or are they just another effect "thingy" that someone installed to move around and supposedly get the user's attention?
Remember, there's nothing wrong with effects, but have you considered and tested its impact on your user experience? How does it make your users feel? If even one small part of you cringes, you're probably doing the same and more to your visitors.
Using just another template is a side effect of the growing plethora of generally pretty good out-of-the-box templates that have exploded on the scene over the past few years. The challenge is that so many templates are, genuinely very good. They look good, use attractive effects, call-outs, content presentation and use of fonts and colour palette options. So what's the problem? Does it fit your brand? Really, does it?
In my case study example, the template – and it clearly is a template and not in any way customized – looks like someone has slapped a logo on top of "just something" they found that looked good at the time. The logo is lost in the header, the spacing looks like the logo was edited to fit the template header and not the other way around.
There's nothing worse than clicking through to the next page only to find that you have no idea if you're in the right place. "Why am I here?". "Is this the right thing?".
Content and conversion strategy is another key area around using a template – or your design process. Clicking through from one area to another, does the user feel the continuity? Do they feel that there is a next step to take action or continue their reading and experience of your brand and expertise? Are the images and icons consistent, well edited, conveying that same continuity? There's nothing worse than clicking through to the next page only to find that you have no idea if you're in the right place. "Why am I here?". "Is this the right thing?".
Remember, just because the title might suggest supposed continuity doesn't mean the user will feel it. Just because you're reusing the template's content layout doesn't mean that it makes sense for your business or your users.
Form Follows Function a.k.a. why are we here? I completely subscribe to user experience as central to a design strategy. After all a website exists in service to interact with our brand as a proxy to being there in person. So when generic decisions are left to chance such as our case study here, I can't tell if walking into this business will be rewarding, cringeworthy, or just plain bland. I have no idea from this experience.
And no, the written content on the page is not going to change this. Saying "we're different", "our goal is great customer service" et cetera et cetera is meaningless when the experience of your brand feels like my experience has.
Remember, there must be a purpose to your brand's presentation, your brand's imagery, whether it's custom photography, or partially stock photos (I'm not against some use of stock imagery by the way as long as it feels like it means something, yes, sure we do that here), I need to feel like I get a sense of your business, and this experience makes me feel like – well – nothing. It makes me feel like nothing.
What to do with your template, design, and user experience choices? Firstly, acknowledge that just slapping something up with nice pictures and content, doesn't make it a website worthy of your brand. There is nothing wrong with using a template. A well constructed, selected and executed template can make an economically sound choice. Similarly, a well-executed custom design strategy can provide a wonderfully unique representation of your brand. Both can also be done poorly, however, if choices end up with discombobulated technology, over-used plugins and effects, and presentation organization without forethought.
If this all comes across as a bit of a rant, good. I admit I was frustrated to experience this business today. They have the history, money, and depth to showcase themselves as leaders in their field. Instead, I have no idea what they want to showcase. They could be anyone in their field, in any city, any size, any identity.
Make a conscious choice to show your brand as your own regardless of the economics behind your digital strategy it's entirely feasible at many price points. But it needs consideration, testing, and careful selections. How will your users feel when they visit?