Website Tips From the Peanut Gallery

There are several important aspects to consider when setting the strategy of your online experience. Regardless if your strategy is a mobile first one (which I recommend) or not, there are several things you should consider.

  1. Imagery
  2. The User Experience
  3. Textual content



1. Make sure the people in your website imagery reflect your ideal target audience.
In a quest for appealing imagery, many a business has snapped up the happiest, most attractive people shots they came across on a stock photography website.

This instinct can send you down the wrong path if you happen to be selling a product or service that doesn’t sync up with that imagery. Are you selling a weight loss service or app aimed at older women with photos of twig-thin teenagers? Are you selling acne treatments with photos of dewy-skinned, Photoshopped models? Or anti-aging lotion with photos of 30-year-olds?

Look critically at your website imagery and ask yourself how your ideal customer is likely to react to it.

2. Whenever possible, avoid buying cheesy stock photos.
It’s not hard to spot one-size-fits-all stock photos when you browse around a website. Often, the style and people pictured don’t exactly match up with a given business, and it can give a website an off-kilter, not-very-authentic feel.

Even worse, some of the most generic stock photos are also the most-purchased – for obvious reasons. Do you want your potential customers to see the same faces smiling out at them from your website and three or four others of all kinds? Believe me, it happens.

3. Choose effective product images.
If you’re selling a tangible product online, you need quality images to draw customers in and make them go all the way to checkout.

Here are a few guidelines:

  • Show products in context. If you’re selling a beauty product, show it in use – makeup being applied to a face, a hairdryer in action.
  • Highlight the product details. Your product may trump a competitor’s because of the little things, so be sure to show them, especially if it has small, intricate pieces that are product differentiators.

If you’re selling a product that isn’t tangible, such as software, the guidelines change:

  • Choose screenshots well. You need to feature screenshots of the software that are big enough that users can understand what they’re seeing.
  • Use screenshots to support your sales pitch. Pick screenshots that highlight the story you are trying to tell – i.e., “My product is great at X, as these 3 screenshots highlight.”

4. Once you choose the right images to feature, make sure the photography is up to par.
Your products need to be pictured in the best possible light – literally and figuratively – whether you’re selling a product or service.

Restaurant websites are a good example of the need to go with quality imagery. You can bet your website visitors won’t show up at your restaurant if the imagery of your food isn’t appealing. Few things are less appealing than poorly lit photos that give food a distinctly unhealthy, unappetizing look; I was in an ethnic restaurant in New York City once, and my friends and I nearly left because the photos on the menu were both poorly lit and poorly staged (one dish looked exactly like brains on a plate).

If you can’t afford to hire a photographer who knows about food styling, lighting, etc., you need to skip food images. You can use words to conjure up the appeal of the food and get creative about alternative imagery. Maybe a photographer can capture the ambience of your restaurant in photographs instead; if a news outlet has reviewed your restaurant, you could buy copies of any quality images they shot.

The User Experience

1. Design your website using the same principles you would (or should) apply to creating a brick-and-mortar store.
So you have something to sell – either a product or your expertise – and you want to sell it in cyberspace. You don’t want the hassle or cost of a Main Street storefront or big box space.

Setting up shop online is less expensive than having a physical store, but you have to think about your setup in many of the very same ways that a traditional store owner would:

  • You still have to get people to walk in the door.
  • You have to make sure your store and your wares are attractive enough that these people don’t turn around and walk back out right away.
  • You still have to ensure that visitors can find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.

2. Create a great user experience, and they will come.
The bottom line is that you have to create a satisfying user experience no matter where you set up shop.

When someone “walks” into your virtual store, what do you want them to get out of it?

Is coming to your website frustrating for customers who are focused, driven shoppers? Is it like going to a huge Home Depot in search of one type of nail and having to wander a half-mile before you finally get to it? Or are your ‘aisles’ clearly marked? Is the checkout line speedy, efficient and friendly?

Looking at the Home Depot example from another angle, there are also shoppers who want the big box Home Depot experience. They enjoy wandering the aisles; they’re just fine with an unhurried journey to the checkout. This is a great illustration of the importance of understanding your audience.

Do they want a quick in-and-out experience? Do they want to go through every showroom ala IKEA? Design with your audience in mind and you will go far. Design with only your corporate or business agenda in mind and only trouble awaits you.

I always like to look to car websites to see the vast array of possibilities on selling virtually the same thing. Notice how the messaging, imagery and finer details of the website improve the more expensive the car is?

3. The simplest way to get a sense of whether your site is providing a great customer experience is to take a spin around it with the eye of a first-time visitor.
As a “new” customer, pick goals to accomplish on the site and then ask yourself questions like these:

  • What’s the first thing you see?
  • Does it make a positive impression?
  • Did product listings give you enough information to make a purchasing decision?
  • Were added costs, such as shipping, made clear so you got a true picture of overall cost?
  • Pick a goal – were you able to accomplish it?

Now, wearing your business owner hat, did any of these answers match up with what you were hoping your site conveyed? Would these answers help to drive your bottom line?

(In an ideal world, you will have done research so you know who your target customer is and what they want; guesswork about your target audience can be fatal to a business, especially in a challenging economy.)


Textual Content

In this age of endless online content, people have way too many reading choices in their day-to-day life.

For some reason, we have a compulsion to tell everyone everything. We tend to believe that we should include all of the answers to any potential questions we imagine our audience might have.

I can promise you, based on years of designing websites, if people come to your website and have to slog through a mind-boggling, eye-scrambling amount of copy to figure out what you’re offering, whether they need it and how to get it, they willabandon ship.

Pick and choose what’s important, and leave the rest out (trust me – the info that’s truly important to your audience will not take up much space at all).

You may be the best at what you do, but if your competitor makes a more succinct, easy-to-grasp case, they’ll get the business or the purchase.

So …

  • Keep it short and snappy.
  • Do your homework: Figure out as best as possible what information your target audience is looking for on your site and providethat information … no more, no less.
  • Use bullet points and other graphic design solutions for making copy easy to scan.
  • When bullet points aren’t appropriate, and you need to get your message across in sentences and paragraphs, be sure to break up your sentences/ideas across multiple paragraphs to avoid long, daunting chunks of copy.
  • Do hire a professional if copy writing isn’t your strong suit. You’d be amazed how much more appealing a product or service will be if it’s described in a colorful, compelling way.

And now I’ll follow my own advice.