7 Deadly Sins of Site Design

By Seth Rosenblatt

Is your website a design glutton? Does it lust after unnecessary rich internet applications? Here’s how to get it on the path to redemption.

In his epic poem, “The Divine Comedy,” Dante Alighieri outlined — based on earlier religious writings — what Christians call the “seven deadly sins,” a classification of vices to educate and instruct followers due to man’s tendency to stray from the righteous path. Centuries later, these sins — gluttony, envy, lust, pride, sloth, anger and greed — still remain front and center in theology and have also been a source of inspiration for writers, artists and filmmakers.

But webmasters as well? Over the years, I have seen my fair share of websites, both good and bad. Interestingly enough, there’s often more to be learned from “sinful” websites — those that violate clear principles of good website design, create frustrating experiences for visitors, drive customers away and damage their overall brands or businesses. Although the consequences of website sins may not include eternal damnation, many businesses are committing these same seven deadly sins online, thereby diminishing their ability to connect with prospects and customers.

Let’s take a look at how each sin applies to the fundamental do’s and don’ts of website design.

Gluttony

Gluttony is the overindulgence of anything to the point of waste and is often used in the context of eating. Although web businesses may not have an eating disorder, they often become gluttons of content. All too often, websites feature too much stuff — a cluttered design, too many links or a layout that looks like it was designed by committee.

Every page on your website should have a goal — a purpose. If you can’t clearly articulate that purpose, then maybe you shouldn’t have that page. Crowded sites usually distract visitors from getting to that goal, which may be reading the most important information, clicking on the essential link, registering for the email newsletter, buying your product and so on.

In most cases, less is more. Identify the most important value statements, and then layer additional content so that visitors who want extra information can click to access. Time and time again, multivariable experiments have demonstrated that reducing the amount of copy, reducing the number of required forms in a field or just generally de-cluttering a site can improve conversion rates.

Envy

Envy is about wanting what others have. In business, this often translates to the temptation to imitate other companies, including competitors. Certainly, there may be sites that you admire, and online design and marketing practitioners should always seek out best practices. However, you need to resist the urge to copy or use similar design principles or incorporate every cool new widget that others are employing. Trying new ideas is always good and should be encouraged, but remember the fundamentals:

  • Who are your visitors?
  • What are they looking for?
  • What content and technology helps them walk down a certain path?

Not all companies need to be on the bleeding edge. In fact, we’ve seen instances where companies have added Web 2.0 functionality, only to see their conversion rates actually drop after implementation.

It is best to keep in mind that what works for other companies, including your competitors, may not work for your audience. Very often, winning designs and elements are counterintuitive. For example, my company worked with an online retailer that insisted that its order buttons be a certain color — not because of branding reasons, but because of assumed best practices. The company thought green would be the best color because “green means go, and red means stop.” Well, through an optimization experiment, we indeed learned that the red button actually performed better and increased conversions.

Lust

It’s hard to imagine a website being lustful (assuming you are not in one of those industries). However, sites often attempt to be “sexy” — trying really hard to get your attention, perhaps by being overly flashy. Like the sin of being envious of the next cool technology, we have found that many sites tend to overuse, or improperly use, technologies like Flash and video. Rich internet applications (RIAs) are certainly the wave of the future, and if used well, they can provide a truly engaging and informative experience for your customers.

Unfortunately, more often than not, these “rich” applications can distract visitors from the true goal of the site. For example, we’ve seen companies insert video in the middle of the shopping cart path. Imagine standing in a check-out line at the grocery store, anxious to get home and cook dinner, and the clerk tells you to “watch this short movie before checking out.” Before implementing RIAs, ask yourself, “Does this help move the visitor along the intended business path?” Like the “less is more” principle outlined in the sin of gluttony, often simpler navigation and simpler presentation of content maximize conversion rates.

Pride

In religious references, pride — the excessive love of self — is often considered the most serious of the seven deadly sins. This is actually consistent with one of the long-time axioms of marketing: understand your customers and speak from their point of view. Yet despite this axiom, many companies have a self-focused web presence that talks about their own businesses, not about their customers’ issues. Successful websites are not purely about the company but rather should speak from the visitors’ perspective.

If your mission statement starts with something like, “We strive to be the best at… ,” then you are already off base. Don’t be in love with what you already have, and don’t assume your customers know what you know. Many seasoned web designers would be surprised to learn how often customers claim it is difficult to find crucial information on websites — information that designers always thought was in an obvious location.

Another example of pride is a bit more literal. Have you visited a website that prominently displays the CEO’s photo on the homepage? Fortunately, this is not done often, but when it is, the marketer likely has little political recourse. (“Hey boss, you’re great, but let’s get your ugly mug off the website.”). However, in multiple experiments that we have conducted with clients, every time the CEO’s picture was removed, visitor conversions went up. Unless the CEO is famous and recognizable and the association with him or her adds credibility to your business, lose the ego and the photo.

Sloth

Although this sin is my personal favorite — particularly on a Sunday afternoon during football season — there are a number of ways sloth manifests itself online and hurts your business. First and foremost is the technical side of sloth:

  • Does your site take a long time to load?
  • Does the design of the site, including the inclusion of rich applications, create a slow, frustrating experience for your visitors?

Sloth can also be fairly literal, as in laziness in responding to your customers. Recently, I sent an email to the customer service department of a big online retail chain through a link on their site (a link that was difficult to find, by the way). By the time the company responded, four days later, I’d already deserted its site and purchased my item from one of its competitors.

But perhaps most important — and certainly most prevalent — is the lazy tendency of businesses to treat online visitors as if they are all alike. Today, excellent technologies exist to provide a targeted, relevant experience to visitor segments. Visitor segments can be defined by a host of criteria (e.g., how they got to your site, demographics, location, time, day, etc.). It is frankly just slothful not to take the relatively small amount of time, energy and money required to provide the best experience for all of your visitors. Improving customer targeting and engagement alone will make a dramatic improvement in your online business.

Anger

While it is fairly self-evident that a company should not show anger toward its customers, we sometimes see companies patronizing or scaring their visitors. The former often manifests when a company’s site is too pushy or tries to hard-sell its visitors. For example, the website of Lenox Financial Mortgage proudly states, “It’s the biggest no brainer in the history of mankind.” Really? I’d hardly call a mortgage the biggest no brainer in the history of mankind. Even before the current financial meltdown, this was a ridiculous statement. Never talk down to your customer. Once a visitor sees a headline like this, the company immediately loses credibility, and the visitor goes elsewhere.

In the context of scaring customers, website optimization experiments have shown that negative assurance language (e.g., “no spam” or “no spyware”) often decreases conversion rates. This negative assurance language may only inform visitors of a problem they didn’t know they had and make them think twice before buying. By the way, our website optimization tests show that positive assurance language like “satisfaction guaranteed” tends to work.

Greed

In the movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko famously declared, “Greed is good.” The impact of this mindset may be particularly acute in the context of the current financial crisis, and as you can imagine, greed is often “bad” on the web. This may manifest itself in websites asking their visitors for too much information. For example, we’ve seen many website forms asking for a fax number. Do you really need a visitor’s fax number? If you can cut down on the information you require the visitor to provide, conversion rates will almost always go up. For example, Delta Air Lines made some simple changes to a web form on its site, including removal of the “suffix” name field, and those changes drove a dramatic increase in revenue.

Always ask yourself if you are requiring visitors to commit too much before being allowed to work with you. For example, do they really need to register before viewing some of your content?

Another way that businesses demonstrate greed online is the obsessive pursuit of search engine optimization (SEO). Although a strong SEO strategy should be a cornerstone of your web presence, very often businesses load up their site with content for SEO purposes. Greed for the Google spider often creates a bad experience for the humans visiting your site.

The path to heaven

Most companies that step back and honestly evaluate their websites quickly discover that they are bigger sinners than they had realized. Redemption is often only achieved by a comprehensive program of website optimization through multivariable testing and content targeting. This helps you discover what works for each of your customer segments, provides an engaging experience for all visitors and supports your online business goals. Whether you are a religious person or not, walking the righteous road and avoiding these deadly — yet common — sins will ultimately lead to website design salvation.

Seth Rosenblatt is vice president of product marketing at Interwoven.

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