SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL WEBSITES
- A ZERO-BASE APPROACH TO WEBSITE ARCHITECTURE
Small Is Beautiful is a much-read book by E. F. Schumacher published in 1973. The subtitle was Economics as if People Mattered.
The message was that developed nations are consuming the world's limited resources and new ways of living must be adopted to live within what is sustainable in the long term. This return to the 'simple life' seems appropriate in many other situations. The phrase can also provide a powerful concept in thinking about website design. To avoid excess words, SIB will be used as a shorthand for Small Is Beautiful.
This newsletter topic was triggered by two recent Alertbox articles from Jakob Nielsen, the Usability guru. His Alertbox of July 11, 2005 dealt with Scrolling and Scrollbars. He said we accept too easily that website visitors should scroll to see all parts of a web page. The Alertbox fuelled quite a discussion in the Cre8asite Forums on the theme Deciding what to put "below the fold". This links to the newspaper theme of what appears in the top section of the Front Page and what is below the fold of the newspaper. Unless what is 'above the fold' is strong enough to grab someone's attention, the rest will not be seen. Clearly some people have an aversion to scrolling around to read all that is on the web page. To such people smaller web pages are certainly more beautiful.
IS BIGGER BETTER?
Although Jakob Nielsen did not make the connection, his Alertbox of July 25, 2005 is dealing with the same problem on a slightly larger scale.. The title was Amazon: No Longer the Role Model for E-Commerce Design. In summary, Nielsen felt that although the site works well for Amazon, it was too complex as a model for most e-commerce websites. In effect he was saying that simpler would be better as a guiding principle for the whole website too.
HOW SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL?
Small is Beautiful for E. F. Schumacher was a question of economics, rather than aesthetics. So too for the website owner, the budget for a website should be effectively applied. The website should perform as intended and should not cost more than is necessary to do the job. The job is of course defined by the performance objectives that are set for the website.
As you may see on the Internet web page, there are two key strengths of the Internet that can be exploited. The first is that information in a 'rich media format' can be sent from A to B. The potential client B can perhaps see video demonstrations of what services the company A provides or of how A's products perform. The impressive nature of this must not be accepted blindly as a given. Sometimes B does not have the software loaded that will allow him or her to view the demonstration as it should appear. Even with the right software, B may be too stressed for time to sit quietly and wait for the demo.
The other strength of the Internet is much more important and much more reliably available. The Internet helps to make connections. Potential client C may not know that supplier A exists but, given the power of modern computing systems, A can pop up on the 'radar screen'. The Internet has shrunk the world. The website must be designed to profit from this interconnection possibility. Small is Beautiful websites will be more visible on radar screens and more likely to be viewed and acted on by potential clients.
So most website owners will likely set objectives for the traffic to the website. They will also set some target for the proportion of website visitors who take some action that moves them along the sales cycle to the moment of decision. There are a large number of people who use search engines to do their research and find potential suppliers. Accordingly, the website must also rank well with the search engines for appropriate keywords.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL WEB PAGES
The non-scrolling ideas that Jakob Nielsen raised are an important consideration in considering an individual SIB web page. Clearly individual web pages must be attractive and easily scannable by humans. There is now a great deal of knowledge on how to do this well. It doesn't need to be complicated provided the web designer understands what is important.
There are many fine examples of SIB web pages that very simply present to the viewer what they are all about. Here are some of my personal favourites. The following two web designer web pages receive much kudos from their web designer peers. Designer Jones is a web site designed by Diane Vigil from Los Angeles. The other is by Lisa McMillan who is at Georgian College, Barrie, ON, Canada.
Many web designers are now offering these approaches to their customers. Again I offer two personal favourites. The SimpleBits website is worth exploring as an illustration of how to produce SIB web pages. SimpleBits operates out of Salem, Massachusetts. A quote from the website summarizes their approach well.
Designing and building simple, useable, and attractive interfaces and web sites that account for speed, file size, readability and accessibility - using web standards. This is what SimpleBits is all about.
Another company following a similar approach is UK-based Scratch Media. Again a quote from the website provides another expression of what we should be seeking in SIB web pages.
We specialise in user-centred interaction design for web and software applications. We design products that are easy, enjoyable and effective.
For maximum interconnection possibilities, such web pages must also be constructed so that search engines can assess them and rank them highly for the right keywords. In general, the ideas raised above work extremely well for this secondary objective.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL WEBSITES
So we have a single web page that can be said to follow the Small Is Beautiful principle. How big should our website be? How many web pages should be included? Jakob Nielsen has warned against the complexity of a website like Amazon. If Amazon doesn't provide the right model, what model is appropriate? How do we create a total SIB website? Of course different websites have different objectives so no single model will work for all. What determines what should be included? In this Newsletter, we will set out a way to tackle this question.
Zero Base Budgeting was an approach to budgeting developed by Peter Pyhrr for Texas Instruments and described in the Harvard Business Review in 1970. It attempted to break the normal budgeting ramp where only additions to budgets are discussed and the existing budget is assumed to be the starting point. In the Zero Base Budgeting approach, managers must defend the very existence of their core budget and justify any additions each year. Although it had a certain vogue in Government departments, it seems largely to have fallen by the wayside. However the approach has some merit and can be adapted for this question of what is a SIB website.
A SIMPLE CASE STUDY
To make the discussion more concrete, let's discuss the website for a professional consulting group that works on a project basis with clients. The key objective for the website is to give some visibility so that potential clients will become aware of the consulting group and will contact them when help is needed. The website should move prospects along the AIDA scale - Awareness / Interest / Desire / Action. The website will also be available as a support to prospecting activities so that prospects who are contacted can 'check out' the company.
THE ZERO BASE APPROACH TO WEBSITES
Applying the Zero Base approach to the choice of a suitable website architecture for this company involves the following steps:
- What is the absolute minimum website that could fulfill the company's objectives?
- What are the possible additions to that minimum that may better achieve the company's objectives?
- What are the costs and benefits associated with each of these possible additions?
- Rank the additions in order of benefit/cost ratio and see how many of them can be accepted into the budget.
THE ABSOLUTE MINIMUM - THE ZERO BASE
So what is the absolute minimum position on the website decision. Could it be to no website at all? In the early Internet days, some professional consulting groups did not have websites. They felt that their reputation was so well known that a website would do little for them. That is not at all the position now. A website is an essential confirmation of credibility.
Even the most well-known gurus now have their own websites. Just check out Peter Drucker or Tom Peters. Another heavyweight is Michael Porter, who is the founding spirit behind Harvard's Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. His web page is buried within the ranks of the Harvard cognoscenti but is very impressive once found.
Without a website it is unlikely that a professional consulting group would be taken seriously. Its quality will be a make-or-break for the seriousness with which the group is considered. So a simple web page with the company coordinates and a message that the full website is coming soon is worse than useless.
The very minimum that can be considered is a very professional single web page that gives an Executive Summary introduction to the company. There should be enough in the area 'above the fold' (in the first screen seen) to impress and to capture a visitor's interest. This should include the company's USP (Unique Selling Proposition), the reason why this company will do more for you than the competition. It should give a rapid description of what services the company provides and perhaps some of the brag-able clients served. It should give the company coordinates and an easy way to get in touch with the company immediately.
So this absolute minimum could encourage a visitor to contact the company. The question then is 'What needs to be added to significantly increase the number of visitors who will contact the company?"
HOW TO EVALUATE ADDITIONS
Each potential addition to this absolute minimum can be evaluated in terms of the benefits gained versus the costs or effort involved in making the addition. Precise estimates of these may be difficult but it is worth trying to establish them. When the website is operating, it is possible to see how it actually performs and compare actual results with these estimates. This measurement and analysis can support an ongoing website performance improvement process.
Here we will use very approximate methods for assessing costs and benefits to provide a simple example. The figures are only for illustration purposes but nevertheless give indications of where effort should be directed. The factors that will be considered are:
- Benefits with human visitors (H)
- Benefits with search engines (S)
- Any disadvantages (treated as negative benefits) (D)
- Management effort (M)
- Technical effort (T)
Each factor will be assessed on a scale from 0 to 9.
A SINGLE LONG SCROLLING WEB PAGE
Despite what Jakob Nielsen said, one could consider giving more information on the company and what it offers by adding a great deal of information 'below the fold' in one long scrolling web page. Some high pressure sales web pages for programs to completely change your life or for miracle medications are exactly like this. They include multiple points at which the visitor is encouraged to click to initiate the purchasing process. It may be that some people find this type of web page more 'sticky' and keep scrolling down rather than clicking away. However others may be exasperated and rapidly click away. In general it is tough to make such web pages look professional and there is an implied association with the methods used by those "snake-oil" salesmen. Putting all this information in one web page is also not very effective for search engine visibility.
Suggested rating: H = 2: S = 2: D = 5: M = 3: T = 1
ADDING PAGES WITH A MENU BAR
Taking the information that might have appeared in a single long scrolling web page and putting it into a series of web pages brings strong benefits with both humans and search engines. This requires a single web page template with a navigation menu bar. Significant technical effort and competence is required to do this well while conforming with web standards. To encourage web surfers to contact the company, the most important pages are probably the following: News, About Us, Services Offered, Customer Testimonials, and Contact Us (coordinates).
Suggested rating: H = 8: S = 8: D = 0: M = 3: T = 7
ADDING AN INTRODUCTORY 'SPLASH' PAGE
An introductory 'splash' page where visitors can choose perhaps which language version they would prefer and can watch an animated image of company activities is an irritation to some visitors and should usually be avoided. It also is very difficult to make such a web page visible to the search engines.
Suggested rating: H = 3: S = 0: D = 2: M = 1: T = 6
RICH MEDIA WEBSITES
Web pages can be much more impressive with the use of Flash or the addition of many images. Although these can be attractive to a human visitor, they tend to be largely invisible to the search engines. This may severely limit the number of visitors to the website. If the web pages must be made more visible to the search engines, then special measures must be taken, but only limited improvements can be made.
Suggested rating: H = 7: S = 0: D = 4: M = 1: T = 8
MESSAGE FORM PAGE
If the website's objective is to get the maximum number of visitors contacting the company then this must be made as easy as possible. In addition to showing a telephone number and an e-mail address, a message form may encourage some visitors to make the connection.
Suggested rating: H = 6: S = 0: D = 0: M = 1: T = 3
Since search engine visibility, particularly with Google, is influenced by the number of backlinks (other websites that have a link to the website), then it may be thought that it is useful to have a links page. It is then possible to offer to other websites the possibility of a link exchange where each shows a backlink to the other. Although links from other websites are valuable if both are in the same field, Google now discounts links from other unrelated topic websites. In addition, the only outcome of a links page may be that a visitor leaves the website and goes to another website.
Suggested rating: H = 2: S = 2: D = 0: M = 1: T = 5
A newsletter can be a valuable way of providing useful information to potential customers. With a little care it can also be a powerful way of providing highly visible web pages to search engines. It does however involve a commitment to write newsletters on a regular basis with sufficient content and quality to be a positive influence on prospects' perceptions of the company.
Suggested rating: H = 4: S = 6: D = 3: M = 5: T = 5
A blog or weblog is a more flexible way of maintaining a dialogue with potential customers. Entries can be shorter than a typical newsletter and can be written as and when appropriate. There is the obligation to make entries on a not-too-infrequent basis as with newsletters. However blogs have the merit that the software to write them is more user-friendly and there is an increased visibility through the provision of a parallel newsfeed. Indeed a blog may easily be more search engine visible than the associated website.
Suggested rating: H = 5: S = 8: D = 3: M = 7: T = 4
One simple thing that may improve search engine visibility and be helpful to visitors who wish to understand the make-up of the website as they navigate around is a site map. This provides a full listing of all web pages within the website with clickable links to all pages. With a small website the benefit may be limited but it will always provide another route for the search engine spiders to reach and index all web pages.
Suggested rating: H = 1: S = 8: D = 0: M = 0: T = 4
What are the most important additions to be made to the absolute minimum of a single web page? Following the Zero Base philosophy, these should be added in descending order of the benefit/cost ratio. All should be added starting from the top that can be done within the agreed budget. In the table below the benefit/cost ratio has been calculated by the following formula:
The alternatives have then been arranged in descending order of this benefit/cost ratio. This produces the following ranking.
This order probably confirms most people's assessment of the priority. Some may be surprised to see the blog coming so high but it is a most powerful way of gaining search engine visibility if sufficient content can be developed on a continuing basis.
This analysis has been illustrative rather than scientifically quantitative. However the broad conclusions are correct. A similar evaluation should be made of other possible additions such as a FAQ/Glossary web page, a product catalogue or a shopping cart.
AN IMPORTANT PROVISO
This approach is designed to ensure that with a limited budget, the most effective website architecture is chosen. Internet Marketing initiatives are much more cost effective than most of the traditional marketing activities. So even lower ranking alternatives in this analysis may still give a better return on investment (ROI) than other marketing activities, for example advertisements in print media. The total budget for the website should be determined with this in mind.
Small Is Beautiful was a powerful concept in thinking about national economies and the same principle can be applied to website architecture. It is linked to the KISS principle. We are looking for the maximum effect from the minimum of effort or cost. Although the example here used very approximate estimates of benefits and costs, the same methodology can be made more precise with values linked more directly to actual benefits and costs. A large proportion of current websites are very ineffective. Hopefully by following the approach set out here, more websites will be built that are highly effective in drawing in crowds of prospects.
If your company is reviewing its website, SMM will be happy to help you figure out your best approach. Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience and creativity can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.
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Added to site 1 August 2005
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