Web Design : Form vs Function (Part 1)

One of the most common misconceptions in web design is that it's ALL about the 'look and feel'...

Sure, if you're creating a showcase for your photography, or you want to impress a potential employer with your artistic design, then this may be the case. But in the vast majority of cases, choosing form over function will penalise the effectiveness of a website.

Think about it: What do most commercial web-sites have in common? They all either sell directly, generate leads for their sales-people, or promote their product and/or service - giving enough information to tantalise and interest you (get you on the hook) - and then lead you to an information request form. That, or they exist primarily to provide information on a subject, which is then monetised through advertising or affiliate-sales.

If the majority of web-sites are there to encourage sales-activity (and why else would a business want to be online?) then surely this should be the guiding factor in the design of a commercial web-site. We believe the axiom, 'Begin with the end in mind' holds especially true in web design. An effective web-site needs to be reverse-engineered from the effect you want to generate; not from the position of what looks 'pretty'. If a website is going to generate leads for a business, then it needs to be designed from the ground-up with this primary goal. If a website is going to be host to information which is then monetised through advertising; again, this needs to be the guiding design factor.

So many websites fail this simple test! As you build a site, you should constantly be asking this question: "Does this element add to the sites ability to fulfil its function?" If the answer is 'no', then that element may actually reduce sales or conversion. And this question needs to be asked objectively. It's easy to argue a case for virtually any feature on a website; you can say that almost anything you add could improve the visitors experience in some way. But don't confuse a feature that keeps people on the site, or impresses them with artistic talent, with something that increases your chances to convert them into a prospect or sale. You may actually be giving too much information or content...

As a web-development company, we frequently sit-down with clients who say they want their website to do this and that, and they've got a great idea for a widget which lets clients do this, and they want the pages to animate in this way, with that part changing when you do this... You get the idea; the list goes on.

One of the first things we normally have to do is have 'the form vs function chat'. We then need to spend time analysing exactly what the site is there for. What is its primary purpose? What are its secondary and supporting roles? When we've arrived at that guiding factor, then we can discuss the products and services that are offered, and what page format they should take, together with the way they are linked and overall site navigation is performed. Then we start to grow the shell or framework of a 'commercially-directed' site - not one that has been born from vivid imaginations.

'All roads lead to Rome', is a famous saying. And in web design, the axiom 'all pages lead to our inbox'should be burned into your design methodology. Now, when we say 'inbox' we obviously don't mean email, we mean a much grander view: Every page on the site must fulfil part of its purpose - to bring all visitors to the point where they finally click on that end goal that we're shooting for; be it a purchase, information request, advertisement or offer. So the navigation structure must be part of that design; carefully leading people down a path, giving enough information to whet the appetite, without satiating it, and then massaging people gently towards our ultimate goal.

You need to understand that modern commercial web design is more about clever marketing and creating a sales-funnel, than it is about any kind of artistic statement. Now, that's not to say that we don't want the web-site to look good. Of course we do! It's the same with dating; we rarely get the chance to show someone what we're like under the surface, unless there's that initial animal attraction. Thus it goes with websites! But, the key here is that the look and feel of the site is subservient to its goal. Therefore, the design is slave to the functionality; adding to its effectiveness to convert, rather than holding it back.

Ultimately, web 'design' (rather than the actual creation and development of the web 'code') is a process that needs to be considered carefully before the actual work is commenced. Without knowing your final destination, how can you possibly create the best route to it?

You'll get plenty of chances to be creative, and many of those wonderful ideas you'll have to improve your visitors experience will be invaluable; as long as they add to the goal of the site - and don't detract from it.

Continued in Part 2...