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Five web design trends that every start-up should heed

Monday, 30 July 2012 | By Oliver Milman

feature-web-design-thumbWhen Melbourne-based web business RedBubble decided it was time for a revamp of its site, the process wasn’t a quick and easy one.


The business, which acts as an online marketplace for artistic creations, spent 18 months rethinking its strategy from top to bottom before deciding upon a new look.


RedBubble’s approach may seem time consuming, but it’s indicative of a trend that no start-up can ignore, even if doesn’t consider the internet to be its primary channel.


The days of being able to simply slap your brand online and hope for the sales to start flowing in are long gone. Small businesses not only have to get themselves online – which is still a struggle for many Australian SMEs – but closely follow what consumers are reacting well to, or get left behind.


“Businesses tend to think about functionality first, but beyond that you need to have some sort of emotional connection with your customers,” says Martin Hosking, CEO of RedBubble. “That’s been the case since the first automobiles came along and is the case now.”


“Facebook is a functional, but people connect to it, so goes Groupon – it’s very clear what it is, how people can get value from it. They focus on making the experience good.”


So how do you get this kind of engagement with customers? Adam Franklin, head of digital agency BlueWire Media, says that the best sites are moving towards a simplicity in look and feel that start-ups would do well to ape.


“Around 75% of people look for information when they go to sites, so sites that have a simple path towards the information they need do well, as do sites with blogs,” he explains.


“If customers can make a purchase decision on the first visit, that’s great, but usually they need education. Therefore, the best sites do that first step of education very well – they are clear as to what they are and who they are for, they have resources such as eBooks, market reports and other downloads. They don’t bombard people with options.”


We asked Hosking and Franklin to pick out the key trends currently taking hold in the web design industry. Here are their essential lessons.



1. Clutter is going




Many of the best websites out there continue to contain lots of information, but they don’t feel the need to throw all of it at potential customers at once.


Where once the desire to display as many links, flashing buttons and graphics at users was in vogue, the trend is now to offer a more stripped back, minimal experience.


“Important buttons are getting bigger while the clutter is going,” Franklin says. “The best sites are very clear about the one thing they do and what they want you to do. They have an obvious call to action and have a good understanding who their buyers are.”


“Don’t think that the second action of a web user after seeing your site is to pick up the phone to get more details from you. The second action is to go to your competitor to see how you compare to them.”


“Consumers are doing all of their own research and are making buying decisions without even talking to businesses. Therefore, you need to provide the information they are looking for and avoid all other distractions.”



2. There’s a rethink on branding


Your website is a great way to build your brand and, with some decent SEO activity, you can turn it into your best marketing tool.


But don’t overestimate the power of branding in the mind of customers. They are searching for the best product or service for them – in a web cluttered with options, the provider is almost secondary.


Hosking says that RedBubble recognised this trend by making its brand less obvious, most notably to shrinking its logo to a mere ‘RB’.


“Most traditional retailers want to put their brand on everything, but the new commerce model requires you to almost put it in the background,” he explains.


“That’s why sites that focus on content, such as Pinterest, are doing well. You’ve got to recognise who or what is really creating the value here – is it your massive logo or is it the product the customer wants to buy?”



“This feeds through to having your content shared by people online. Facebook asks me to be a fan of NAB – why the hell would I want to be a fan of my bank? Similarly, we realise it’s not really about RedBubble, it’s about the t-shirt or piece of art people are interested in.”


“Have a clear story about who you are but put what you offer to the forefront. That’s what customers are interested in.”


3. That said, it’s not just a sales channel



Once you fully understand who your customers are, you can tailor your offering to them. But don’t just think that your site should be a one-way selling machine.


Long-term sales growth is driven by genuine engagement with consumers, rather than just throwing offers at them. This spans the design, social media and content aspects of your website.


“Most Australian sites still focus on a narrow functionality, in a very debranded way,” says Hosking.


“You need to get a designer in early, along with your business brain, to think through the brand and how you’ll be speaking to people.”


“The design needs to convey who you are and who you’re talking to. You have to deliver on your brand promise, whatever that is. It shouldn’t really be lowest price – you need to offer more than that. Target can offer kids’ T-shirts for $4 – that’s not us, and it shouldn’t be most start-ups.”


Offer something of value to users beyond your product or service. Consider embedding competitions, games or calculators into your site.


Encourage them to interact with you via social media and try to grasp what interests and excites them. Even if it doesn’t directly lead to a sale, tapping into this will do wonders for your long-term image.


Also, think about your packaging – RedBubble’s redesign allows it to easily get ‘RB’ onto its packaging, an important branding exercise for online-only brands that don’t have the same amount of customer touch points as physical retailers.



4. The time and money involved is increasing


The main advantage of launching a web-only business is the cost – stripped of the overheads of premises, fixtures and fittings and equipment, online start-ups can run a very efficient model.


However, as selling via the internet becomes ingrained within businesses and rises in popularity among consumers, the costs are beginning to rise.


In order to stand out from an increasingly cluttered field, you will need a striking design, easy user experience and a secure payment platform that doesn’t fall over or get hacked into on a regular basis.


All of these things cost money. If you baulk at the cost, you should ask yourself how important the web is to your business and whether you’d invest a large amount in another area of your operations that’s of equal value.


Hosking says that in addition to the 18 months taken to overhaul RedBubble, he also spent $200,000 on market research and design, which doesn’t include development costs.


“It’s a big outlay for a small company like ours,” he admits. “But that’s what we had to pay to really show what the brand meant to customers and how customers use us. I can’t put a figure on what the return will be, you can’t easily quantify that.”


“But we want to be a global brand for those that aspire to creative individualism. In Australia, brands such as Billabong and Quiksilver have done that in the past and we want to be in that category. And that takes investment.”



5. Good ideas are spanning different industries



The best way to find out what works and what doesn’t is, of course, to take a wander through the internet yourself.


What you should find is that cutting edge design and great useability isn’t confined to a niche of cool consumer-facing brands – online excellence is filtering down to businesses of all shapes and sizes, across a range of sectors.


Asked for standout sites for start-ups to reference, Franklin picks out US marketing software firm HubSpot, saying: “The homepage is very clear, they have lots of information online but in a big, clear font. It’s clear what they are and they do a good job of building trust by offering a free trial of their software.”


Franklin’s other choice is Sydney accountant Kelly & Partners: “It delivers something you maybe wouldn’t expect from an accountancy firm. It has a blog which allows you to get to know the company and it has a range of free tools available via the homepage. It also makes it clear how you can interact with the brand.”


Hosking picks out design site Fab.com and fashion hub Gilt as eCommerce sites that have got it right.


“Both are clean, clear and have a clear segment of the audience they can talk to,” he says. “They are brave about their content by offering a richer visual experience. They are making a conscious effort to be more beautiful.”