What makes a great website?

This year I am privileged to be on the panel of judges for the Realex Web Awards 2015.  So in looking at these marvelous shortlisted Irish made websites the obvious question comes up – what is a good website?

In the early days of web-mania the fact that you could make all singing and dancing websites meant that you did.  Websites, unlike posters or advertisements, could be interactive.  Flashing images, moving parts, read me sections, sign up forms and lovable cartoons were all common.  The problem was that too many of these conflicted with the number one rule – to communicate.  The website became a strange spectacle that danced a Can Can across the screen, but left the visitor redundant and bemused.

web awards

Communication is king

Last year Hub Spot carried out a major survey of visitor reactions and ratings of websites and came up with one overwhelming conclusion – 85% of the time people want a website to tell them the answer to the question that they had in mind when they came to it.  When is your shop open, how much does a lawnmower cost, can you help me, how do I get to you?

So usability and navigability are number one.  Dancing images get in the way, and as Peep Laja quotes, “sliders tank sales”.   Just as you want a waiter/waitress in a cafe to give you a menu rather than dance at your table, you want a website to be full of relevant, clearly laid out and accessible information.   Take a look at some of the most successful websites such Amazon or The Guardian and you will see that design is minimal and what you get is a lot of clear, easily found content.

Mobile Friendly

Another major issue is that 65% (and climbing) of internet searches are now made on mobile phones or tablets, not on desk tops.  So the classic website design which luxuriated in the full screen experience began to frustrate most of its visitors.  The Google approved responsive design means that websites use set boxes that can individually resize and re-pattern themselves to fit the mobile/tablet or desktop that they are displayed on.  Because it is now the preferred medium for first time searchers, the mobile site is dictating the style and pattern of the old desktop sites.  Even more than desktop sites, mobile friendly sites needs to be clear, to the point and quick to navigate. Moving images, flashing ads and extraneous pages are not welcome.

Substance with style

But this doesn’t mean that design takes a back seat. What it means is that good designers will work with the fact that clear navigation, good quality information and a coherent pattern of delivery come first, and the designers job is to serve that.  Within those parameters they can also create a mood and a feel that is consistent with and enhances the product or message of the site.  There are several factors that can make a clearly signposted, content rich website even better.   Images, font, thematic design and layout.

Images often define a website.  Just as they do in magazines, great pictures can set a mood, define and showcase a product in a way that is, as the old cliche goes, worth more than a thousand words.  Fonts (not too many) can create a feel that is serious, friendly or wacky, enhancing rather than competing with the content.  Thematic design can bring harmony to a lot of different elements and give it a pleasing coherence, often defined by a good logo, a background graphic, or good use of key colours (not too many). And finally layout – clutter is bad, grouping and careful use of white space is good.

Mostly understated, sometimes deliberately out there, style is an essential ingredient to making it all work.  As Walt puts it  in The Great Lebowski’s, “That rug really tied the room together”.

So what makes a great website?  Look out for the winners of this years Web Awards to see for yourself.


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