in Design

the importance of thoughtful design in web applications

When I think back to around 5 years ago, it was commonplace to use web apps that looked awful, but provided content and services that we couldn’t find elsewhere. In those days it was seen as less desirable to create a website that relied heavily on graphics, and as a result, a “dressed down” website was almost still cool. However, with the rapid increase in bandwidth available to the average user, and the rise in competition between online services and retailers, there is far more to loose having a website whose design sucks.

Now fast-forward to the present day, and we are using the internet more and more as part of our everyday lives. The reality of this is that we programmers can no longer get away with designs that make you cry! This is especially important when a website sells a product or commodities of some form. There is literally nothing that will send me running away from a site faster than poor design. I would rather pay more from a site that has:

  1.  A sensible domain name – this can be hard to find; just how annoying on a scale of 1-10 are those who squat on domain names?
  2. (Up-to-date) contact information, namely: an address; history of the company; a phone number; names and possibly a short biography of the key people running the website – even if you are working in your own in a garage, put your name and tell me who you are.
  3. A well thought out design – it doesn’t have to be fancy, just look as if it was not designed in a day. Basically I just want to know you ain’t going to steal my money.
  4. Copyright dates that are current – this is a small thing, but attention to detail!
  5. Fresh content – a company blog can help here; ideally you want to avoid the web equivalent of the sun bleached items in a corner shop window.
  6. Good spelling and grammar – I’m no expert on this (as you may have noticed) but getting this correct is very important. Spelling in particular.
  7. Secure account login – you may look cheap if you have not coughed out for an SSL certificate; they ain’t that expensive (although being an SSL certificate distributor seems like a licence to print money if you ask me).
  8. The ability to NOT send me a password reminder – I almost cry when I see a site that offers to send me my password via email, as I then know they are storing my password as text in their database somewhere. I can then only imagine what they will do with my credit card details.
  9. A payment system that I don’t have to navigate away from the site to hand over my money, if I don’t want to – some folk are happy with PayPal, I’m still suspicious!
  10. Easy to access help, specifically on: delivery, customer service, and returns.
  11. No links into your site from pop-up ads on external websites.

Focusing on point 3 above in more detail. I understand an innovative website design can cost you a fair bit of money, as graphic designers are not cheap.  As an alternative to expensive design, at least avoid the following:

  1. Pop-ups – a no brainer.
  2. Free hosting – especially hosting supported by ads of any kind.
  3. Poor font choice.
  4. A template based design that several of your competitors are also using – you need to stand out, not blend in.
  5. Writing company biographies in the third-person narrative – LAME.
  6. An entry page with no purpose – it’s rare these days but you still see it.
  7. Using Flash, but not fixing the back button to work as expected.
  8. Input fields that are not long enough to take a typical string, i.e. a credit card box that you can’t fit all the numbers of your card in without scrolling, WTF, how can you double check your number?
  9. Items that are not aligned on the page, but should be – c’mon this doesn’t take long to fix.

The days of amateur design are numbered for those wishing to make a living online.  As more companies make online services available, and give the consumer a choice, then the less likely anyone is going to trust a site that lacks attention to detail.  In my eyes the design does not have to be innovative, it just has to appear safe and trustworthy – obviously eye catching design brings with it attention, that I’m not denying, but it does wear off.  So what key factors do you look for in the design of a website and what is likely to send you running in the opposite direction?

(Update: I was just listening to the boagworld podcast and it happens to mention something that ties in with this quite nicely. So check out the link to find out ways to make your site feel safe).

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  1. ># The ability to NOT send me a password reminder – I almost cry when I see a site that offers to send me my password via email, as I then know they are storing my password as text in their database somewhere. I can then only imagine what they will do with my credit card details.

    You might think differently if you have 100s of customers emailing you every month asking to resend their key.

    Also, most mISVs use a third party payment processor and never get your CC number. And there is no reason to store the CC in the key retrieval database, even if you had it.

    ># A payment system that I don’t have to navigate away from the site to hand over my money, if I don’t want to – some folk are happy with PayPal, I’m still suspicious!

    PayPal, Plimus, Avangate etc are much more experienced at online security than the average mISV is ever likely to be. I would be much more nervous about typing my CC details in on your site.

  2. Hi Andy. I don’t think storing a password as plain text in a database is ever a good idea, no matter how many customers you have moaning at you. It is always a better idea to send out a temporary password if they forget it.

    As for the payment system. I agree my nervousness is maybe is not indicative of others with regards to offsite payments. However, I do know a few people that still have second thoughts when presented with a PayPal only option. I just feel that having your own merchant account for payments indicates that at least one bank has some faith in you, and that you have a business bank account.

    Thanks for the good comments though – this is exactly what I was after.

  3. Sorry, I was talking about licence keys, not passwords.

    Also I wouldn’t recommend PayPal only. It is always a good idea to have an alternative.

  4. “I felt this was important regardless of whether it be a web application, desktop software, or simply an API for other developers to use.”

    Some of those things might not be that important? Two ways of figuring it out:

    A- Test test test. Sometimes, bizarre stuff works. e.g. the Rich Jerk (make easy money online) insults his customers (they are losers) and makes a lot of money. You would think that being a jerk would chase customers away… apparently not. Though testing has a cost, and requires you to have a product that generates a lot of data (e.g. lots of sales).

    B- Look for disconfirming evidence.

    Take a look at the different affiliate marketing sites out there. check out [edited by admin] (read the affiliate guide section)

    It’s surprising what works and what doesn’t. Take “a well thought-out design” for instance. Guess what? A lot of affiliate landing pages could be designed in a day (because the marketers change them so much); of course they are iterated over many incarnations to see what works the best.