5 Web Design Tips for Startups

This article is the third in the Entrepreneurship Series.

Chances are if you’re starting a company these days, you’ve also thought about what your website will look like. This is especially true for web based startups – your website is your storefront and your public face, probably your most direct and frequent contact with customers. Therefore, you should spend time to ensure that your website is as effective and user friendly as it can be. The best websites clearly and pleasantly convey your company’s message, and make it obvious how the casual browser can become a customer or user. You can take large steps toward these goals by following these guidelines:

1.) Put your most important content “above the fold”
For years, newspapers have put their headlines and biggest stories “above the fold” – meaning the top half of the page that you would see before opening the paper. This same principle applies to web design. Put your most important content at the top of the page, where people can see it without scrolling. Visitors should be able to get a clear picture of your site’s purpose, learn how to navigate around, and hear your call to action (see below) without ever scrolling.

2.) Have a prominent “call to action”
Virtually all web sites have a persuasive purpose – to get someone to register, subscribe, bookmark, or buy something. The success of your business is often measured in terms of the number of users you have, and a loyal user is worth more than you may think. As an example – Google recently bought YouTube for $1.65 billion, or $82 per each of YouTube’s 20 million unique monthly visitors. So how can your business convert a casual visitor into a user? All you have to do is ask, and be sure your visitors hear you. Somewhere above the fold (as discussed above), make sure there is a colorful, prominent, and clickable “call to action”. In marketing speak, a call to action is text that compels a person to take action (typically buy a product). For example – “Register for free today”, “Call us at (704) 555-1212”, or “Buy our widget now”. This conveys to the visitor what you want from them, and what they need to do right now to get involved.

3.) Minimize “hoops”
Web surfers in general have notoriously short attention spans, so if you’ve been lucky enough to hook them with your call to action, you need to make sure you reel them in quickly and successfully. Even if a visitor is interested in registering for your site, an overly long, elaborate, or invasive sign up or order process will quickly send them elsewhere. Minimize the number of hoops they must jump through to become a registered user. When designing your sign up form, consider what information you need right now, and which can wait until after the person is registered (prompt them to fill out their profile). Chances are, all you really need right now is their email address and a password. Unless you’re going to charge them up front, their name, credit card, address, dog’s name, and favorite food can probably wait until later.

4.) Play well with others
One of the hallmarks of “web 2.0” is open content. Sites like Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube have all made their data available to other applications via APIs. Take advantage of their openness – let your users import their information from these sites and others (assuming it’s relevant) instead of uploading it again themselves. This minimizes “hoops” for the user, as they only have to upload/update/enter their information once, even if it’s on another site. And as we’ve learned before, having fewer hoops is crucial for getting and retaining users.
If you’re going to take advantage of other site’s openness, you should also follow their lead. Make your own content available for your users to view and use anywhere on the internet. Implement an API, offer RSS feeds and email notifications. Let people embed your content in blogs, MySpace pages, and personal homepages. Witness how successful this philosophy has been for YouTube. One of the major reasons YouTube has been so successful is that their typical user never actually visits their site. Most of YouTube’s videos are embedded elsewhere on the web, with only a small YouTube logo in the bottom right to identify them. YouTube’s brand is spread across the entire internet, making it nearly impossible to not see their logo during a browsing session. As a web designer, your first instinct is to try to increase traffic and page views, but remember – by being social and opening your content, you are able to put your content and brand in front of your users, even if they’re not actually browsing your web site.

5.) Be transparent
In the same spirit of openness, also make an effort to make (parts at least) of your company transparent. Today’s internet is all about community, and your company needs to be a part of that. One of the best ways to keep in touch with the community is to keep a company blog. Periodically write a teaser post about an upcoming feature, an update on the direction of the company, or call for feedback. Let your users comment on these posts, and read their comments. Then, next time you’re looking at new features to add, consider what your users asked for. If you end up adding what they asked for (and you should!) write a post announcing the new feature, and credit the original feedback you received that inspired it. This makes your users feel involved and connected, and encourages them to continue participating in your community.

In summary, keep the user in mind when designing every aspect of your startup’s web site. Everything you do should be designed with the user’s experience in mind. Today’s internet is a fast paced place with tons of new startups, and if you want yours to be relevant, you’re going to have to fight for it. Grabbing visitors with a well designed and usable web site is the first step toward success.

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Bill D'Alessandro