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Rochester, New York

Using Photos on Your Web Site

There are times where I beat up on graphic designers. And there are other times when I completely support the advice they give.  One piece of graphic design advice I completely agree with is that every company should make use of professional photography. High quality photography is one of your best web site investments.  In terms of my usability roots, photography is an important part of high quality content. If you are designing or redesigning your web site make sure you take time to consider the photography.

Today Everyone's a PRO

In today's world of readily available digital cameras it is easy to get photography for almost any project.  If I'm working on a web project and ask for photography the client usually responds with "I have a guy who does photos for me all the time, he's great." To which I respond, "Is he/she a professional photographer?" Nine times out of ten the response is "No they are not, but the photos are decent." Here is my honest assessment: Professional photography gives web sites a professional feel. Amateur photos make a web site look amateur. Over the last 16 years I've found the previous assessment to be completely true.

Getting a client to spend money on a photography can sometimes be a difficult task.  In my own personal experience every client who spent money on a professional photographer usually grumbled about the price up front and praised the photos afterward.

There are rare occasions when you find an amateur photographer that takes professional grade photography. The easiest way to assess the quality of photography is by going to your graphic designer or web development firm to get an objective evaluation.

An Alternative
If you can't afford a professional photographer stock photography is highly recommended. Some of the photos might not be an exact fit for your web site. I would argue that you could make an exception for the perfect situational photo with a professional looking photo. Stock photography has become increasing more diverse and affordable.

The Caveat
There is one important caveat. My stress for using professional photography applies to company and business web sites. If it's a personal or family web any photography is good photography.

Using professional photography is a great investment that all companies should honestly consider.

Additional Resource:
Inexpensive Stock Photography - iStockphoto

You Don't Always Need to Reinvent the Internet

As a web developer being able to build a custom application for a client can be both a virtue and a vice.  With all the technology and great programmers in this world it is easy to go overboard in creating an online application or individualized solution. Over the years I've seen a number of web development companies, including my own, needlessly toil with creating the perfect application or solution for various clients. Individual Web site owners face some of the same challenges. When trying to find a solution to your web needs take the time to consider third party applications. In many cases you might be able to find a solution has already been created by another person or company.  If a solution hasn't been created you might be able to find a third party application that can be easily modified. In many cases it is far easier to move into a space that is already built than starting to build from the ground up.

Find Solutions
The easiest way to find a third party solution is by going to your favorite search engine and typing in what you are looking for in the search box. In many instances the best solutions might be in the paid advertisement column.  Advertisers have taken the time to research keywords and phrases that match various user search phrases for products and services.  Another place to find a possible solution is in various software and developer forums.  It's amazing what information you can find with a well placed forum post or email.  If you know any friends that do web development ask them for a few minutes of advice on your challenge.

Focus on Being Simple
Shopping cart abandonment is a good example of creating too many bells and whistles. A number of online retailers suffer badly from shopping cart abandonment. A user comes to a web site and decides to purchase a product.  They place that product into the online shopping cart and proceed to the payment and checkout page. Shopping cart abandonment problems include too many steps in the checkout process or a confusing interface that leads to user uncertainty. When all the bells and whistles start to get in the way, users get confused at abandon the checkout process.  It's important to focus on simple straightforward solutions. People won't complain if you make a process very simple.  Ask yourself, "What does the user really need and what is the easiest way to deliver it to them?"

Break Down Individual Requirements
There are times when the solution can't be broken down with just one product. You might need to break down your needs at an individual application level. You might want to consider an open source solution. A number of web application technologies from shopping carts to databases are open source. This means that you can work off an existing framework and modify the source code at your discretion. Some open source communities have great technical and developer support you can leverage in your own endeavors. In some cases developers might grant you licensing to their software.  This licensing might include provisions for minor modifications. If you are using third party applications check to make sure that all the applications will work in harmony.

You can save yourself a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy by using an already built or easy to modify application. It might not be the sexiest of applications, but as long as it works well and is easy to use, users most users won't even notice. Stay out of trouble by not confusing wants and needs. Always put the needs of the user in front of what you think they might want.

Additional Resource:

Before You Start Redesigning Your Web Site . . .

Last week a friend of mine began redesign work for his company's web site. It will be the second redesign of his company's web site in the last two years.  His reasoning for the redesign is based on an unhappiness with their current design and a lack of user interaction.  In the year since their last web site redesign, and to the best of their knowledge, not one person has called or emailed to inquire about their services.  Yet, people are spending a significant time on their web site. My friend started to make some critical redesign changes before even considering one of his most important redesign assets, web statistics. There are too many companies that don't take the time to consider their own web statistics before diving into a redesign of their own web site.  It is critical for you to consider you web statistics.

Taking Stock of the Situation
A review of web statistics will give you important information that will assist in making decisions in the web site redesign process. Your web statistics are like writing on the wall. Take the time to carefully decipher the message. You can save your company money and time by analyzing what users have done in the past. A few years ago I was involved in a usability and redesign project that decreased the size of a web site from over 150 pages to less than 20.  By analyzing our client's web statistics we could analyze critical metrics. Initially, the client expressed concern for a significant reduction in the size of their web site. In the end the smaller and more streamlined web site resulted in a significant increase in traffic.

Getting an Outside Perspective
I've always been a big proponent of companies getting outside advice on their web sites. A big challenge for companies, especially upper management, is separating personal desires from objectivity in the web design process.  Many companies insist on spending thousands of dollars and massive amounts of time for unjustified web site desires that bring zero return on investment.  If you are consider a redesign of your web site consider hiring an outside web developer as a consultant to review your web site. They don't need to do the actual redesign of your site. But an objective outside opinion and insight can prove to be tremendously helpful for any redesign.

It doesn't make good business sense to start redesigning something before carefully looking at the past. As long as you can look at your web statistics objectively, you can learn a tremendous amount in assist you with planning for the future.

Additional Resources:

On Testing: Make Sure Your Tests Fit the Environment

Yesterday, I received an email from a design firm. On occasion the firm sending the email hires me to consult on their web projects. In this particular instance they were looking to send some web designs, in print format, to a perspective client.  Their proposed idea gave me a quick flash back to a serious issue that arose a few years earlier during a final web site review meeting.

Reviewing a Web Site Design on Paper
A few years ago I was sitting in on a meeting held between another design firm and their client to update the progress of the client's nearly completed web site. Until that meeting the design firm responsible for web development had been submitting their web page designs for approval on paper. During our meeting the client held up their printed version to compare and contrast the version on their computer screen. The client's first response was "It looks different, I like what I see on paper better." There were a number of small discrepancies between the web version and the print version. The end result cost the development company thousands of dollars in design changes. Big lesson to be learned: review web sites on a computer browser not on printed sheets of paper.

The Looking Glass
When conducting any sort of web site testing for clients, ensure that the testing takes place on the user's own computers.  Think of your home or work office computer as your personal "looking glass" into the world wide web.  Everyone has a different looking glass (computer and monitor setup). Taking a user away from their normal perspective can create a number of issues especially when it comes to usability testing. The was the issue with the meeting example above.  The client was accustomed to seeing the web designs being presented on paper.  When the client was finally presented with the web version of their web site their perspective changed enough to become an issue of concern.

Keeping It Native
When you are developing or testing a web site, keep the testing within its' native environment.  The above example illustrates just one of the factors associated with attempting to show web work on paper. There are any number of variables that could be different from a printed hard copy to the actual computer screen.  Make sure you are testing your web projects in a web browser and test print pieces on paper.

Additional Resource:

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Striving for Web Site Perfection, When Good is Good Enough

There was a powerful passage I recently found that really struck a chord for me from Tim Ferriss' The Four Hour Work Week.  It illustrates a point that needs to be carefully considered with anything done on the Internet. Below is an excerpt from Tim's book:

"Most endeavors are like learning to speak a foreign language: to be correct 95% of the time requires six months of concentrated effort, whereas to be correct 98% of the time requires 20-30 years. Focus on great for a few things and good enough for the rest. Perfection is a good ideal and direction to have, but recognize it for what it is: an impossible destination."

Ferriss, Timothy. The Four Hour Work Week, Crown Publishing, 2007.

There are many times when other aspects of life can teach you something about creating a successful web site. I have yet to stumble across the perfect web site. Tim's point of learning a new language can also be applied to the time vested in creating or maintaining a web site. Web project management and web strategy are each very distinct and through disciplines.  I'm not trying to diminish their value in any way.  Yet the decision makers involved should always ask themselves "Is X worth the time and money on this project?"

There are web development companies who hedge their entire development budget on very specific details that bring no additional value to a web site. I've been in the same scenario myself.  You get passionate about a belief that you personally think will make a huge difference only to ultimately find out that the 20 extra hours you spent tweaking something goes completely unnoticed and has no positive impact.

Good is Good Enough
The marketing great Dan Kennedy is a big proponent of "Good is Good Enough!" Take a look a Dan's web site. There are plenty of web sites that are visually unappealing to say they least. Those same visually unappealing make a ridiculous amount of money for their owners. The notion of "Good is Good Enough" shouldn't be confused with sloppy, reckless, or lazy. If it isn't a well thought and properly implemented effort then it's "Not enough."

The Yang
At the opposite side of the spectrum there are far too many companies who also do far too little with their web site.  The "shiny" new web site gets all the care and attention after being launched only to get moved to the back burner in a month or two.

Companies can get far more out of their web sites by focusing on the right things as opposed to focusing too much on the wrong things. Thinking objectively is one of the easiest ways to refocus on the right things. Instead of thinking of what's going to best represent your company online, think of what might best serve your user's needs.

Additional Resources:

You Can Be Successful Online Without Programming Skills

One of the biggest barriers to online entry is the notion that you need to be a computer geek or a web programmer.  As a result of preconceived notions too many people shy away from attempting to setup a web site.  Today it has never been easier and MORE confusing to get started online.  Why the confusion?  The choices of authoring tools are endless.  You can add to this confusion by asking almost any web developer "What does it take to be successful online?"  If you ask twenty different web developers the previous question you'll probably get twenty different answers.  There are a number of people who have decided to jump in without prior web experience.  In most cases it isn't that hard to setup a site, the hardest part is getting started.  You can start with some words and "Not Knowing Any Better."

Almost Entirely Text
Two very successful sites I know of are primary text based.  You will find very few pictures on each site.  Compare and contrast the lack of pictures with almost any other web site.  They break from what many developers would classify as web standards and embrace aspects of traditional direct marketing.  To the best of my knowledge each web site generates between five and six figures of revenue annually. Their owners probably give an hour or less of work to each site daily. Day to day their time is primarily focused on keeping their customers satisfied.  The sites presented might be needles in the haystack, but it is important to understand how simple sites can be tremendously successful.

Two Great Examples: (If you have a moment, take a look.)

Sydexample When other web professionals visit these web sites many of them get upset.  I have heard them make comments like "this type of crap is ruining the Internet" or "this is a joke, nobody can make money off of this."  Perhaps it is the human condition.  Very few web professionals react with a sincere "Good for them, that's awesome."  This is usually followed by serious look at how it was done. Everyone can learn a thing or two from the examples.  Again these examples are to illustrate that you don't need to be a professional web developer to be successful online.

Being Successful By "Not Knowing Any Better"
People who are successful with very little web experience tend to focus on content as opposed to the mode of delivery. You'll notice there aren't any bells or whistles on either web site.  There were no preconceived notions of "this is how you have to do it!"

I've met one of the site creators who is an example in this post.  He's not a web programmer, but he is a very intelligent person.  He focuses on getting the right content to the right person in a systematic manner.  There is some automation that is used via third part applications.  Targeted advertising is used to direct people to his web site. After people visit the site, the focus shifts to building trust and credibility with perspective buyers with follow up. 

It Takes Time
Success didn't come overnight for either web site.  There was an appreciable investment of time upfront.  People should realize that to be successful online requires commitment.  There aren't many fire and forget online solutions.

The lesson for today is simple.  You don't need to be a computer geek to get started online.  A smart start with a little tenacity and determination can go a long way.  The worst that can happen to you is you'll learn something.

Additional Resources:

Learning Web Design in Reverse

Have you ever visited a web site and thought to yourself, "How did they do that?" You can save yourself a great deal of time by learning from others online. Today I want to share a simple technique for finding out how some web pages are built. The technique doesn’t work all the time and it isn’t perfect. But unless you’re a developer, the technique is much easier than trying to interpret code. You’ll need Internet Explorer and Dreamweaver.

Start with (IE) Internet Explorer. IE does a good job of downloading and saving html and graphical elements on a web page.  Load the page you're trying to analyze in IE. Go to the file drop down menu and select “Save As …” Then, save the page to a location that is easy to remember.

After the file has downloaded start up Dreamweaver. If you don’t have Dreamweaver you can always download a free 30 day trial at Adobe.com. Load Dreamweaver and select the “Open …” option for the file you just downloaded.

You’ll rarely get a perfect representation of what you see on the screen, but you can highlight code or design and interpret how things work. You might discover something that wasn't immediately apparent.

It's far easier and cost effective to emulate someone else's wheel than invent your own. Hopefully this technique will assist you.

HTML Text and Web Site Content

HTML text is making a resurgence on web sites.  In this post I refer to HTML in two different ways. One way as a markup language and the other as a way to display text. In the early days of the Internet most sites were built with images and HTML text. Over time developers gradually shifted away from HTML into other markup languages and technology.  Developers claimed that HTML was too archaic to use. Yet today web sites are returning to HTML text.  HTML has had quiet the interesting journey.

Flash in a Flash
Years ago when Flash came to town using HTML was no longer cool. Flash was to usher in a new era of web development.  Companies all over the world wanted to use Flash on their web sites.  The demand for Flash developers went through the roof. It was hard not to bump into a site guarded with a splash page utilizing Flash.  Eventually people realized that Flash wasn't as great as once envisioned.  Companies found that their users wanted information when visiting a web site, not a glorified commercial. The splash pages and flash menus disappeared and developers gradually returned to HTML. I believe that Blogs are a significant catalyst in the resurgence of HTML text.

Why Use HTML Text?

One reason I believe text is so important online is because you cannot do much on the Internet without words.  BUY NOW, Click Here, Search, and Home are some of the most common words on the Internet.  We are a society that is rooted in words either written or spoken for communicating.

Make sure you don't make the mistake too many web developers commit.  They create their web sites with image heavy design and little or no HTML text. Unless these sites have an abundance of back links they rarely rank well in search engines.

If you are looking toward the future of your web site make sure you use HTML text.  I recommend this to anyone with a web site. I'll take HTML over any other language on the Internet.  Some of the simplest and most successful web sites use HTML text with graphics.  There are no bells and whistles, just straight forward content.  CNN, Yahoo, Amazon, and Google all use HTML text as their primary means of content delivery.

HTML text might not be the coolest "kid" on the block, but over time it's proven to be the most versatile and easiest to use. I recommend anyone with a web site to build it on a foundation of HTML text.

Optimizing Your Web Graphics and Images

Does Your Web Site Load Quickly?

Users have never wanted information so quickly on the Internet. In a previous article I examined the user attention span.  One place where companies and site owners can make a noticeable difference in their web page quality is through web graphic optimization. Everyone likes a web page that loads in a minimum amount of time. But a significant number of companies neglect this simple process.

Why Be Concerned with Optimizing Web Graphics?
Optimization is a quick and inexpensive way to reduce the load time of your web site. There are a number of variables involved in getting your site to load in a minimum amount of time.  Optimizing your web graphics is probably the easiest and most inexpensive way to tweak your site.  Fast loading sites also contribute to higher web site usability.

What’s Involved in Graphic Optimization?
In optimizing web graphics you are reducing image quality.  The compression algorithms take information out of the image and reduce the overall image size. You can start with a 250K image and through optimization reduce it to 35K.

One argument I hear is with high speed Internet there is less of a need to optimize web graphics.  This is a dangerous assessment that hurts many companies online. Web Graphics have a significant relationship to page load times. Web page load time is an important metric in relation to bounce rates.  People have very little tolerance for slow loading pages.

Optimization Suggestions
Our recommendation is to keep your pages under a 100K each. The key to good optimization is reducing image size without diluting picture quality.  Try to reduce your original image size by approximately 50%-80%. You’ll have to experiment a bit to find the right amount of compression.  If you compress the image and it starts to look lousy you’ve over optimized. You can use either Photoshop or Fireworks.  There also a number of inexpensive or free programs for image optimization. Search Google for “Web Image Optimization” and you’ll find a number of options. Make sure you backup all your images before modifying or optimizing them.  Once the graphic has been optimized you can’t increase the image quality.

As a side note; you need to also take into account server load time.  You can have all your web site graphics optimized. But if your server is slow, the benefit is significantly reduced. Talk to your hosting company and ask them to check your server response time.  They should be able to quickly tell you if something is wrong.

In conclusion I’ll leave you with this food for thought:  Nobody will complain or "pat you on the back" if you have a quick loading web site.  At the same time users probably won’t complain if it takes too long to load. They’ll just stop coming to your web site.

Graphic Design versus Web Design

I’ve worked with my share of graphic design firms over the years.  It has been quite the roller coaster ride trying to get them to understand the differences between web design and print design.  You need to recognize the distinct differences between graphic design and web design when building a web site.  For this article graphic design should be considered the same as print design. Today I’m going to look at the differences between print and web design, Flash, and what to look for in a graphic designer.

So graphic designers don’t think I’m picking on them, I want acknowledge there are a few really talented graphic designers that understand and respect the differences between print and web.  It’s my hope that their peers take notice.

Designer Centric Web Design
Many designers view graphic design and web design as one in the same.  This is most prevalent with firms transitioning from print and multimedia design into web design. They think that web design and print design are siblings from the same family, like brother and sister. My belief is that they are analogous to second cousins.  There are a few similarities, but significantly more differences.  The challenge becomes  getting old school graphic designers to separate from their roots.

I was once told by a graphic designer “You wouldn’t get it, you’re not an artist.” I think that graphic design can be considered analogous to special effects in a movie.  The visuals can be amazing. Yet, if you don’t have a good story and dialogue it doesn’t matter how stunning the special effects.  High quality pictures and multimedia will never trump high quality content.

The First Rise and Fall of Flash
This was evidenced a few years ago when everyone and their grandmother were hopping on the Flash bandwagon.  People wanted all the bells and whistles for their web site.  You’ll notice that trend quickly died out.  Web site owners quickly realized that Flash wasn’t the most ideal method for delivering content.  There are very few sites that deliver high quality content utilizing nothing but Flash. As a side note: Flash have become an excellent delivery method for web video.

A Constant Battle
Design firms usually endure a significant idea storm when creating web sites. In Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think, he does an excellent job of talking about the differences between the various team members developing a web site.  Artists are going to view the project differently than developers.  When you add management into the mix you get even more differences in opinion.  All of these opinions and ideas need to balance with what’s best for the client and the user.

A Short and Simple Example

Take a look at Google and Yahoo.  Together they account for approximately 150 Million searches daily. (Source: comScore Media Metrix)  Users don’t go to these sites because of their graphic design prowess.  They go to Google and Yahoo because the sites are easy to use and allow you access to an unbelievable amount of content.

Looking for a Graphic Designer?
If you are in the market for a graphic design make sure they can demonstrate their knowledge of the differences between print design and web design.  Have them tell you about their web accomplishments in relation to client success. They understand that good design helps to support great content.  Good web designers present their work in terms of striking a balance between aesthetics and information. 

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