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Web Design – The Old & New Ways


My approach to web design (like the Pro Web Design Alliance I’ve just founded) is based on the principle that the vast majority of websites don’t achieve a fraction of their potential success

Success is governed by just two main factors: Traffic and Conversion:

  • How many of the right people can you attract to your site? … and …
  • How many of those people can you persuade to take the action you want them to take?

The Bad Old Way

Since the early 1990s, when I first started designing websites, most web design has been done using the same old methods. I’ll show you why this is extremely ineffective, then I’ll introduce the New Way and show why it’s so much better.

What’s so bad about the Old Way? I’d compare it to the advent of the printing press.

Before the printing press, monks used to craft documents by hand. It was an extremely skillful process, took an incredibly long time, and produced beautiful results.

This was OK, because to the monks the calligraphy was a devotion. The incredible patience involved was a sacrifice of faith.

Then the printing press arrived. Suddenly, the ability to create documents was open to everyone. The skill and cost required was far lower then ever.

The critical difference is not the technology itself, but what the new, cheap printing made possible. It gave more people incredible power to communicate messages to large audiences almost instantly. It had a massive social impact, helping bring about the Reformation.

I’d invite you to consider that web design is following the same pattern.

In the early days, the only way to make websites was by hand — crafting designs in a graphics package, then chopping them up into hand-rolled HTML, initially with tables and later using CSS.

Of course, you can still make websites that way, which is slow, skillful and very inefficient.

The main problem is, it’s so expensive to make web pages this way, we’re tempted to make too few web pages. In fact, our research has discovered that most websites should have far more pages! “Narrow” websites are at a huge disadvantage on both attracting traffic and converting visitors to customers, because they tend either to have too much information (making it hard for search engines and visitors to distinguish what a page is about), or they compromise by cutting down the subject matter (which also restricts the site’s reach).

It’s also slow and costly to change a website that has been crafted by hand. If we don’t change our sites’ content, we’re unable to adapt to what the market actually wants. This is a critical weakness, and totally unnecessary.

Without knowing you’re providing what people actually want, the net result ends up being based on nothing more than guesswork. That’s why I call the Old Way “First Best Guess”.

Today, it’s possible to make effective websites far more quickly. But — again — what’s really interesting is what that makes possible.

The Golden Ticket – Discovering What Works

First, let’s jump to the end of the 19th Century in the United States, and the advent of something called Direct Marketing.

Briefly, that means that the marketer communicates direct to his or her customers, and the customers order direct from them. It sounds ordinary today, but this new model could only come about thanks to a few new technologies, including the printing press, the railroads, and the US Postal Service. And it was truly revolutionary.

The ability sell at distance direct to large groups of people allowed marketers to develop powerful new marketing methods. The main innovation was testing different messages on a small test audience, to discover what actually worked, before publishing and delivering the price list or catalog to the whole market.

That’s the key — the ability to test and to change your message in response to the results that show what the market actually wants.

Think about it for a moment. Over the past 12 decades, marketers would spend weeks testing the market and refining their messages. Why? Because it’s worth it.

Even in the late 20th Century, marketers would run print ads with “keyed” coupons that contained a specific code, which readers would cut out and mail in. These coupons would help them test what messages worked best. But they would still go to the effort, taking days or weeks to gather the results. Why? Because that intelligence could boost their profits massively!

If a 20th Century direct marketer observed the Old Way of designing websites, they would be astonished! Because publishing web pages is almost instant and incredibly cheap — compared to publishing ads in magazines, newspapers, or on TV and radio.

Plus, the technology exists today to let us research our markets and test what works with great accuracy — in a fraction of the time it would take in other media.

Yet we’re not doing it. Most sites are still built on “First Best Guess”, without the benefit of market research or testing. Why? Because of some stuff we’ve inherited, and some stuff that we haven’t.

The New Way

I think one of the problems with web design is that we’re stuck in 1990s thinking — that web pages need to be crafted, to be graphically rich, and that they take a long time to do properly.

In fact, our research has shown that graphic design is not anywhere near as important as we used to think. It needs to be good enough — sure — but its job is to help communicate the message. In fact, if people are looking at your design, they’re not getting your message, and that’s bad design.

The fact is, publishing websites and web pages doesn’t need to take a long time. There are so many amazing publishing and blogging platforms around today, like WordPress, which mean that almost anyone can publish online within minutes — literally!

The other main problem is simply that the web seemed to be such a radical new technology that it was mainly left to the youth to carry forward — people like me who were studying media and IT. And we weren’t educated in marketing, let alone the absolutely essential principles of direct marketing. We just didn’t know how to market, how to sell, how to succeed!

The New Way of designing websites is based firmly on the principle that you must research and test your messages. Fortunately, there’s amazing technology around to help you do that now (and most of it is free).

Today, we can research a market, identify exactly how much traffic we can get, evaluate the competition in detail, and publish a website to address what the market wants — all in a tiny fraction of the time compared to anything that has ever been possible before.

The Path to Massive Success

If you want your websites to generate action — whether that’s sales, leads, or spreading a message, you must follow the New Way.

It is very new, and it’s constantly changing as new technology enables new techniques. Some of the essential skills for crafting websites that persuade (such as great copywriting, or fundamental design principles) do not change much over time. But other critical areas, including market research, search engine optimization, and conversion optimization, are constantly shifting as new tools become available.

The designers and marketers who can master the core skills and the new technology will always have an advantage. That’s what the Pro Web Design Alliance is all about.

We’re a rich group of extraordinary individuals, all working together to master the art of marketing online, sharing our experience, and supporting each other to reach new heights.

Find out why you should be part of the Pro Web Design Alliance.

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