Bassoon Song: Websites by Joel

Websites, Popular Themes, and Cookie Cutters

All too many small business websites today have a certain sameness about them. You know the look, a large, screen-filling image at the top or as the entire background, and three parallel columns of centered text, followed by a long-scrolling page that has everything and then some…

To be fair, these particular cookie cutters are easy-to-use templates for do-it-yourself web designers using a popular content management system (okay, they’re using WordPress). If you just need a website for web presence and/or you absolutely have to do it yourself, this is a valid option. Your site will be attractive (as long as you have good images) clean, and familiar to users. Lots of people know and love WordPress and can teach you to do it yourself. And some of the sites, like the example below on the Cliché Exhibition, are great uses of WordPress and its readily available themes.

A good example of a full-screen website using a cookie-cutter theme. They do exist!

If your business or organization depends on your website for leads and existing customers, you should be aware of some of the drawbacks of this all-to-popular look.

The Waiting Game

Big, beautiful images take time to load. They take even more time to load if they are supposed to fill the screen and need to be sized accordingly. And if there are a lot of them, such as slide show or rotating large banner, your users and potential customers may be staring at the white screen excample for as much as 5-10 seconds. If you’re searching for a product or service and the site you found on Google has you staring at a white screen, how long will you wait? Many people will simply hit the back button and go on to the next site in the Google list.

How long would you look at this until the images load?

The “fold” is that portion of the screen that is below the browser display. Those big, beautiful images have a way of pushing some of your most important information—the text explaining who you are and what you do—below the browser display and will force the users to scroll down if they want to see it. Unless everyone wants what you offer, it’s usually not a good idea to play “hide and seek” with your most important information and/or depend on “if the user wants to see it.”

One reason that the Cliché exhibition site does work is that the most important info is on the main graphic (which loads reletively quickly, too), and the graphic itself is so strong that it draws the user into the site. (For the record, this is not one of my sites; I can praise other designers, right?).

Readability

Sometimes, people doing their own sites with these themes are tempted to use most of the width of the screen for their main text. Please, please, don’t do this. Ever. You may notice that the pages of books are smaller than 8 1/2 x 11. You may also notice that booklets and workbooks in 8 1/2 x 11 pages have considerably narrower columns of text. Our eyes are most comfortable reading a line of text no longer than about 6 inches. Full width text is difficult to read and our eyes don’t flow as easily to the next line of text when the line length is outside an easy field of vision.

Centered text is—or was until recently—another no-no, except in such formal things as wedding invitations and poems. Unless the text is brief, it confuses the eye and leaves a ragged left margin, making it marginally less comfortable for the user to keep reading. The eye is drawn to the an easy-to-find left margin; center aligned text confuses the eye.

Usability and Unique Character

I will grant that many of the cookie-cutter conventions of today’s websites have to do with usuability and user expectations. For example, your logo is always at the top and usually at the left; that’s where users expect to see it, and that’s how they know which site they’re reading.

Site navigation is almost always at the top in a horizontal bar for similar reasons of user expectations. And copyright info is at the bottom because it is necessary, but not that important; it’s the last thing your users need to see.

Beyond a few basic conventions—and some new conventions establishing themselves for the mobile web—you have a blank canvass to express what sets your business apart. Use that canvass, and use it well!

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