From my observations over the years I've concluded that most websites fail because they were not “designed” by experienced internet marketing professionals. (I've viewed stats that show anywhere from 6% to 18% of small business sites being cash positive.)
Let me explain…
By “fail” I mean that these sites cost more to build, maintain and update than they ever will ever cover through increased sales. There's certainly no return on investment. The sites contribute to overhead, not profit.
Effective design of a website encompasses far more than aesthetics and the appreciation of its look and feel by its owner or audience. I recently spoke with a business manager about a redesign. She complained bitterly that the last web designer had given her exactly what she wanted — she had been absolutely delighted — but since then she'd received several emails that the design was just horrible. She was angry that the last designer had not talked her out of her ideas. (He gave her exactly what she wanted and that was now the very reason she was looking for a new designer.) Actually, the design was fine and only needed tweaking, and it's normal to have users not fall in love with the aesthetics of a website. Not everyone loves Picasso. Most people don't find the Google site to be particularly pretty, but I doubt any would suggest that it is a bad design in terms of profit for Google or value to the users it serves.
The majority of websites are not built by their owners, so why would I say most aren't designed by experienced professionals? At the beginning of the project it is common for clients to deliver a list of features and URLs of sites they like. If the “designer” is of the persuasion that the customer is always right, the “design” hat comes off and he/she and assumes the role of what I like to call a “mouse pusher”. The client is the real designer and the role of the credited designer actually becomes implementation of the dictated design. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
Designing for the Customer
Entire books have been written on client-centric design. The gist is, “Find out exactly what they want, make a few recommendations of course, but then give them exactly what they want without argument.” I believe this is actually the second most selfish approach to web design, from the designer's perspective, because it's usually the shortest route to payment in full. (The most selfish approach would be award-based design, where the project's primary objective is the development of a great portfolio piece. If you hear a designer bragging about all their awards, you should probably run.) It's the path of least resistance and the least stressful to both designer and client… at least initially :-). Another advantage to the designer is that it's the surest way to gain testimonials and referrals on the short term. The customer is proud of the site they designed and wants to brag about it to everyone.
Sadly, a year down the road the client will probably be looking for a new design, or designer, because the site they had built isn't growing their business. It just costs money.
The client should be an expert in their field of business, but very rarely will they have the expertise to know what makes a website successful. Drawing design ideas from the countless websites that aren't delivering a return on an investment can be a costly mistake. Here's something to remember: Your competitors may be bigger than you, but their website may have no part in their success. Copying the competition just makes yours the next “me too” site.
Designing for Business Growth
ROI-centric design goes a step beyond user-centric design. It focuses on the bottom line, how much profit the client will realize from the design or redesign.
A website is not a commissioned work of art. Aesthetic preferences and desired features could hurt the performance of the site where it counts most. If the client loves the design upon completion, that is an added bonus; it's not essential.
An effective, conscientious web designer will be confident in what they believe will make your site profitable. They will be strong and prepared to actively fight for good design. This can be a problem where managers feel the need to drive the project and put their own stamp on everything. The good news is that while the client may not get the exact look and feel or all the features they wanted in the finished design, the balance sheet should bring a big smile in the not too distant future.
The design should load quickly and provide a great user experience, delivering content that is interesting, engaging and helpful in the minimal number of clicks. Many of the cool features on other sites can make a site load slowly and the content almost impossible to index by search engines. The design should lead the visitor to the action desired, whether it be subscription, a purchase or filling in a form. It should be scalable and flexible so that it can evolve and be fine-tuned to become more and more effective. In most cases, it should be responsive, so that users on various platforms receive an experience optimized for them. Your site should make you stand out.
There is a huge difference between someone in possession of a computer and software, capable of creating an attractive layout, with the skills to add the desired features, and a profit-oriented designer that knows how to make your site attract and convert visitors into customers.
The Takeaway: Love for the design by the client is not the most important consideration in a business site. Great design must grow business. It will lead the visitor towards a purchasing decision they will be very happy they made. And it will provide high quality after-sale support, encouraging repeat sales and referral business. It considers the immediate and long-term needs and desires of the user.