A website’s user interface ultimately needs to fulfil a purpose. Often it can have a single goal such as creating an enquiry or can often need to perform a selection of useful functions like searching, booking and purchasing. However big or small your requirement might be, well structured user interface design and a considered website content strategy will always come into play.
All too often we see websites that perform lots of tasks adequately, but rarely fulfil the objectives of a) the site user and b) the website owner.
With the emergence of mobile web in recent years, having a mobile site for your business or charity is becoming more important than ever. Here’s a couple of reasons why…
“There are currently 14 million mobile internet users in the UK. This figure is expected to rise to 17 million by 2012 and 19 million by 2013.”
“It’s estimated that by 2015 more people will be browsing the web via a mobile device than a desktop PC”
Source: Morgan Stanley
The introduction of HTML5 and CSS3 means less design restrictions, more interaction and a better user experience . The bridge between design and development is diminishing and this can only be a good thing for the web design community.
But, let’s not get carried away just yet. We’re still very much aware of the existence of prehistoric browsers such as IE6. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore them just yet but thankfully there are tools out there that will make these browsers play nicely.
When you first set out employing an agency to design and build your website, there are many factors which come into play. We have tried to come up with a few pointers on choosing a web design agency and some warning signs to look out for.
Like most industries there are varying levels of competency and skill and – like much of the IT industry – web design and especially web development is scattered with jargon. There are definite pitfalls and signals which you should take heed of and certain traits that should be expected and applauded.
Good web design agency traits
- The project management team can answer your questions clearly
- Jargon and technical detail are kept to minimum and non-technical explanations
- The agency are upfront and transparent about their costs (both project costs and any ongoing costs)
- The web design process is clearly explained
- Clear milestones are provided with regard to the overall web design and development process
- The agency can quickly produce examples of work which is relevant to your project
- Any third party technology or input (if any) to the project is made clear
- The ongoing website support process is explained
- Hosting requirements are considered and options are discussed
- Clear points of contact are established
Poor web design agency behaviour to look out for
- Points made by the agency are littered with technical details and jargon and don’t make sense to you
- There are elements of the approach which lock you into using the web design agency (such as hosting agreements)
- Questions are not answered sufficiently or are skirted over
- The agency’s approach and processes are not explained
- The agency mask costs in technical jargon and do not explain the reasoning for them sufficiently (this can be especially true with regards to Search Engine Optimisation – there another blog post in the making on that one)
- You get the sense that the agency don’t understand your requirements. Each project is different and a ‘boiler plate’ (one size fits all) approach by the agency will make them money but won’t produce a site inline with your expectations.
What you should ask a web design agency
- Ask for examples of previous work including demonstrations if required
- Ballpark figures (or hunches) are easy enough to give with small amounts of information. These can easily rule out (or in) whether an agency will fit your budget and save time on both accounts
- Find out what the company recommends with regard to content management platforms (if applicable) and search engine marketing (social media, web copywriting, web page optimisation)
- Ask about the level of web accessibility the agency adhere to by default
- Discover the processes the agency will follow
- How much contact does the agency need from you?
- Find out about the key project milestones and what they mean in relation to any proposed timescales
Most of us will end up working with people we like, but that won’t guarantee a successful project. You should never be afraid to ask a question, even if your questions seem trivial. Any agency worth their salt will take their time to explain their proposal and make sure you fully understand their processes and approach, without using over complicated technical jargon. Just like any other industry, you are employing experts, so you need to trust their judgement, but beforehand, they need to earn your trust.
Having been limited to using the ‘web safe’ font set (Arial, Verdana, Courier, Georgia and Times New Roman) since the dawn of time, it’s been refreshing to see the emergence of several font rendering techniques over the past few years. Here’s a summary of the three most popular solutions.
Typekit is a very simple method to implement alternative type as it is provided via a web service. Typekit has a library of fonts which you can license by purchasing an annual subscription to the service (there is a free plan but this is restricted for use on one website with Typekit badge visible on the site). There’s a wide range of typefaces available and the Typekit website allows you to completely configure fonts, font weights and styles using an intuitive interface. However it’s not all plain sailing…
The fonts available on the Typekit Library rarely match with fonts you might have locally for use in Photoshop or Illustrator. Quite often you have to settle for a close match, and this is not good practice with regards to brand guidelines etc. Often takes a fair amount of explaining to the client which is never ideal.
Another issue is that although the fonts render smoothly in modern browsers on Mac OSX, rendering on Windows falls way short with most fonts options. The fonts end up rendering badly and anti-aliased. Although Typekit does provide a good comparison tool to view the fonts using the various operating systems and browsers, this doesn’t help when you’ve designed with a font that Typekit renders badly for the majority of your site users.
The major benefit of Typekit is the freedom to use the font sets available without worrying about licensing. The major drawbacks are the lack of availability of certain ‘standard’ fonts and the render failures in Windows which really let it down. If it wasn’t for these issues it would almost certainly be the perfect choice for most web designers and developers.
The beauty of Cufon is it’s limitations, or lack thereof, when it comes to which fonts it can render. The system works by rendering any specified text configured on the Cufon site. When the page loads the text is transformed using ‘Canvas’, a cross-browser element that looks and acts exactly as you specify in the website’s stylesheet. So far it sounds great doesn’t it.
Unfortunately – like most systems – there is a major drawback. It’s not a technical issue, it’s greyer than that and raises serious concerns over the legitimacy of using Cufon. Although Cufon can render any font using the Cufon configuration tool, site owners need to be assured that they have the right to use the font for this purpose (font embedding without Adobe Flash). Certain fonts require an extended license for this purpose, however it’s important to identify whether you can legitimately use the font or whether you would have to seek an additional license first.
@font-face is a system which actually permits the render of any font from your webserver. Simply add the font files and reference them using ‘@font-face’ syntax and the font will render as expected. There are issues with regard to cross browser compliance, however all the major browsers appear to be addressing this with Safari, Firefox and Chrome having already adopted this method natively. There are other issues around licensing, but these appear to have become less prevalent with the birth of freely available @font-face kits. Such kits can be found at Font Squirrel.
All the libraries mentioned here have their merits and all have their issues. There is, however, one clear winner. As the browser software companies adopt it, the @font-face method is likely to become the norm. That’s why we use it now and will continue until we find a reason not to.
Just a quick post to let you all know that the London team have moved to new offices. We took a considerable hike to our new location… right across the road! Seriously, we were able to walk our stuff across the street. Very handy.
So no great change of location then, we’re still in Soho and approximately 30 yards from our old pad. We’re really happy to be here. We’ve got windows, a lift AND a view! The new address is:
Hutchhouse @ Media Junction
2 Archer Street
It’s easy to forget some of the impressive, interactive ways in which to wow your users when you are designing a website. Designing in Photoshop or Fireworks (or whatever you design in) does not always give you the scope to easily illustrate how the site actually works, how it feels to use and how to introduce creative elements of interactive design. That’s why we always try to identify ways in which to display and present content and functionality outside of the ‘standard’ toolset of any website designer.
Here are 5 techniques which we love to use:
Background images and illustrations positioned behind your site are great if they are used properly. They provide depth, creativity and a visual richness that a pattern or colour will never achieve. But why not take them one step further. Using a technique known as Parallax you can make the background interact with user controls. Backgrounds can move on top of one another or seem to follow you down the page when the user scrolls or simply moves his/her mouse. It’s an excellent way to provide a subtle but sophisticated effect.
Web Font Rendering
Using a variety of different methods we can now use many more fonts (in a web safe way) than have been previously available, meaning that sites can be ‘on-brand’, more original and less ‘standard’ in appearance. There are very few web safe fonts (Arial, Verdana, Georgia, Times New Roman, Courier to name most of them) which has limited the typography used on websites considerably. Before web font rendering services like Typekit became available if you wanted web safe fonts then you used these. Now we can utilise thousands of fonts and get creative with Typography in a similar manner to that of print designers.
There are a multitude of new styles available with CSS3, however one of the best and useful is ‘text-shadow’. This allows you to specify a drop shadow on system text. Most browsers support it (notably Internet Explorer does not yet support it – even with IE8) and it provides the ability to add extra depth and creativity to site typography. No more flat fonts with boring contrast…
CSS Image Manipulation
Much of the time in order to make you website look fantastic we rely on well thought out and manipulated imagery. however by using techniques with transparent PNGs and new CSS3 values such as gradients we can now perform a lot of the visual ‘rules’ to imagery within the site templates. A typical example would be on a hero image (an attention seeking leaderboard type banner at the top of the page). You could spend your time in photoshop applying whatever effects you like to that image – but more than likely you won’t, so we apply the rules such as any gradients or floating, transparent text areas using images and CSS. It means less work for the content editor and more consistency from the designer’s perspective.
If you like what we are saying here and feel we could help with your web project then please do get in touch..
With a tear in our eye the new Hutchhouse site replaced the well loved ‘Giraffes’ which have really established us amongst the css blogging community. Ok… maybe there weren’t that many tears, we love the new site!
The Giraffes concept was a step in the evolution of our brand and has done us proud over the past two years – however it’s time for a change, or rather it’s time to grow up a little.
We’d like to say a very big thank you to all of the websites that listed us in their design galleries over the time that the Giraffes were around. If you’ve been sent to this site from one of these galleries then I hope you like the new site just as much.
Giving our clients the ability to manage the content on their website is something we take very seriously and we always go above and beyond to allow them to control as much content as possible. This leads to very happy users, expansive dynamic sites and less involvement from ourselves once the client takes the reigns.
As they say… “With great power comes great responsibility” and when careful thought isn’t given to the creation of content on a site very bad things can happen.
Images seem to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for clients, contributing to some pretty horrific results when it comes to size, ratio, placement, positioning and cropping. Each of these elements needs careful consideration.
The majority of CMS systems will give you positioning options such as ‘align left’ or ‘align right’, these options add classes to the image container that, when applied, will add styling. Here’s two examples, the first an image with ‘align left’ applied and the second, ‘none’.
This image has a stroke, separating the image from the content. There are margins to the right and bottom to give the image breathing space and the paragraph wraps nicely around the image.
This image has no alignment and therefore no styling. This results in a block element that spans the width of the container forcing the copy below the image with no breathing room.
Scaling of images can also be a problem. All too often we’ve seen images taken from Google that have small dimensions, they are then scaled up and the results can be horrendous. We recommend using stock image sites for professional full size images that can be scaled down without losing any quality. Stock Xchng is a free stock imagery site but has a limited catalogue, for a more complete solution we recommend iStock.
As a side note on this issue, the composition and quality of images is important too. You might have the most fantastic design and awesome CMS but neither will magically improve a poorly taken or badly composed image and make it look great on your site. Poor quality images simply cheapen the investment you’ve made in a new websites, its technology and its design. All for the sake of the price of a stock image.
Pasting-in copy from Word Processing software can be a real problem when creating content. Most commonly, when copy is pasted into a WYSIWYG editor via a Word Processor (Microsoft Word for example) the WYSIWYG will honor the styling that was attributed to it in the original Word Processing software. This is one that will really agitate the designers out there.
For example, if your sites stylesheet dictates that the primary body font should be Arial and you paste in copy from Word that is more than likely the native “Times New Roman” then the WYSIWYG in certain circumstances may honour that and add inline styles to override the CSS styles. Line-height, font-size and font-colour will all be honoured in the WYSIWYG if pasting directly from word processing software.
So how do we prevent this? There are a few methods that ensure that no legacy styles are carried into the WYSIWYG. Firstly, in WordPress for example, there is a small icon (shown below) that is specifically used for pasting in text from a Word document. This opens a modal window that allows you to paste in content from Word without bringing any pre-formatted styles with it. This method is certainly an option but is not always foolproof.
Use this button to paste from word stripping the text of any styling.
The best way to prevent this problem is to either write your content directly in to the WYSIWYG. Obviously this can only be achieved if you’re online so the best solution for when you’re offline is to ensure your Word Processor is in a “Plain Text” mode. This means that no formatting will be applied and you can paste the content into your WYSIWYG without a care in the world.
A well designed site will always have a well thought out stylesheet, that’s why we encourage our clients not to use some of the WYSIWYG styling functions such as font size and font colour, allowing the stylesheet to dictate the look and feel of the site.
Structured content for web please!
Often you’ll load a web page and… wallop!, you’re presented with a full page of paragraph text and no indication what it’s about other than a rather vague title…
Remember that your visitor’s time is precious so make finding the info they require easy. Their time is also fickle and it’s guaranteed that if it’s easier to find somewhere else then that’s where they’ll go. Your website isn’t a book in their hand, they don’t have time to invest in reading everything you have to say – so be helpful and provide content indicators by using sub headings. Try to divide the content into small chunks and make sure you provide simple headings for each section. A page with dozens of paragraphs of text with no sub headings is off-putting to say the least – a page neatly arranged with sub headings appropriately placed means the user can scan and read what’s relevant to the User.
Clients will often take every opportunity to link to other websites on the understanding this is what gives them a google search ranking. This is actually counter-intuitive to your goals (presuming your goals are keep your users on your site) and can have a detrimental effect on your returning visitors. We fully understand the SEO benefits of link building and we are also aware that there are often situations when linking to an external site is warranted. However, that said, it should be a tactical approach.
We always recommend wording links to external sites carefully and if the subject can be talked about on your site as a pre-amble to linking to an external site then this is the way to do it. A page on your site which summarises and puts into context the subject matter is of much more use to your visitors than simply sending them to another site.
This is not something we justify just to keep visitors on your website. Much of the time your visitors don’t expect to be taken to a new site in the first place – so let’s not confuse them.
When it comes to managing your site’s content, the worst results show themselves when the process is rushed and not thoroughly planned. Starting with good relevant content is a must, ensuring that the formatting is correct at all times by using the preview function in your CMS. By all means embellish the site with imagery, but think about the use of the image, how it sits with the content and whether it adds value. Above all remember that your site is for your visitors, so make it easy for them to navigate around, find what they want to read, and then they will actually read it.
Hutchhouse help launch a new charity website which facilitates good practice within fertility. The website also provides a mass of info on the processes and pitfalls.
Founded by Camille Strachan, To Hatch provides support to it’s members via a website (designed and developed here at Hutchhouse). Membership is free and users get access to an online community of advice and resources, including a full database of fertility clinics which can be compared with their local counterparts as well as being rated by members.
There are a few extra special benefits of becoming a To Hatch member – not only the great advice and information on offer, but also access to the To Hatch debate. On becoming a member, you get access to the TH_Community Twitter account which (combined with the live To hatch Twitter feed right on the To Hatch site) provides the ability to chat and debate about the current issues and provide support for other members.
A unique area of the site will also offer a lottery to its members with fantastic prizes that will have everybody excited and taking part.
The charity provides a fantastic service and we hope will be a huge help to everyone out there that needs support and advice on fertility treatments.
Our hats off to Camille on her dedication to the project and overwhelming positivity in the face of sleepless nights whilst pulling all the various parts of the charity together.
Visit the website: to-hatch.co.uk