Ways to weave a stickier web

A good website makes visitors feel welcome and in control, but many corporate sites are opaque and faceless. Andy Bell finds out how some companies are breathing life into their Web presence

Try this simple test. First, check out b3ta.com, boingboing.net and dailykos.com. These sites are bursting with enthusiasm and energy. Then check the site for any FTSE-100 company. You will be lucky if you find a site that communicates with a quarter of the excitement, interest or passion.

One of the problems with corporate websites, says Nicolas Roope, creative director at Web design agency Poke, is that by default, designers build slick-looking sites. In many cases, users find them alienating. They would prefer something warmer and more approachable.

With its site for Jamie Oliver, Poke went for a casual approach. Roope says: “Jamie is energetic, passionate and approachable. We’ve tried to recreate that, breaking the grid design and giving the site an almost home-made feel. We’ve maximised the amount of room for content and encourage users to interact and give their views. The old site had a broadcast mentality. The new site has a Web mentality”

Oliver is involved in the life of the site, which receives 300,000 visits a month and has a hugely active online forum. And the critics like it too: JamieOliver.com recently won a prestigious Webby award.

Ice-cool for alex

That’s not to say that slick is always unwarranted. Poke’s site for Alexander McQueen is slickness personified. Roope says: “We aim to make everything look as fantastic and impenetrable as possible. The design puts a distance between user and product.” Small design touches count: new pictures arrive with the swish of a draughtsman’s pen, in a nod to McQueen’s craft origins.

Big companies often have plenty of money to spend on a website, but a big budget is worth very little if the money is wasted on gimmicks that irritate rather than stimulate. Spending more money on the right effects, however, can be worth it.

Bristol-based Web agency E3 recently made a website for Kia. Kia’s television ads feature a posse of characters designed by animator Pete Fowler. On the website, these characters dismantle the old site and take it over. On the product page, an animated Daryll the Monster cycles past the Kia range. The initial plan had been to use still two-dimensional images – Fowler thought that the technical limitations of the Web meant it would be impossible to animate these characters online to an acceptable quality. E3 creative director Wesley Hogg screened several Flash animators until he found one who could do the work to Fowler’s satisfaction. It was well worth it. The movement of the characters across the pages brings the site to life.

Darrell Wilkins, managing director of Specialmoves, made the highly regarded Osbournes game for MTV. He says good design is all about care: “Often, technical projects are down the food-chain, with banner ads given to the most junior staff.” He points to a recent series of banners Specialmoves made for Powergen. “The three-dimensional perspective gives a feeling of depth. The daffodils are blowing in the wind. It’s not hard to do. But it is subtle and it is appropriate,” he says. He argues that on the Web, it is too easy to compromise: “While jobs can be done quickly and on the cheap, quality inevitably suffers.”

Original copy

The Web, of course, is primarily a textual medium. But how do you write engaging copy? When a big company communicates, it instinctively reaches for the “big, global, confident” tone of voice, says Roope. In traditional media this seems powerful and trustworthy, but online – where users expect something more intimate – it seems alienating and distant.

Hogg says companies have to think about the relationship between the user and brand on every page. For instance, on E3’s site for Orange.com, the error page has been customised to say “Oops, the page you requested isn’t here”. On sites for public sector clients, things are kept more formal: “An error occurred”.

The rise of blogs points to one way for companies to find a more friendly, personal voice. General Motors’ Fast Lane blog is an often-cited example. What is remarkable is the tone of this communication. A few sample quotes: “There’s no denying that we’re going through some tough times right now”; “Amidst all of the gloom and doom surrounding GM lately, I’d like to give yet another alternative viewpoint”. It feels very different from Vauxhall’s current “Go Drive” TV campaign. Successful blogging enables a more honest relationship with customers. Sun Microsystems chief executive Jonathan Schwartz says: “Blogging hasn’t just moved the needle for us: it has moved the whole damned compass.”

Attention-grabbing design and gripping copy are important. But they are just the start for engaging customers and visitors to sites.

E3 recently made a microsite to mark World Environment Day. The site allows visitors to make an environmental pledge: “I will re-use plastic bags for my shopping,” or “I will replace one return flight with travel by train,” for instance. Neat touches bring this concept to life: you can see pyramids of people who have passed pledges on to each other, pledges by town or by gender. The site has collected 105,000 pledges and counting, so it seems to be gaining some traction. What is noteworthy is the creative leap from World Environment Day to the pledge site. A few years ago, the day might have been marked by static website recounting the day’s laudable aims. The pledge site is much more engaging.

The world’s favourite online

British Airways recently redesigned its online reservation system. Previously, visitors had to go through a number of screens to find a flight, then more screens to find the price. They couldn’t see several flights simultaneously. Now it is much easier to see a flight – and all the relevant flights around it. There is a potential cost to BA in this – a visitor might discover that flying a day earlier saves them £100. But users love being in control. “It made a much bigger impression on me than years of BA posters,” said one happy customer.

Roope comments: “Offline there is a level of disconnection between marketing and experience. You might see a lovely ad for a mobile phone network. The next day you have a miserable experience with the network: you phone up about your SIM card, wait on hold for 30 minutes, then get a useless answer. Your brain separates out the two. The benefit of the lovely ad isn’t totally obliterated by the terrible customer service. Online it is different – the brand message and the customer service are part of the same thing. That’s why user experience is so important.”

“Often we find that a company has a process that will lead to a bad user experience. It can be central to that company’s operations. We’ll suggest ways it could be changed. Often it is hard, but sometimes we’re pushing at an open door. The Web changes things.”

A good interactive experience comes from getting thousands of things right. Visual design has to engage, copy has to grip, interaction has to be meaningful, the site needs to be usable and accessible across a range of platforms. What type of mindset gets all those things right – and puts them together harmoniously?

“We initially made CD-ROMs – which are fixed – and that helps us,” says Wilkins. “Web designers often feel that because a site can easily be changed, it doesn’t need to be taken seriously. Because we are just a production company, we give each project the attention to detail it needs.”

“We start afresh, every time,” says Roope. “If another celebrity chef came to us, we wouldn’t re-use what we did for Jamie Oliver. For us, creativity is ensuring every element communicates precisely.”

A sense of purpose

Hogg says: “When you learn product design, you are taught to ask: ‘What is this object’s purpose? How will people want to interact with it?’ That’s a great background for thinking about websites.”

“A website is an intimate piece of media. A user makes hundreds of choices and becomes very involved. We spend lots of time imagining how sample users would react to different pages. This enables us to build usable sites. Then we let personality shine through.”

He concludes: “Norman Foster’s Gherkin building has great functionality: the shape cuts down electricity usage and wind resistance. But people respond very passionately to it. That’s what we aim for – superbly functional websites with a beam of passion.”

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