Don’t O.D: The Hazards of Overdesigning your Website

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The march of technological progress continues, and as such you find more and more websites integrating this new technology in showing off their sophistication and parading the new toys that they have access to in front of the world. It’s a large part of the culture of technology that when something new and exciting becomes available, people rush to use it without any consideration of whether they actually need it or not. Thus, there are cycles of internet activity where websites become clunky, overdone and difficult to actually use, followed by periods when they return to the simplicity they started at.

If you want to maintain an audience, it is best to avoid this cycle and keep your website as simple as possible.

What Overdesigning Means

Before going any further, it’s important to understand what a website is. A website is a tool; it’s usually a marketing tool, designed to provide valuable information or some other tangible benefit like entertainment. Not understanding this is where a lot of businesses go wrong. Instead of seeing their website as a tool, they see it as a presentation or a reflection of who and what they are as an organization. While websites can be used to build a brand, ultimately gimmicks can only take you so far. Sure, if you decorated a hammer with streamers, it would be distinctive; eventually those streams would get in the way of you actually using the hammer.

Overdesigning is adding streamers to a hammer or, more poetically, gilding the lily. When a company or individual overdesigns their website, what they are doing is adding meaningless affectations that not only don’t enhance the user’s experience, but can actively detract from it.

A good example of overdesigning comes from the late 1990s and early 2000s. During that period, the ability to imbed music tracks, often midi-formatted songs, into websites had gained quite a bit of popularity. Suddenly even major company websites were embedding music into their pages, sometimes different songs per page, and browsing became as much an audio experience as a video one.

The problem with this bit of technology is that it didn’t actually add to the user experience. If anything, it detracted. First of all, when first loading a page, there was no way to control the volume of the music, so it was quite common to be blasted with loud audio just to bring up a website. Further, the controls for the music, including the ability to shut it off, were often difficult to find and would artificially extend the time people were on the site. Finally, it increased the amount of time that it took to load the page, which was especially difficult on the slower connections of the time.

Fortunately, this particular trend eventually fell by the wayside as the novelty quickly devolved into irritation.

After music embedding came along Flash introductions. Then excessively animated menus. Then, the animations spoke directly to the user while they were using the page.

But that’s only part of it. Overdesigned pages are also pages that are complicated looking and difficult to navigate. They have hidden menus, too many CSS tables, functions with limited usefulness like searches when there are no articles or merchandise, and similar features.

Why Simple Site Designs

Considering all that could be added to a website, why ignore all of that and go with a simple site design? There are four excellent reasons for this.

1. You never know when a trend will become stale. Nothing has quite the long-lasting popularity of utility. People like the services they use, including websites, to give them what they want as fast as possible. Sure, people might like having Flash games available on every website now, but that can change tomorrow and then you’ll have to redesign again. They will always like a website that satisfies their needs.

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2. More features means longer loading times. The more things that you load your website up with, the longer it will take to load on a computer. For many people, this isn’t a big deal, but it can quickly get out of hand and even if it’s only 10 more seconds than your competitor; that is enough time for people to get fed up with waiting and move on. Simple site designs ensure fast loading on any connection.

3. Search Engines want relevance. It’s difficult to run a business online and not be concerned with search engine optimization. As search engines get more sophisticated, they are learning how to look past spectacle and focus exclusively on how useful your content is to a potential user. It is better to devote time and resources to making a website useful rather than flashy.

4. More people are accessing the internet with their phones. This is a two-fold problem for overdesigned websites. The first problem is related to point two: mobile phones have limited bandwidth. Simple designs use less on their data plans and can be accessed more rapidly. Similarly, complex website designs are difficult to navigate on small screens with fingers whereas simple designs are much more useful to people on the go.

How Can You Tell If Your Site is Overdesigned?

There are a number of ways to measure whether a site is overdesigned, and most of them are pretty easy to do. It’s best to approach your website scientifically, examining parts of it personally then asking others to double check you. Here are some things you can do.

1. Look at every feature of your site and ask yourself what its purpose is. You shouldn’t waste any aspect of your page; it should all better serve information to your customers. Start by asking yourself whether any animations make you look more professional or not. Do the pictures used on the page all illustrate some concept that you want to stress? Are all the tabs going someplace useful? Are all the text boxes giving valuable information about you and your company?

2. Access your website from different devices. See how it works on your iPhone. Try it on an Android phone. See if it works on a tablet with no problems and in different browsers. If you use a mouse with your laptop, try to navigate around using the mouse pad that comes with the unit instead. The objective is to see if you can get around as easily in different situations. If you find yourself struggling, then it’s probably overdesigned.

3. Ask other people to give their opinion. This shouldn’t be friends and family members, nor should it be employees. Instead, consider paying a few bucks to several people to have them try your website out. Ask someone who comes into the office to work like a delivery person if they have the time or carpet cleaners to navigating around and giving their opinions. The idea is to get an opinion from somebody who isn’t already familiar with the site and isn’t biased by their connection to you.

Simplicity will always be in style, and there is nothing more attractive in a website than functionality. Your website doesn’t have to look boring, but it does need to be useful above all else. It is a tool created to do a job, and if it isn’t doing that job well, then it’s not a very good tool no matter how many bells and whistles you add.

 

Posted on Friday, June 13th, 2014