4 Dangerous Mistakes Web Designers Make When Presenting Content

by in Design on 14th Jul 2010 · Comments

Everybody these days knows that content is king. No website ever sold anything without content to persuade its readers to buy. And it’s the job of the web designer to present that content as effectively as possible.

Unfortunately, presenting content to sell well is kind of glossed over in web design school. Most designers don’t know a lot about it. In fact, most designers don’t even know they don’t know. And nowhere is this more evident than on their own websites.

Mistakes Web Designers Make When Presenting Content
Image credit: Abd Al-Raham Al-Terkit


Today, I’ll run through four of the major content presentation mistakes freelance web designers often make - errors which can kill the effectiveness of your site’s content. By learning about these mistakes, you can not only avoid them yourself and get better returns from your own website, but you can also provide a lot of extra value to your clients by advising them on these issues. And if you take the time to learn further, you’ll have the ability to really set yourself apart as a designer.

The Four Mistakes

  1. Taking up valuable headline space with a "GFI".
  2. Setting main content at sizes smaller than 16px.
  3. Using too many pages.
  4. Leaving readers hanging.

Let’s get right into it, and take a look at why these things can scuttle an otherwise promising site.

1. Taking Up Valuable Headline Space With a GFI

A GFI is a Generic Friendly Introduction. It’s the term I use to describe the welcome messages you see on every third or fourth freelance designer’s site. I won’t name any names, but you know the ones. They’re set in a large font, and they say something like, "Hi! I’m a web designer with a passion for web standards, and something else specific yet unlikely, which I mention to sound unique but is really kind of obvious."

Headline

Why Is a GFI So Bad?

Firstly, it’s generic. It’s meant to seem personable and unique, but in reality it’s so overused that it just seems lazy and thoughtless. It tends to create the opposite impression in a prospect than it’s meant to.

Secondly, it’s friendly - but prospects aren’t coming to your site to be your friend! They’re coming to see if you can help them with a problem they have. A GFI focuses on you. But there’s only one thing your prospect cares about and that’s his/her problem. You should be talking about this, and about how you can solve it - not about yourself. In short, your big, friendly welcome blurb is costing you clients.

How You Can Fix This

Rework your GFI into a proper headline. Focus on your prospect’s problem, and why you are uniquely qualified to solve it. If you can, provoke his curiosity so that he’s drawn into reading the rest of your text.

If a client ever wants to use a GFI on a site you’re designing, take the opportunity to expand your role in the project from that of a mere designer to a valued adviser. Help him to understand why a GFI is a bad idea. If you can save a client from himself without making him feel foolish, you’ll be a real hero in his eyes - which could mean repeat work, great testimonials, referrals and so on. In time, establishing yourself as an expert consultant means you can command higher fees and better projects.

2. Setting Your Main Content at Less Than 16px

You’re probably wondering about this one. What could possibly be so bad about using a smaller font size than the ridiculously large default? Well let me give you some perspective.

On most computer displays, 16px text displays at about the same size at 12pt printed text. And at least one in ten people has trouble reading printed text that’s smaller than 12pt. That’s the number of people who have poor eyesight but my own experience is that more like one in five adults complain about having to read text at less than 12pt. So how do you think those people feel about 13px text on a screen? Are you willing to have 10% or 20% of your prospects leave your site without reading it, just because it was too hard?

Font Size
Image credit: tuanrobo

I have 20/20 vision (with my glasses on). But when I’m working on my laptop, which has a 15.6 inch 1920×1080 full-HD display, I pretty much always find myself zooming text which is set at 15px or below. It’s just too much of a strain to read otherwise. High resolution laptop displays are becoming increasingly popular, too.

Now sure, your users can zoom. But do you find yourself wanting to zoom text you find hard to read? Or do you find yourself wanting the designer to have made it legible in the first place? Remember, if your prospect can’t read your site easily, he’s going to assume that he’ll have the same problem with any site you design for him. I don’t know about you, but pretty much every client I’ve ever had has wanted to be able to read his own site without difficulty.

How You Can Fix This

Generally speaking, treat any text below 14px as illegible by default. Always set your main content at 100% (16px). You can even go higher if the visual style of your site accommodates it. And don’t forget your line-height. The default single spacing is too narrow to read easily. I find a line-height of 1.5 works pretty well in most cases.

3. Using Too Many Pages

This is another mistake which might have you scratching your head. Yes, I do mean simply having separate pages for things like your services, portfolio - and of course your individual portfolio entries. But this is one mistake which can really make a huge difference to a site and of course it’s a major one you can advise your clients on as well.

Why is breaking up your content bad? Isn't it a good thing to be able to logically divide everything on your site into sensible, separate pages? I mean, isn’t that what information architecture is all about, for crying out loud?

Pages
Image credit: optikalblitz

Let me answer a question with a question. In usability studies, what happens over the average when you give users the choice to do something? The answer, of course, is that some will and some won’t. So when a prospect must decide to click through to a new page to find information he wants, is that a choice to do something?

You’d better believe it is. And this is really just common sense. After all, how many websites do you visit, then check out the page you land on, scroll down, look at the links and then close it? If you’re like me, it must be heaps.

It could be that the information I wanted - the information that might have even made me a buying customer - was just on another page. But I was checking out my options, and had a dozen other competitors’ pages open at the same time. So I wasn’t in a browsing mood - I was in a buying mood. And when I didn’t find what I needed to make the decision to buy, I closed the page on the assumption that another site would have it. This is exactly the mood that your best prospects are in when they come to your website.

How You Can Fix This

Make sure that everything your prospect needs to choose you is right in front of him. Make sure at least one portfolio piece - your best one - is right out front for him to see. And not a small thumbnail; make it big and bold. Make sure that all the important information about what you do (remember: how you can solve his problem) is in his face straight up. Don’t hide stuff away out of some coy notion of organization or structure. It’s quite possible to organize and structure long homepages. That’s what heading levels and internal anchors were invented for.

Don’t go too crazy with this. Don’t try to cram everything onto your homepage. But think about whether some of your currently separate pages would work better if they were integrated into it.

4. Leaving Readers Hanging

This leads me into the fourth and final mistake I’m going to talk about. You don’t see this as much as you used to, but it’s still a major problem on a lot of sites.

What do I mean by "hanging"? Basically, I mean not giving your reader something to do. If you’ve presented your content right, and your prospects are finding you in the right way to begin with, a good number of them should want to at least talk to you about what you can do for them. Yet, at this crucial point, a lot of designers just stop. The content ends and the reader has to find his own way. If your analytics are showing you a high bounce rate, it could well be simply because you aren’t asking your reader to do anything. So he isn't.

Call to Action
Image credit: zurbinc

How You Can Fix This

Simple. Use a call to action. Decide what you want your prospect to do, and ask him to do it. Make sure you start your CTA with a verb (that’s an action word for those of you who skipped school) - it’ll almost invariably perform better. And don’t be too proud to start your calls with that old classic, click here - it still generally out-pulls anything else.

Remember that calls to action should not be confined to your homepage. They should appear on every page. Every single part of your website should work toward your overall objective or objectives. For example, your homepage and portfolio items are probably intended to drive conversions. So you might ask your reader to contact you at the bottom of each. On the other hand, you also publish articles to establish yourself as an expert (right?) So on those pages you might ask your reader to share what they’ve been reading via social media. Either way, always have a call to action on every page.

Keep on Learning

These pointers just scratch the surface of a huge topic. Learning more about what encourages sales when you’re presenting content (and what depresses them) can significantly increase your value to your clients - and of course the rates you can command.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to make your content work as hard as it can - as well as what content to include, when, and why - there’s a great deal of good, free information out there. Two that spring to mind are Jakob Nielsen’s Usable Information Technology, which contains a lot of great hard data which you’ll need to interpret through your designer’s lens; and Copyblogger’s landing page tutorials and case studies, which are excellent practical guides.

If you’re really dedicated, you’ll want to dig deep into the world of direct marketing, and particularly online direct marketing. The resources for that are pretty scattered, so I’d suggest our old friend Google. Becoming an expert in this field can be hard work, but the results can be extremely rewarding.

D Bnonn Tennant is known in the boroughs as Information Highwayman - the dashing & debonair copywriting ace and attention-thief for hire. If you want more secrets from the direct response industry for presenting content to maximize conversions.