Effective Web Design For Small Businesses

This is an interview between Rena Tom and Zoe Rooney on our team.

These days, if you have a product to sell, it’s a given that you must have an online presence. For a new business owner, however, it’s confusing whether or not you need your own website, and if so, what features are the most beneficial in the long run. Websites run the gamut from super minimal to loaded with bells and whistles. This is true for both self-hosted sites (with your own URL) and hosted sites like Etsy, Shopify, or Big Cartel. What’s right for you?

I come from the web design world but it’s been a long time since I’ve done client work, so I asked Zoe Rooney for some advice. Zoe is a web developer forAeolidia, a firm that creates websites, online stores, logos and more for most of your favorite creative business owners. Zoe was kind enough to share her tips about effective web design, what’s necessary for business and which options are nice to have (but depend on your budget).

Rena: What are the minimum requirements for a creative business owner who is thinking about her website? What should even the most bare-bones site have?

Zoe: Consider why people would visit your site and include at least the things they’re likely to be looking for. For a creative business owner, that means information about what you sell or create (including high-quality images) and where or how to buy it. Every site should make it easy for people to get in touch with you via email, if not also phone and/or social networking sites. Physical stores should also feature their location and hours prominently.

By the way, none of this crucial information (hours, emails, locations, lists of products, etc.) should be relegated to images – they need to be text on the page so that everybody can see them regardless of computer, browser, or device, and so that they are indexed by search engines. [Note from Rena: Typekit makes it easy these days to have beautiful text with fonts that match your branding.]

R: Can you talk about e-commerce directly integrated in a site versus linking out to Etsy, Big Cartel, or other hosted platforms? 

Z: In my experience, the choice about e-commerce platform boils down to three primary considerations:

(1) Which features must I have (think shipping, taxes, customizable products, digital downloads, gift certificates, etc.)?

You can probably eliminate some otherwise plausible options based on feature set – in fact one of the major reasons people leave Etsy is for more control over features.

(2) How much can I afford to spend?

Budget is a real consideration for small businesses and is a great reason to go less custom, at least when starting out. Etsy is easy to jump into with a low, volume-based cost and minimal design needs. Add line items for web design and e-commerce costs when you develop the budget for your business, and use that process to help you further narrow the e-commerce field.

(3) How are people going to find me?

One of the big benefits of sites like Etsy is that there’s a community there that can help get your stuff noticed – people are already going to that site to shop, and bloggers and editors are already there trawling for products to feature. With your own site, you’ll have to do all the directing of traffic and promoting yourself. You should still be doing this on Etsy or a comparable hosted site, but on your own site that’s all you’ll have.

In general, I wouldn’t go the route of a fully self-hosted site until you have the ability to pay for good design and development, maintain it, and promote the heck out of it. And I would think about still keeping a toe in the community-based sites, even with your own site.

R: What are the most popular features that your clients are asking for?

Z: Social media integration is really popular, with a lot of sites integrating everything from Twitter feeds to Facebook “like” or Google “plus” buttons. Email mailing lists are also big, so opt-in forms are on pretty much all my project lists. People are also starting to think a lot more about content strategy (a.k.a. how they’re organizing and displaying content), so requests are starting to get more sophisticated in that area. And of course, most people still want a blog.

R: What features do you think are the most effective to drive publicity? What about driving sales or wholesale requests?

Z: This is kind of a sidestep to the question, but I would say that first and foremost you’ve got to have a strategy for your site. The most effective way to drive an action is to know you want to drive that action and then create a site that leads people there (visually and/or via content). Second, and along the same lines, you’ve got to have the information people need.

For example, to drive wholesale requests, you need to have a clear link to a wholesale page that shows what’s available, links to line sheets, has contact info and maybe an ordering form, etc. All the infomation a shop owner might need must be well-organized on a dedicated page – don’t let people opt out of whatever you want them to do because it feels like too much work to opt in.

R: What features or design aspects do you find annoying or overrated?

Z: Personally, I am really questioning the necessity or usefulness of a blog on every site. As I get more and more obsessed with the strategy elements of business and design (and as a business owner with small children and limited time), I am thinking more and more that blogs are a bit overrated as a general business tool.

R: Do you have some examples of favorite site designs, and why?

Z: My favorite site designs are designs that are gorgeous but that also fulfill their purpose effectively. Aeolidia’s site is one of my favorites because it has a lot of information but is organized effectively, and because it shows off the amazing illustrators Arianne has partnered with through the different design scheme options. Plus, a lot of my other favorite sites were designed by the Aeolidia team!

R: How do you address accessibility by different readers on different computers/devices? 

Z: One of the major things I do to make sites more accessible is to minimize text that appears in an image. I’ve also been doing a lot of learning about responsivedesign, and I’ve started incorporating best practices like stating font sizes in percentages and/or ems rather than in points or pixels. This is an area I’m excited to dive into even more as it makes sense for specific projects.

R: How important do you think search engine optimization (SEO) is for a small business? What are ways for customers to get more traffic to their site?

Z: On the one hand, it is obviously important for small businesses to be “findable” via search engines. On the other hand, I think spending too much time and energy on SEO is a bit of a waste given the time and energy (and maybe even money) it’s taking from other business-building tasks. When budgeting, I’d include SEO in the advertising/marketing column; I’d get the basics right and then I might incorporate more work in this area as it fits in with my overall advertising and marketing plan.

Thank you, Zoe, for your insights!

Originally posted on Rena Tom »

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