Flash redux: form over function is back

We all remember Flash’s early days on the digital scene. Ten years ago, when the new player revolutionized animation, authoring, and video embedding, designers got overly excited with the technology, and many webpages went practically overnight from standard designs to something resembling discotheques.

With so much going on, users had trouble focusing and lost patience as the sites took long times to load and were difficult to navigate. Plus, Flash did not work on many Apple sites, and they were fundamentally undetectable for search engine optimization (as they were one-page websites with no readable text or category URLs). It was 90 percent form over function. Because of their poor conversion, almost all these sites were gone in just a few years, especially as more sites transitioned to ecommerce.

Round Two of the Show-Off Game

Unfortunately, designers are reentering the show-off game in a new way — this time, with HTML5, mobile, and video. Sites with completely disparate purposes are all starting to look the same. Companies are returning to one-page websites, designing mobile-first websites when it doesn’t make sense, and moving away from navigation tools and conversion metrics.

With mobile’s rise, responsive web design has also surged in popularity, particularly in the wake of Google’s mobile-friendly update. A side effect of responsive design is that websites have become flatter, look more similar to one another, and have less-intuitive navigations. While mobile is important, designers are moving away from taking advantage of desktops’ large screens, where people still spend 27 hours a month of their time.

This trap of valuing form over function could be creeping into your web designers’ thinking. Watch out for these four telltale signs.

1. They Use Responsive Design — Without Good Reasons

With the increased focus on mobile, designers have been adopting responsive design by default. Responsive design dynamically adapts websites to different screen sizes (desktop, tablets, and smartphones) by leveraging one set of code. The advantage of this approach is that the website’s content and features are the same across devices and the user interface adapts automatically. Therefore, companies can reach their customers across all platforms without the need for a separate mobile site.

But consider an online travel-booking website. A recent Webtrends survey revealed that 41% of travelers do their research using a mobile device, but 55% of those travelers prefer to book with their desktops or laptops. Of those surveyed, 31 percent preferred booking on their desktops because the mobile screen is too small. Given the number of steps involved in an average travel purchase, a simpler site that doesn’t offer horizontal navigation or requires more scrolling could run the risk of alienating — and losing — its loyal desktop users.

2. They Nix the Nav

Many sites have adopted the ubiquitous hamburger menu (which collapses horizontal navigation into a deeper vertical navigation) for both their desktop and mobile sites, even though it’s far better suited to mobile.

Doing so can create a poor desktop experience, as what once was a click away is now three. It’s no wonder that performance tests of the hamburger have found that it is clicked 20 percent less than a simple menu button.

Time.com, at least, added the word menu below its hamburger icon to explain what it means.

3. They Move Conversion Below the Fold

Imagery has always been the biggest point of contention on a site between the creative and business teams. What we are seeing with HTML5 sites is a lot of magazine-inspired design in which a single image dominates a webpage (Coach.com, for example). However, that design makes it less clear where to click and what a website wants the user to do.

The move, about five years ago, to position things above the fold seems to be coming undone (see NastyGal.com, for example). “Folds” now vary among devices and even among kinds of phones (Samsung versus Apple), but the concept of keeping the call to action at the top should still hold true, especially with the e-commerce side of most businesses becoming their fastest-growing channels.

4. They Think One-Page Sites Are a Good Idea

One-page websites let you optimize for only one keyword phrase and one set of metadata and come with a bulky page weight and no opportunity to link. That’s instant SEO sabotage. However, if you find yourself regretting wrecking your SEO potential, you can still make a full recovery.

While one-page responsive sites do offer simplicity, simple isn’t always better. Many firms could benefit from a bifurcated approach, creating a desktop site and a separate mobile site with different functionality. At my agency, for example, we get few qualified leads from mobile. So we use that data to create two different experiences based on the actions our customers typically take in each space.

The good news is that it is possible to create an attractive yet easy-to-navigate website. Reebok.com is a good example. (fitness.reebok.com) It has an easily navigable menu and enhanced search capabilities but still uses large product photography and branded content.

What’s most important for your brand is to focus on creating great products, delivering a world-class user experience for customers, and applying the data you collect to make customer-driven decisions. Focus on the desired outcome rather than a “Flashy” design.



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