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Copywriting and the ever-changing art of web design

Does one size fit all in the age of multiple devices?

[Image courtesy of Jason Weaver Flickr Creative Commons]

I had a very interesting discussion late last year with a web designer friend of mine. He said I was old-fashioned. I said he was jumping on the latest bandwagon, with little thought for the destination.

But it was all good-natured and in the end we actually both conceded that, as with almost everything, there’s no ‘right’ choice.

We were talking about the trend that’s sweeping web design at the moment for long, scrolling pages with big blocks of text and graphics. Instead of having Home/About/How it works/Find out more/Products & Services/Contact links at the top of of your home page, you have sections on one long page.

Some sites even retain those navigation links, but simply take the reader to the relevant section on the same page.

My friend’s argument was that this makes navigation and reading simpler and more straightforward. You reduce the work that visitors have to do, and with fewer distractions, they can focus on the content.

My reservation was – and still is, to a certain extent – that it can be a little overwhelming, and at times feels like those horrible long-sales-copy pages we know and hate (But that’s not all! You’ll also get a FREE e-book worth $199…).

The pros and the cons

Now I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I did decide earlier this month (though not on the first) to let go of what I think I know, and entertain other viewpoints.

After all, if other people believe things as strongly as they do, and as strongly as I do, they must have some basis for it. At least I’d like to think so.

So maybe my natural aversion to long, scrolling pages is a general prejudice based on a few specific examples. Maybe I need to let go of my long-copy preconceptions and see what the advantages of the new layout are.

And I have to admit it – my friend was pretty convincing. He said:

  • It makes browsing easier, with no complicated hierarchy or confusing navigation.
  • It works better across devices, especially tablets and smartphones, which are beginning to dominate the market.
  • It forces you to focus and keep your message simple.
  • Reviewing and updating are much easier, as you don’t have endless pages to trawl through.
  • It can improve your SEO, depending on the focus of the main page (this comes with lots of caveats and qualifications).
  • Conversions can be higher, as you steer prospects to a close with fewer obstacles.
  • Bounce rates are lower, as everything is there on one page, in a sequential, story-like way.
  • It costs less. This is an an advantage for clients, not necessarily for my web designer friend.

So there are some really convincing arguments in favour of pared-down, or even one-page, websites. So what about the arguments against?

Well here are some:

  • They take slightly longer to load, as you’ve put so much on them.
  • If you have a range of products/services/messages, long pages can feel too detail-heavy.
  • If you do have that range, it’s probably better for SEO purposes to have separate, dedicated pages.
  • They don’t work well if you’ve got a blog, as you can’t easily slot it in to a long, scrolling page.
  • If you need to scale – and most companies do eventually – you’ll probably hit an upper limit, where longer is actually too long and you pass the point of diminishing returns.
  • You may have different audiences, so you’re faced with a choice of going generic or sending out mixed messages.

So there are some definite downsides too. But whatever design you opt for, the rules of good copy still apply.

More of the same (only different)

You should chunk your copy into meaningful sections, summarise what you’ve said/are going to say, and organise your content logically.

Every section – just like every page in the old paradigm – should serve a purpose or else it shouldn’t be there.

The great thing abut the new layout is that sections are generally shorter than pages would have been, so you’re forced to be concise and waffle-free.

This new design is bigger, bolder and less detailed. Which means copy is more top-level and needs to get to the point faster. It also has to work with, not against, the design.

And it needs to bear in mind that smartphone and tablet readers are a more impatient bunch, used to the economy of words and ruthless focus that apps give them.

So in the spirit of my New Year’s non-resolution, have I come around to my friend’s way of thinking?

Well I still don’t think there’s a right and a wrong in all of this. Complex, multi-page websites will always be around, and larger organisations will probably never move entirely to the long-page layout. It simply may not make sense for the way they operate. And more importantly, it may not make sense to their visitors.

As always, flexibility is the key – in layout as in everything else.

And as my friend reminded me (as if I needed it) the audience always comes first.

Always.

The little design changes that make a big difference

I recently spoke to somebody who wanted copy for their website. And the good news, they told me, was that the site design was already done and dusted.

On the home page, there were three square boxes in a row, spaced evenly. Underneath, there was a box that took up the entire width of the page, and under that were another two boxes.

The proposed design looked attractive, making good use of white space and complementary colours. It was when I asked what went in the boxes that we ran into trouble.

I’d made the assumption that three boxes meant three distinct offerings. Or three target audiences. Or three offers.

But they didn’t, any more than the one box underneath was destined for anything specific. Or the two boxes below that. In fact, the whole design was chosen on the basis that it looked pleasing, its boxes filled with the ubiquitous mock Latin (Lorem ipsum etc.).

But when we actually looked at the copy that was needed, it didn’t fit neatly into the boxes. Or neatly on the page, for that matter.

So we did the only thing possible: turned the approach on its head, and started with the copy. For at the end of the day, you have a story to tell, and an audience to engage. And the design should support, not dictate, the way that story is told.

I’m not saying copy trumps design. The two have to work hand in hand, so there’s not a disconnect between what you’re saying and the way it’s presented.

I was reminded of this balancing act as I watched a TED video last week.

Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook’s director of product design (and ex-YouTuber) talks about the huge impact that little design changes can make. Like changing the Like button on Facebook. That tiny graphic took the lead designer 280 hours or work (that’s seven weeks at 40 hours a week) to redesign.

She also talks about the Facebook photo take-down request that failed to engage users. Until, that is, the designers tweaked it to include the reason for the request, and how the photo made the requester feel (sad, angry, embarrassed and so on).

From a copy point of view, the take-down story is fascinating, proving that context is everything. If people understand why you’re asking for something, and what a difference it will make, they’re much more likely to comply. In Facebook’s case, usage of the feature jumped from 20% to 60% of those wanting photos (usually embarrassing ones) taken down.

And research showed that 90% of people who’d posted photos wanted to know if and how they’d upset people.

Gould Stewart also talks about knowing who you’re designing for, which in Facebook’s case means a huge number of users who don’t have access to cutting-edge hardware or fast internet. The exact same approach applies to copy: if you don’t know who you’re writing for, you’ll never come up with copy that connects with your target audience.

How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too) has lots of insights into how little things can make a big difference, and may just get you thinking – as it did me – about the importance of getting them right.

And of really thinking about who’s out there, and what matters to them.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to view the talk on TED.com]