Which web fashions are worth following?

Some of the latest web trends will enhance your online presence, but others risk alienating your users, Scott Payton says.

In the world of fashion magazines, September is the month for unveiling and dissecting the latest trends. So we thought we’d take a leaf out of Anna Wintour’s glossy book and examine what’s in vogue in web design.

More importantly, we’ve split these trends into two groups: those that can – if used appropriately – enhance your company’s online presence; and those that risk damaging it if slavishly followed.

Let’s start with the web fashions worth following:

Distinctive imagery

The recent proliferation of larger, clearer, more editorially engaging photographs and other visual elements on corporate sites is part of a broader fashion for richer magazine-style material of various kinds. More on that below, but the rise of striking, powerful, bespoke online imagery – and the associated decline of clichéd library shots– is in itself a trend to welcome.

For examples of particularly effective online imagery, have a look around the corporate sites of General Electric, Coca-Cola and Roche. Each is very different – and that’s the point.

Bolder, clearer text

To be sure, some sites have gone too far with the fashion for big fonts – sacrificing depth of content and increasing users' need to scroll for the sake of striking typography. But the move away from use of small fonts for navigation menus, section labels and in-page text is generally a good thing for site visitors – especially those with poor eyesight. Indeed, larger, clearer text can make pages easier to navigate and digest for all users, on all types of device. Maersk’s use of large, crisp copy on its About us landing page is a good example.

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Using graphical elements to convey complex information clearly

‘Infographics’ is the buzzword – but they are just one part of a wider, more meaningful trend: greater use of visual elements of various types to convey facts, concepts and processes in clear, engaging ways.

Executed well, this can make a company’s online presence more effective – by making it more informative and engrossing for visitors with neither the time nor inclination to plough through lengthy paragraphs of prose. See, for example, Goldman Sachs’ ‘interactive guide to the capital markets’.

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However, as we’ve written, infographics must be carefully tailored for the web - which too often they are not - if they are to do their job properly.

Expanding panels

Like a number of current web fashions, click-+-to-expand panels have been around for a while – but have become notably more widespread in recent months. Designers of responsive sites seems to be particularly fond of them.

Used appropriately, they can be an effective way of giving visitors access to deeper detail where they want it, while minimizing page clutter. See British American Tobacco’s careers site FAQs page for a typical example.

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Crucially, the rising ubiquity of these expanding panels is in itself making them more intuitive; a growing number of visitors know from experience that if they see a ‘+’ icon, clicking on it will reveal deeper detail.

Storytelling

Another fashion that has been around for some time but that continues to gain traction: using traditional narrative techniques to convey corporate messages online.

Done well, this approach can enrich a company’s digital presence. It certainly has for SABMiller. 

But, as some companies have learned the hard way, to succeed at corporate ‘storytelling’ you have to find a steady stream of strong, relevant stories to tell – then tell them in a compelling way. Simply slapping the label ‘Story’ onto a press release mismanages users’ expectations and ends up doing more harm than good.

What about fashions to avoid – or at least follow with great caution?

Extreme minimalism

Simplicity is good. Clutter is bad. No arguments there. But a growing number of companies are decluttering their sites in ways that make them harder to navigate and less informative.

Some firms, for example, are removing in-section menus. Pages can look cleaner as a result – but in too many cases at the expense of the user’s ability to browse the site easily and remain orientated consistently. More about that here.

Numerous companies have cut back dramatically on signposts from their home pages – increasing their visual impact and the effectiveness of the page as a marketing ‘billboard’ but at the expense of providing useful onward journeys for all key audiences.

Other companies have replaced their primary navigation menu with a mobile-style hamburger (see our recent BC Tip for more on that).

In each case, increased visual simplicity risks being bought at the expense of clarity of user journeys.

Shallow sites

A number of web managers at major multinationals have spoken to us recently about their efforts to reduce the size of their corporate sites. The idea of culling unpopular, repetitive and outdated pages is certainly a good one. But a related, potentially corrosive trend is the rise of the shallow corporate site in which brevity has triumphed at too great a cost to depth.

This is linked to the trend to do away with in-section menus: on some sites, a primary menu, with large panels of deeper links that appear on click of a primary link, is the sole navigation device. Such a setup encourages – and in some cases forces – the company to avoid including deeper sections (the structure of some dropdown menu panels only allows for navigation down to two or three levels). The result is often an overly superficial online presence, lacking deep detail, even where visitors are very likely to want it (in the About or Careers sections, for example).

Extensive scrolling

As some sites have got shallower, many corporate web pages have got longer. There is a lively debate in the web design world about whether the ‘fold’ (the point on a web page where further content is hidden below the scroll line) still matters in a world in which people access the web via smart phones and tablets as well as desktops and laptops.

We think that it does still matter on corporate sites. See David Bowen’s article via the link above for a detailed discussion on this. But the bottom line is that if you want to ensure that all – or at least most - visitors will read a key message or see a key link, put it below the scroll line on a standard desktop or laptop at your peril.

Despite this risk, a growing number of companies – particularly those that have recently migrated to responsive templates - are forcing users to scroll down to view important information and links, even on the home page and main section landing pages.

It may not be fashionable to say so, but this is a bad idea. 

First published 30 September, 2015
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