Psychology-Driven Brand Design. Creating and Refining Remarkable Brand Identities.

Substance Over Style: How Does Your Website Measure Up?

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Hear me clearly: the content of your website is a top priority. The user experience of your website is a top priority. How your content is displayed to best communicate/interact with your user is where the “design” part comes in. And that should be your secondary or tertiary focus, not the primary one. This is one reason I’m not a huge fan of predesigned templates. It puts way too much focus on looks. How elements are arranged may look nice, but may not necessarily coincide with the best way for YOUR information to align with YOUR specific goals.

If your website is an integral part of generating profit for your business, you hopefully already know this. Hopefully, you’re already conducting user testing to concurrently make your site better for your users and generate more money for you. Hopefully, you are continually working on conversion optimization to analyze and improve areas where you are losing leads or sales. Hopefully, you’ve used a copywriter that knows how to write for both search engines and for people. Hopefully, you know that design affects user experience but is not an end-all be-all standalone element of a website. If that’s the case, great! I’m not talking to you. If that’s not the case, read on, my friend.

Substance over Style and Function over Form

Why are substance and function prioritized over style and form? Let’s look at two quick examples to illustrate.

Imagine you’re going out on a blind date. You arrive at the restaurant and as you scan the crowd, you see a VERY attractive person standing alone, also looking around. Could you be so lucky? YES! However, as you sit down and begin conversation, it quickly becomes apparent that this person couldn’t pour water out of a boot if it had instructions on the heel. You’ve never met a more mindless and shallow person in your life. This is torture. Desperately, you try to think up excuses to end the evening. The lesson? Looks will only get you so far; what really matters is substance. 

Photo source: Dezeen

Here’s a real-life example of function and form. See this green squiggly thing? That’s a shoe. Yes, a shoe. (A prototype of the Mojito shoe by Julian Hakes, to be exact.) I will be the first to admit it’s beautiful. It’s lovely, as a sculpture. But shoes are meant to be functional. They have a specific purpose — to support and protect your feet. I dare say this falls short of that purpose. It may come as no surprise to learn that this shoe was designed by an architect. It certainly wasn’t created by a podiatrist (and would likely give yours a heart attack to see you in it). The lesson? Something can be exceptionally stylish, yet have no practical use.

Improving your website’s substance to help achieve its function

So, now that we understand the importance of function and substance, let’s look at how this relates to your website. How well your website works is a better indicator of success than what your website looks like. So how can you make your website work better? If you haven’t already defined the goals of your site, that’s the first step. Determine its function. Then you want to have substance that supports that function. Here are some ways to improve your substance:

1. Blogging is a good way to give your website some heft if you’re a little light on content. 

Content will always be king. You want content on your site that communicates well, and you want enough content on your site to adequately educate, inform, or persuade your visitors. If your website is small or low on content, that’s not substantive, and you likely won’t see much return. Adding a blog allows you to add substance that is dynamic and current. To note, one question I am asked frequently is how to improve search engine rankings. Adding relevant content consistently is a great first step. There is no way a static five-page website with a paragraph of text on each page is going to outrank a larger site that is more dynamic and more comprehensive. However, a blog is a good way to start — it will both engage search engines and draw in visitors. And once visitors are on your site, you’ve conquered half the battle.

2. Re-evaluate your website copy with a focus on copywriting for conversion. 

I’m not just talking about those long sales pages — everything on your website, including micro-copy (e.g. what your forms’ submit buttons say) should be considered. You may want to hire a copywriter — ideally one that can focus on both conversion and SEO. A professional wordsmith can often craft effective copy much better than someone on the inside of your organization. Just their outside perspective alone enables them to write customer-centric copy as opposed to company-centered copy. If your About page is as boring as reading an encyclopedia, a copywriter can instead write copy that makes you sound interesting, trustworthy, and likeable to your potential customers. If your Services page is laden with industry-jargon, a copywriter can turn that into understandable benefits that your potential customers can relate to.

3. Be prepared to tweak your website. 

If you have an e-commerce store and are experiencing low sales, it could be due to a number of factors related to design or layout. Are you truly highlighting compelling photos of your products? Maybe they need to be more of a focus on your home page, or you need to provide 360° views of the products. Maybe you’re relying too much on photos and your product descriptions are not descriptive enough. Maybe you need to move your search bar to the top and make it larger. Maybe you need to feature product reviews in a more prominent location. Maybe your store is too confusing to navigate. Whatever it is, you won’t know until you test, test, test. 

Don’t discount design!

I want you to understand: style is not superfluous. Yes, style is a secondary consideration to function, but here’s the rub — you can’t completely separate the two. That’s why design is defined as a merging of function and form; it’s not just looks. Style, or form, often affects how well something works. And the best form is derived from function; it’s not independent of function, nor is it a trivial matter. It should not be underestimated. Many women fell in love with that green squiggly thing simply because it was so unique and beautiful. They wanted it, needed it, had to have it for themselves. (Indeed, this prototype was developed into a real shoe a few years ago and made available for sale. And people are still buying it today.) Having a unique and beautiful website is still important because it activates something innate in us to appreciate and be attracted to beautiful things. That’s a very powerful human instinct. But remember: when it comes to your website, just make sure to keep your priorities in the correct order. If you do, you’ll end up with a website that is more profitable and effective. And isn’t that why you have one in the first place?

Picture of Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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