A Strategic Website is More The Just a Pretty Face

There are many, many, many wonderfully skilled website designers and creative agencies putting high quality work out into the world. Every day, I am in awe of the creative vision of my colleagues. I love seeing the boundary-pushing design some folks are crafting on behalf of their clients.

On the other hand, as amazing tools like Squarespace and Elementor take hold of the market, I've seen a concerning trend of beautiful websites that don't achieve their owners' goals.

Sutro Li Accounting website project - this site looks simple but it's full to small elements aimed at attracting the right clients and reinforcing their brand's message. 

Squarespace's campaign, "Build it Beautiful," particularly worries me as it shifts the focus of a website's end goal from strategic business or organizational outcomes to pure aesthetics, creating a shift in the marketplace toward what I call "pretty sites."

Now, obviously, we all want aesthetically appealing websites—they should use design elements that reinforce your brand and feel comfortable and inviting to your audience.

But, "pretty" in terms of websites isn't an end, rather, it's a beginning. 

At SMCo, our philosophy is that websites are business tools.

That's why the first question we ask in Strategy Sessions or in our Strategic Website Design Process is, "What is your number one organizational goal and why?"

People are sometimes surprised in how little we initially ask about the actual specifics of their website vision, and that's because we want to draw the map to get you there—and that can sometimes diverge greatly from the nuts and bolts design preferences that folks who don't work online every day may have. 

My colleague Parisa of Parisa Consulting (check out her incredible new brand launch!) recently dove into these issues on a very personal level, explaining the thinking behind her new brand and why she's no long offering just website design and I wanted to share a snippet with you. 

An effective website is a multi-faceted investment in your business and should be regarded as such. A talented designer looks well beyond color palettes and fonts. Good design is about problem-solving, systems and strategy. 

And that's the crux of what excellent designers are tackling—they're as much strategists as designers, researching your business and competitors, recommending tools to make your business more efficient, and helping you to use marketing tools and business systems effectively. The website feeds all that.

Designers committed to the discovery process will take a hard look at far more than the colors, pictures and typography on your website. 

We recently returned from a week-long research trip to Belize where we worked with two of our clients there and, quite frankly, we talked only minimally about design. Instead we interviewed staff members about their jobs and interactions with customers, learned about common "pain points" and confusion experienced by potential customers, and mapped out the entire customer journey.

Now, none of this is explicitly about the website and its design, but armed with this knowledge, we can now draw out a customer's journey through our clients' websites that transitions them from casually interested to enticed and excited. Obviously, an on-site research team isn't within the reach of all clients, but even companies and organizations with more modest budgets should be thinking seriously about the strategic value of their website design project and how to make it fuel their mission.

I always recommend forgoing a page or two of a design project or an icon and pretty graphic if it means that you can put more time and energy into the discovery phase of a project. And, in fact, we will not do custom website projects without research and discovery. Attractive visual elements can always be added later, but missed discovery can mean a redesign far sooner than you'd like—which costs time and money.

And, if you're looking for a cheat sheet, here are a few questions to ask yourself before approaching a website designer, so that your new website is more than a pretty face.

  1. What problems can my new website solve for my business? These are challenges you may face internally, such as big-picture complications like potential customers not understanding your offerings, or simpler issues like not gathering the correct prospect data your team needs to do their jobs.
  2. What problems can my new website solve for my customers? Same question as above but for your audience. 
  3. What are my growth goals? Are you planning new products or services? Is there an opportunity you see that your web designer can dig into as part of the research process? Do you have specific targets you want to meet? Now, a website can't guarantee those results, but an outstanding designer can make recommendations to help you get there. 
  4. Who on my team is impacted by the website and how? Spoiler alert: everyone on your team is impacted by the website. Getting staff buy-in is crucial. Asking them to walk through their day-to-day and where the website can make their jobs more efficient and effective is some of the best value you can get out of a strategy website design process.
  5. What's my sales process? Now, if you don't have a traditional product to sell, don't tune me out! Every organization or business has a sales process. And, you should always have this mapped out as part of your core organizational documentation. Your website designer should be able to look at that process and make recommendations for how the website can help move that process forward. 

Do you think a strategic website is the right next step for you? We recommend that everyone start with a strategy session before committing to that process.
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