To Know The Future, You Have To Look To The Past

On Saturday 28 May, Shapeshift moved house. Normally, this wouldn’t be reason enough to write a blog on – a simple email or Tweet would have sufficed. But in this case, I think it might be permissible to indulge in a little reflection.

Humble Beginnings

 

You see, Shapeshift started as a bunch of techie weirdos and geeks. Ambitious techie weirdos. And it started, as most good reality fairy tales do, in someone’s braai room. Jean-Pierre Mouton, our lead interaction designer, in this case. A couple of old desktops that were running on Windows XP and bubble gum, blue tack, instant coffee and a 56kbps dial-up modem. None of the guys had any real business experience, no real startup capital, no flashy offices and parking spaces. What drove them was a real desire to learn, to do everything to the best of their abilities and a genuine love for the internet and everything rebellious and free it stands for.

Jean-Pierre’s house became a split office / Ricky’s parents’ house, with the boys operating out of the front room. Designing logos and business cards had moved on to actual web design. CorelDraw had given way to Photoshop and CSS. A few bigger clients were picked up, word started spreading slowly. Then, about 4 years ago, the boys (the lady numbers wizard Elizma now included in their ranks) moved to the Durbanville office premises.

It was a big step forward, make no mistake. A reception room with sofas, custom-made built-in cupboards, logos on the windows, aircon and all those little things that make offices what they are. And a big old coffee maker, constantly filling the room with the nostril-tingling

aroma of real coffee, punctuated by loud screams of ‘Fresh pot!’ whenever it got refilled. It was cosy and comfortable and good while it lasted, but with eight full-time members of the team, the time has come for another change.

Hoogekraal Farm lies about 8 kilometres outside Durbanville on the junction of the Vissershok and Contermanskloof Roads. It has the bomb-proof build that real farm houses tend to have, as well as enough rooms for the farmer and his many offspring and townie visitors. Wooden floors and shutter windows, pantries and dining rooms all now quietly buzzing with bits and bytes sent and received.

Sustainable Growth

 

The growth here at Shapeshift has happened in a very organic way, a model of business championed by pioneers such as Yvon Chouinard from the Patagonia sports company, initiator of the One Percent for the Planet program – an alliance of companies that donate at least one percent of their sales to a network of environmental groups worldwide. In his own words, ‘At Patagonia, profit is not the goal, because profits happen when you do everything else right. In many companies, the tail (finance) wags the dog (corporate decisions). We strive to balance the funding of environmental activities with the desire to continue in business for the next hundred years.’

Shapeshift may not yet have the environmental focus or impact that Patagonia has, but the lines of thought have evolved in a similar direction. There is no real desire to go public as quickly as possible, to shift the direction and impetus of business decisions to a group of faceless shareholders. There is no need to cook the books every quarter to please investors, but rather an honest assessment of the true value and direction we are taking. Where the focus lies, instead, is on producing the products or tools that build value for our clients. As Chouinard notes: ‘If you create a demand, that is unnecessary. In other words, you’re selling to people who don’t need it, but want it: then you’re at the mercy of the economy.’

Why Do What We Do?

We believe in creating websites and tools that people need. It is for this reason that we are investing the time in creating website building platforms such as WebShift for small and medium-sized business. We believe that everyone needs to be able to represent themselves in a quality manner online; that startup businesses and people with innovative ideas should be able to use the digital world to bring their ideas to fruition, and that it shouldn’t cost them a second mortgage. We believe that this is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. And that the web is a space that should hold the ideals of equal access and connectivity in the highest esteem.

For a cup of steaming ‘Fresh Pot!’, drop in any time. Call Ricky on 072 105 7303 for directions.

WWW.WEBDESIGN101.COM

By Ilze Hugo

If a company doesn’t have a website in today’s tech savvy market, it’s almost as if they don’t exist, says Jean-Pierre Mouton, co-owner and lead interaction designer at web production studio, Shapeshift: ‘A website gives you credibility. Being online shows that you’re reputable, that you’re not a fly-by-night.’But while it certainly helps, just being online isn’t enough. Your site needs to look good and work well too. Consumers are becoming increasingly web savvy and can spot a badly designed website a mile away, warns Riaan van der Westhuizen, a web developer at full-service digital marketing agency, Hello Computer. Just as not having an online presence can be bad for business, a shoddily designed site can also do damage: ‘If you’ve got a brand experience online and the text is too small, it creates frustration for the person interacting with that data,’ explains Mouton. A scrollbar or a link that is broken will irritate potential clients, leading them to assume that dealing with your company will be equally frustrating. A bad website says simply: You’re incompetent.

Speak to the right audience
So, what does a good website look like then? First of all you’ve got to understand who you’re making it for. Identify your audience and what they like – from graphics to types of interactions, content and style of copy: ‘Many designers blindly follow trends without considering whether those design trends actually fit their target market,’ says Mouton. Get a group of people that represent your target market to test a prototype of your website before it goes live says Van der Westhuizen: A good strategy is also imperative: ‘Before even starting the design process you have to develop a site strategy and decide what your goals are for the site – be it sales, brand exposure etcetera,’ says Mouton.

Think sexy looks and smooth sailing
‘When designing a website, you need to communicate a certain set of information to your users. If you don’t lay that info out properly it will get lost or your users will get bored and go somewhere else,’ warns Van der Westhuizen. The site needs to be laid out in a way that makes sense on an interactive level, so that users can interact with it in an intuitive way, says Mouton. One example is to put your search box at the top right-hand corner of the website where your users expect it to be. A user shouldn’t have to work for information. People are lazy, says Van der Westhuizen. ‘Focus on the main points and don’t force more info onto people than they are willing to read – keep copy clear, concise and to the point.’ Layout and colour plays a huge role in a user’s perception of your site, and can be used to visually point people in the right direction – highlighting the most important points and focusing their attention where you want it to be.’

With a content-heavy site, the challenge is to present it in such a way that users don’t get overwhelmed: ‘You have to ask yourself, how do I design it that user only need three clicks to get to the info he/she wants,’ says Mouton. A good designer will also program your site according to web standards and ensure that the site doesn’t discriminate against anyone. For example: You should be able to open it from any browser, be it Internet Explorer or Firefox.‘Beware of trying too many fancy things. Rather stick with what actually works, like menu bars that have words on, instead of pictures,’ says Van der Westhuizen. Another bad idea is fancy flash intros that take too long to load. If you’re a local company targeting middle income users in South Africa, keep in mind that your audience might have slow internet connections, so you can’t have massive videos that take forever to load. ‘When going to a restaurant, people want to see the menu and not read about the chef’s grandmother’s influence on the recipes. You need to know why people come to your website; who your target market is and what the most used internet connection is amongst them.’

The buck doesn’t stop when your site hits the net
Your site should be designed in such a way that you can measure your results continuously – keeping track of hits, seeing where your users are coming from and whether you’re getting the correct audience, after the site is up: ‘With statistics like Google Analytics you can even see which areas of the website somebody’s actually clicking on and which areas are being totally ignored by visitors,’ says Mouton. ‘Websites are dynamic platforms. Always keep in mind that your site will never really be complete because as markets, audiences and technology change, people interact with things differently and you constantly need to measure your results and tweak your website accordingly,’ says Mouton.

There are billions of sites out there and competition is tough. That’s why its hard work to keep your website highly ranked, says Van der Westhuizen. Regularly redesigning it ensures that users don’t become bored with the design and keep coming back: ‘Sites like Kalahari do this once a year.’ He advises looking at a redesign every 18 months. ‘Rather spend more initially and invest in a content management system that allows you to update the site yourself, with photos and content will work out cheaper in the long run.’

Be social or go home
Marketing on the web has changed dramatically: ‘A couple of years ago before the social media revolution we would do search engine optimization to ensure that Google’s bots found your site. That’s still relevant today but, because there are more and more people online, it becomes much more difficult,’ says Mouton. ‘For example, in one country there may be thousands of plumbers who are all competing to be number one on Google.’ With the invention of socially aggregated communities like Digg, Stumble Upon and Reddit, that aren’t ranked by Google’s algorithm, but by internet users themselves, ranking has become social: ‘It’s not bots ranking your site anymore, but people. That’s why social networking integration is so important. If you want to be ranked high on Google today you have to be ‘Liked’. The ‘Like’ button has been the biggest revolution in the social web. If your website is Liked, you are ranked higher, you are more relevant and therefore have a better brand. And of course this translates into hits as well. So marketing yourself online is very much tied around being social, being Liked.’ Also pivotal to your online marketing is a blog – which not only informs your visitors of what’s happening, but also establishes you as a thought leader; generates excitement around your brand and makes you look like an innovator. And if your content is interesting people will read it and ‘Like’ it. Others will pick up on this and it will snowball logarithmically. But of course, not all businesses have to be marketed in this way. Here again you have to ask yourself who are you talking to.’

Social networking is huge and one cannot afford to ignore it anymore, agrees Van der Westhuizen. ‘There are amazing things you can do with Facebook fan pages and Twitter these days. But if don’t know how to manage those things then it’s better to just leave it, as managing them badly can actually harm your brand.’

Choose an A-team
A good website isn’t just something you can slap together or get your young nephew to design because he knows a lot about computers, warns Mouton. The web has become a very specialized industry. Make sure the team you employ has the necessary experience and a proper track record. Ask to see portfolios, enquire about past successes and turnaround of sites. If the price seems cheap, go somewhere else. Says Van der Westhuizen: ‘With cheap options, clients often end up spending more money getting the site redesigned than they would have if they had just gone to a reputable company with a great portfolio the first time round.’ Also be careful of guys who claim to be SEO experts, he warns: ‘There are no magicians out there who can get your website onto the 3rd slot on Google by magic. It’s hard work. You need a website with good content and good links to other sites with good reputations.’

Originally published in High-Flyers Magazine, Issue 17. 3PHXU8TX3RVN.

The Metrics of Success on the Web

Firstly, what is success? Success is measured as an event that accomplishes its intended purpose.

To determine the success of a website, then, is to first define its target or intended purpose.

In the case of an online book store, the purpose of the website is to sell books to a wide audience and to become the preferred website for buying books online.

In the online world, as it is in the traditional business environment, the number of people who enter the business premises, or in this case, visit the website, greatly increases the chance of the website being a success.

What will make a website succeed as a business?

Marketing a website is vital to generating increased traffic. As sales increase so does an intrinsic part of business increase – profit.

With profit comes increased opportunities for the business to grow and to ultimately offer better service to its customers. This also ensures that the business can continue buying stock and doing business – therefore generating website traffic and awareness should be a top priority for the website owner.

But this in itself will still not make the website a success as the entire purpose may not yet have been met.

Marketing will get the target audience to the website but the website will need to offer value added services that will make the customer come back. This can include a wide range of books, rare or specialised books, ease of payment and quick or free delivery.

Appeal and user-friendliness

The appeal of the website is target market-specific, as a website about women’s beauty advice would not necessarily appeal to a man. The content of the website greatly determines the appeal.

The appeal of the content for the target market should therefore be included as a key component of the website’s intended purpose.

Another aspect of appeal is user-friendliness which applies to all websites as it is the vehicle in which the content is delivered to the user.

Using uncluttered and simplified interface elements makes it easier for the eye to catch the various sections of a page, making it easier for the user to read the content and find navigational items.

Complementing colours and legible font sizes will also help create a pleasant and engaging reading experience. Animated transition effects, using technologies such as Flash or Javascript, should be kept at a minimum as it uses more system resources, slowing the user’s web browser down, and also impedes the time between user requests and content delivery.

Using standardised and familiar interface elements, like a clear and easy-to-find navigation at the top of the page and a sitemap in the footer, helps users to instantly relate to the website and makes navigating and finding content easy to do.

User participation and interaction

Increased user participation and interaction has become the norm with modern websites. This is mostly due to a range of new technologies becoming available in the latest web browsers. Among these technologies are Ajax and Flash which has added real-time interaction to the web experience.

User participation increases the appeal of the website for the user which subsequently drives the website closer towards its success. User participation also contributes to the content of the website and can increase traffic through the use of social media services.

However, caution should be taken not to add every single feature that the social media and Web 2.0 world has to offer. If market research and common sense shows that it will not have a practical and lasting function, other than it being a trend at the time, then it should be avoided. Other than it being an unnecessary function, it will also be an extra cost on development, both in time and money.

What is required to enable this interaction?

The most obvious requirement for user participation is of course the users. Having a well implemented marketing and advertising campaign will take care of generating traffic to the website but if the information is not delivered and viewed in an accessible manner the marketing will lose its effectiveness and the website will not succeed. This takes us to the technological aspect of the website which actually precedes the marketing phase.

Most web servers today will have all the necessary technologies in place to handle and process the more complex programming tasks needed for user interaction.

The key tools that are required is a database server such as MySQL, used to store all the user contributed data, and a server-side programming language like PHP, to process the data, store it and display it again. Client-side processing, through Javascript, Ajax, or Flash, is achievable with most modern desktop web browsers.

There are many great third party Javascript frameworks available, such as jQuery, Prototype and Dojo that make implementing user interaction-level programming tasks quicker and much easier than creating a custom Javascript framework.

Special consideration must be given to mobile devices, as the technology used in theses devices are still in a more primitive stage than its desktop counterparts.

The measurement of success

The bottom line in ensuring a successful website is creating a website that focuses on a target market through its content and visual appeal and follows interface design standards that users are familiar with. If these conditions are met then the users will be able to easily find what they are looking for and they will return to the website looking for more.

There are of course many finer details to design that constitutes a good website interface but what experience dictates is that simplicity in design is key. Even in this age of heightened user-interactivity, less is most often more.

 

Specialising in the Art of Internet Paper

People often ask me what it is that I do for a living. My natural response, “I draw pictures!”, is a phrase I coined from Dawie, a good friend and business partner. I mostly say this because the term “Web Designer” has too many inaccurate, and often, misunderstood connotations. It’s also a whole lot easier.

For this reason I’ve decided to put together an article discussing how drawing on internet paper has branched into various specialities. In the relatively short time that I have been part of this exciting industry, I’ve witnessed a kind of transformation that I believe has been critical to its efficiency. We now have terms like Front-end Graphic Design, Information Architecture and Interaction Design. Its hard to imagine how studios of yesteryear delivered effective solutions without it – the simple truth is they didn’t.

Graphic Design

Back in the day, it was common for conventional Illustrators and print designers to also design for the web. Although graphic design in terms of colour, textures etc. was, and is, still necessary today. They did, however, face many new problems which couldn’t be solved with the experience and knowledge they’d gained in the static world of print design. If Graphic Designers wanted to solve these problems, they would have to change their thinking towards this new internet paper entirely.

Information Architecture

One of the problems never encountered before was the gigantic scale of information that large corporates wanted available on their sites. The challenge was to develop a focus on not only allowing dynamic content to be laid out in a sensible, consistent hierarchy, but also that the naming of links were so intuitive that a visitor could easily find the specific content they desired. This is similar to the way in which a librarian would organise books by arranging, and then indexing them according to genre so that visitors can spend no more than five minutes pin-pointing the exact book they’re looking for. This focus became known as Information Architecture (IA). The term, appropriated later by web design specialists, was actually coined in the seventies by an architect named Richard Saul Wurman. Over the past few years, various Digital Agencies have accepted this as a necessary discipline. I would have to say that even now, with the diverse variety in types of users and the ever-increasing size of websites – every professional practicing IA in web Design could consider him or herself a pioneer in this relatively young field.

Interaction Design

Having websites wonderfully organised and pleasant on the eye is not where the journey ends. With websites like Google Docs it’s clear to see that Cloud-computing will eventually mean that all the applications usually running on your PC or Mac would soon be running exclusively online. Its certainly one of the most exciting prospects for the future of the web. But it does make me wonder whether designers will be properly equipped to deal with the coming challenges – or more specifically – website discipline. This is to say that dynamic content must behave consistently and intuitively throughout the site. If you’ve ever ended up shouting at your screen while banging your keyboard, you’ve probably experienced a misbehaving website. These challenges are met by making use of techniques found in software development known as Interaction Design (IxD). Common techniques available to Interaction Designers are Flow Diagrams and Wireframing. Wireframes are much like the architectural plans for a house.They contain step-by-step walkthroughs accompanied by notes on how the system functions. Flow diagrams are layouts the steps one would take to complete a particular process. To give you an example: If you wanted to buy a product from a website, the process you would subsequently follow to make your purchase would be designed using flow diagrams.

What is clear to see is that designing for the web is no longer exclusively “drawing pictures”. In our mission to develop beautifulwell-organised and clever websites – we are compelled to be masterful in the art of internet paper.