The recent Illustration Annual 49 from Communication Arts has an interesting artice titled “Analyze This, Web design in the age of numbers.” Unfortunately, you won’t find it online, so pull out your copy of CA if you have it. The author ponders the relationship between the abstracts of design theory and the quantifiable influence of web metrics.
As web developers this is an area in which we struggle with our clients. There is a constant push and pull to find that sweet spot between communicating a brand and incorporating web metrics. The most common scenario is that the designer wants the navigation and headlines of a site to be implemented as images so that they will have greater control over the type weights, leading, tracking, and color. While we will push to have the text rendered as HTML text and try convincing the designer to work within the limitations of CSS. This is a classic struggle between brand preservation and web metrics optimization. Design theory is telling us that the logo needs to be prominently displayed in the header so the viewer will see it as they skim from left to right. Web metrics tell us that ‘banner blindness’ means the viewer will skip right over the header region of the page.
In design school they taught us that graphic design is all about communicating a message to the viewer. The Internet has since changed the definition. It’s now about interacting with the viewer, communicating with and responding to them. Many designers are still working within the confines of the old definition.
Web metrics enable us to analyze the online conversation and optimize the interaction. Otherwise, the site falls victim to our ever decreasing attention spans. The author is well aware of the importance of web metrics:
Most Fortune 1000 clients won’t even consider large-scale agencies if they can’t provide analytics support.
Providing analytics support is only the first step. A good web designer will understand how the search engines work so she can create well performing design. Just as a print designer must learn to work with the confines of printing press technology, so must the web designer learn to work within the limitations imposed by web metrics. And it’s not just metrics. Developing an SEO friendly site often times results in a more readable and scalable web site.
Throughout most of the article the importance of web metrics is addressed. However, there is an underlying tone of resistance most likely shared by traditional print designers and web designers alike.
Detractors of the practice point out that testing sometimes favors intuitively wrong color choices and heavy uses of text links. It can also be tone deaf to branding concerns, and the long term effect of brand degradation is difficult to measure.
Brand degradation is difficult to measure, but the immediate effects of ignoring web metrics can be devastating. What happens when a web site starts ranking below its competitors (or even worse, eBay) on search engines because it emphasized brand over web metrics?
It’s a crowded Internet out there. Web metrics gives the designer the tools she needs to give the web site a voice. Your brand and your message may be great, but they need to be heard to be effective.