Help Guide #1: Helping Small Businesses improve their understanding of web design and Internet marketing! Interview with Nathan Beck

April 1st, 2008 by

Today we have an interview with Nathan Beck on what small business owners in the United Kingdom can do to improve their website and their understanding of internet marketing!

Nathan is based in the UK and you can view his design work at NathanBeck.co.uk and SansDesign. He also runs the tech and design related blog RedSwish. Which I highly recommend!

Nathan is 18 and has been doing web design and search engine optimization for a little less than two years. He should serve as great inspiration for those new to internet marketing and design as he is self taught through books, online tutorials, and blogs!

The Interview

UK2: For a small business a website is growing increasingly important in the digital age and a lot of businesses create one without fully understanding this new medium, as a designer what do you feel are the most important three factors a business should consider when creating a web site?

Nathan
It’s not just small businesses, you probably won’t be surprised how many huge companies pay no attention to their online presence. For example, check out the Primark website (www.primark.co.uk). Primark is a massive chain of discount clothes stores throughout the UK, you wouldn’t guess from the site.

The typically ultimate aim of most sites is to provide a service to the user; whether that be general information, downloads, e-commerce, advice, a community etc. So the first important step is to actually ensure traffic to the site – cue search engine optimisation (SEO)!

Once you’ve got people to your site, it’s usually a good idea to keep them there. This is where usability plays it’s part. In a point-and-click market, it’s all too easy for your customers to go somewhere else if they can’t navigate your site easily. I’ve done it, I’m sure most people have. Tricky menus, ugly flash capable of giving you a seizure, ridiculous splash pages and bad formatting due to a lack of standards-aware design. A few clicks and the user can be on a competitor’s site, spending money.

My 3rd main factor would have to be content. The good old phrase ‘Content is King’ is around for a reason. Not just in terms of SEO but for the up-front benefit of the user. The majority of business sites are there to inform. So what good is a website, regardless of if it’s well optimised and designed if there’s nothing there to learn? This doesn’t necessarily mean pages of scrawl, but short and sweet, detailed content.

UK2: What is usability in terms of web design and why is this growing in importance for a small business website?

Nathan
It’s kinda’ in the name. Usability and Accessibility are in many ways very similar, but are essentially different. Usability is ensuring your website is, for want of a better phrase, easy to use! In my eyes this relates more to the design. Ensuring the site is easy to navigate and understand. It sounds simple but it does cover a lot of areas, such as ensuring your menu is easy to find and that the links are appropriately named, content is easy to read and functionality like videos or dynamic forms well, work!

I don’t think usability is ‘growing in importance’, I think it’s ‘growing in acknowledgment and acceptance’. Usability is essential.
What if you went to a high-street shop and couldn’t open the door? Or went to a restaurant with no menus? I could churn these metaphors out for days, although I’m sure you get the idea. Once again, it’s not just an importance for small business sites but any website.

UK2: What are web standards and accessibility and why should business web sites follow them?

Nathan
Web Standards aren’t a strict rule, but more of a persuasive suggestion as to how websites should be built to ensure they are accessible by everyone. It’s a massive subject and I’d surely bore you if I went in to it. In a nutshell, accessibility means that whether your visitor is looking at your site on a 19″ monitor on a windows computer through Firefox or Internet Explorer, a 28″ monitor on a Mac through Safari, through a PDA or mobile phone or even through a specialised screen reader or disability browser – everyone will be able to access and benefit from the site, even if it might not render exactly the same on either format.

Web Standards help to ensure this by promoting the use of valid XHTML and CSS, using semantic markup, table-less design, image ‘alt’ tags…
the list goes on.

Personally I feel standards are a discipline but should be expected from web developers. A friend once asked me why I often put ‘xhtml’
and ‘css’ links at the bottom of my sites. I said it was to show that the site used valid markup. To which he replied – but isn’t it your job to code your sites correctly? Which gave me food for thought.

Businesses need to acknowledge accessibility. If their site doesn’t render correctly in certain browsers – they are potentially locking out a huge portion of their user base. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

UK2: Your blog talks about finding a balance between functionality and building attractive websites, how do you explain to a client wanting a purely functional site the benefits of making it more attractive?

Nathan
Well, it amazes me to think that some clients aren’t interested in their site looking great, and unfortunately, it is the case a lot of the time. Not everyone has a creative imagination. But there’s no reason a website can’t be extremely functional and still look stunning.

I like to think of business’ sites as online storefronts. And the quality and style of that window display is an important reflection of the company as a whole. Design isn’t everything, but I still think it plays an important factor in whether a client will spend money with your company or go next door where the prices are higher but they look far more professional. (Marks and Spencer vs.Netto)

UK2: Search engine optimisation has become increasingly important to businesses, as a designer how have you kept up with this change?

Nathan
Good question. The thing about working in new media is that it’s evolving so quickly, you either work hard to keep up or get left behind and fall out of the race. SEO is something I do, a service I provide, but I’m no expert (so I don’t charge like an expert). I just don’t have the time to put into it, I’d much rather be creating and designing -SEO is boring!

I’m still learning, not just SEO but everything, and always will be. I read the latest SEO blogs, I have e-newsletters every few days and try to reverse-engineer successfully optimised sites to gain more knowledge. But SEO is a devious subject and I’ll admit I’ve got a long way to go.

UK2: Looking back from when you first started what are the two biggest changes you have seen when it comes to designing business web sites?

Nathan
Luckily, as the Internet grows and their competition get better sites, a lot more business owners are realising the potential and importance of a website, not always to get ahead of their competition or for their own gain, but simply to keep up with everyone else.

In terms of design, there are more and more fun, funky business sites. As more standards-aware designers are working on the scene and technologies like AJAX and PHP are constantly evolving and providing more functionality – business websites are becoming less boring and corporate, but more dynamic and ‘cool’!

UK2: As a web designer what are the biggest misconceptions business owners have had when they came to you?

Nathan
That I’m young, therefore inexperienced, therefore they either a) don’t trust that I can do the job for them so look elsewhere or b) don’t think they should pay as much as if they were to go to a big design house.

Not to boost my ego but many of my business clients are surprised and impressed when I’ve built their website above their expectations.

UK2: Thanks for doing this interview and do you have any parting words of advice, or anything else you would like to talk about?

Nathan
I waffle too much so I’ll keep this short and sweet. To businesses – even though you have a budget, don’t skimp on your online marketing costs. In today’s market – a good websites is essential. A lot of people think they can make their own with Dreamweaver or free online WYSIWYG editors, but you can never cover all the bases. It’s worth investing in a good designer or company who will look after you and ensure you’ve got a top online presence.

And I’d just like to say thanks to you guys for giving me the opportunity of this interview.

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