You’re redoing your website, and the UI architect has added a nice sidebar to the page. Or the visual designer has created icons for each of the product categories. The design looks gorgeous. Why not go with that sidebar or those icons? Because introducing a recurring element means just that—it has to recur on every page (or on many of them). Before you commit to such a design element, make sure your content can support it.
Consistency in web design
You already know that consistency is important in web design, for a number of reasons. It helps usability by adding predictability. If every page on your website looks different, the user has to spend mental effort on every page deciphering it and understanding where to look for key information. Consistent, predictable layouts allow users to unconsciously segregate and ignore less important information and to instead focus on what is unique and different on each page—such as the call to action or the headline that you want them to notice.
So, when you introduce an element like a sidebar, an icon, or a structured section on a page, it’s likely not a one-off. If you use a sidebar, for instance, it will probably occur on all the pages of your website or at least on all the pages of a certain type. For example, in the new design for our own Resources Online website, we are adding a sidebar on all the pages that detail our services, along with another recurring element: the portfolio section.
Consistency in content management systems (CMSs)
If your web developer is using a CMS to build your website, such as WordPress, Joomla!, or Sitecore, consistency is assumed. The CMS requires that you create one or more templates, which are pages with a specific layout. Using templates, it’s easy for you and your team to add content to the website without having to ask a developer to help you. As with a Microsoft Word template, you can go to specific sections of the page and enter text and images, as required by the layout, using a WYSIWYG editor.
Using a CMS for your website can accelerate website development, enable marketers and content creators to do much of the work, and save on maintenance costs by letting you easily make global changes using tools similar to search-and-replace within documents. However, it only provides those benefits if you are using the CMS properly, by leveraging templates. If you frequently make exceptions by creating one-off pages with different designs, the CMS soon loses its power. That means you need to commit to using templates and consistent page layouts.
When recurring website elements fail
Problems occur when you introduce a repeating element on your website and that element doesn’t make sense for all or most pages. At Resources Online, we build websites but we also create and manage content. We’ve seen our share of poorly thought through sites with unwarranted recurring elements. They can make content development and site maintenance harder.
Say that your website design includes a sidebar on every page. For some pages, it’s easy to find relevant content for the sidebar. Perhaps it’s designed to hold related blog posts or related products. For other pages, though, the sidebar doesn’t make any sense. What blog posts or products are specifically relevant on your About page or your Contact Us page?
When a content element appears on pages and has to be filled, it can create headaches for content owners who are forced to shoehorn largely irrelevant information into the space—just to make sure it’s filled for consistency’s sake. The problem is bigger than that, though. By adding irrelevant or barely relevant content to the page, you add more useless noise that can pull the users’ focus from what you really want them to see and read. Recurring and irrelevant elements on a website can actually lower usability and conversions.
Maintenance issues occur with elements, like icons or designs, that require pictures in specific locations. Perhaps the designer created an icon for each product category. That’s nice, except that it means every time you create a new product category, you have to create a new icon to go with it. In large e-commerce sites, where product categories are introduced and changed frequently, this can make for a lot of extra work. Not to mention that it becomes difficult to create a unique and meaningful icon for every category.
Similarly, where layouts require a lot of images, you may well find it a stretch to come up with relevant pictures. Also, pictures tend to draw the eye. If they do that at the expense of text, without providing any real value or support for the content, they may be a complete waste of space on the site and a waste of the staff’s time spent finding images.
Content assessment and planning is the key
How do you avoid introducing unnecessary—or even detrimental—elements in your design? The most effective way to prevent the problem is to avoid separating the visual design from the content development. On any large website, especially ones that are updated frequently, content and visual design go hand in hand.
Conduct a thorough assessment of your content before designing the website. Then, as you begin the design process and start developing template pages, compare the design with your content assessment. Ask questions, like:
- Do you have enough portfolio items to put on every service page?
- Do you have enough products to adequately fill each product category page?
- Where content is lacking, can you develop enough new content to fill the gap? Will you generate enough blog posts or be able to find enough relevant articles each week or month to support the sidebar?
- How often will you add new categories or products, and what elements does the design require that you create for each one? Can your budget and staff support these requirements?
Asking these kinds of questions during the design process will help you determine your content production needs and can help ensure that the site is maintainable for a reasonable price. The best designers know this and will direct you accordingly. By keeping an eye out for recurring elements and evaluating the design with an eye toward your content and content plan, you can accurately predict maintenance costs, avoid the “What do I put here?” pitfall, and create a site that optimizes space on the page while drawing the users to the information you most want them to see.