You don’t want a website

19th March 2021

6 minute read

You don’t want a website. And we don’t want to build one for you.

I’ll explain. First, your business doesn’t want a website; it wants the results the website will give it. The point of the website is very rarely the website itself, it’s what it gives your business. The sales, the income, the customers, the contacts, the reputation – whatever it is, that’s the thing you want. A website is the way we’re going to achieve that, but it’s the means to the end, not the end itself. 

It seems obvious, but it’s important to create this distinction. Often when building websites we have a lot of discussions with clients about the site, in and of itself. 

About what the colours should be, about how it looks, about whether one photo is ‘nicer’ than another. And I appreciate that it is important to a client that they like their own website. But we also need to remember that it’s actually fairly unimportant, really.

Whether you like your own website, in most cases, probably shouldn’t matter.

The chances of a website design where you personally love every part of it, also being the website which converts as highly as it could do, are really, really slim.

If we created a one page website for you which you hated, had terrible photos, copy you didn’t like, colours you detested – but every customer who went there bought your product, and so your sales, profits and revenue went through the roof – would you ultimately prefer it over a website you loved every aspect of, but converted 50% worse? 

You might do – and that would be absolutely fine with us. Your business, not ours. But let’s at least recognise that when discussing what your website should look like with an agency, this is almost definitely the choice you’re making. 

Every time you ask for a change to your site because of a personal preference, this is the decision that you’re implicitly making. You’re choosing one version of a site over another, based entirely on your subjective, aesthetic preferences; and you have no idea whether the version you’ve just switched to is going to cost you money in the long term. 

I’ve just had a discussion with a client who really, really wants to include something on their website that they personally love, but which we know is really bad UX. Now obviously we advise them against it, but they really want it. And they want it because they believe that because they like it, it must be the right thing to have on the site. After all, it’s their site. 

Now that’s fine – it is their site, they’re paying the bill. But they’re also compromising the future profitability of their business because of an aesthetic preference which, in reality, doesn’t matter at all. In six months time, will they be still going back to their site and delighting in that odd UX decision they made? Or will it not matter at all, and never cross their mind again? I’d put money on the latter.

Obviously I realise this is a problem with the client/agency relationship since such things began. “Make the logo bigger”. But with a website we can objectively measure what such decisions cost you. It’s not just a case of us both having different opinions, and the client’s wins because they’re paying the bill. In this case one approach could have an objective, distinct, measurable cost to your business should we implement it. And you won’t know unless you A/B test it. 

There are situations where what the client thinks is good design is hugely important. If you’re a certain type of photographer, for example it makes perfect sense for your website to be a reflection of your personal taste, style and aesthetics because that’s a huge part of what you’re selling. But in that case I would make the argument that having the design of the site match your aesthetic will also increase the sales on the site, as the gestalt experience will be consistent, and the feeling the customer will get on your site will match the feeling they get when they look at your products.

And to be clear, this isn’t about ‘I prefer this font to that font’. It’s rare that a font will make a particularly measurable difference to a conversion rate. It’s also true that some changes will have zero impact either way. But be sure – if it’s possible to make conscious A/B optimisation decisions on a website, it’s equally possible to make unconscious decisions which go untested, which over time, will cost you a lot of money.

So when you’re briefing an agency, spend your time telling them what the website should do, and less time on what it should be. Tell them the results you want – the objective, real numbers you want to get from this. 

Tell them the money you want to make, and the money you have to spend. Then they can use their experience to connect those dots. Our job is to make the thing you’re spending the money on, make you the money you need it to. 

Then spend time checking that it is doing that. See where you can improve, measure, iterate and change – always based on real data and with an objective obsession with discovering what is going to actually deliver what your business wants. 

This is why we always put the delivery of a website in the middle of our time working with a client, not at the end. Because only when the site is up and running, and in the hands of your customers, can we see what is really important and what really works. I’m not talking about the standard user experience stuff, or making sure the site doesn’t break – that’s obvious. I mean ‘does the site deliver what it’s supposed to be delivering – is it bringing in the results it was built for’.

It’s also why we measure the conversion results for all of our sites, and all of our changes. Because nothing clarifies a debate on which approach to take with a website than data; than clear, actual measurements about what is or isn’t working. It’s also the most interesting bit. The website is only the start – and without this work, you’re leaving money behind.

Remember – you don’t want a website, you want the results the website will bring you.

Written by Rob Dobson

Rob Dobson has been working in digital and building websites for 20 years. From designing and developing the world’s first internet bank in 1999 (smile.co.uk), he founded Northern Comfort in 2010.

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