Whether it's a website, an app, or a simple business card, a first-rate design is crucial for attracting and keeping customers.
Some small business owners might feel as though they have too much on their plate to worry about the appearance of their website. They might reason that aesthetics isn’t their strong suit, or that hiring an expert is just too damn costly.
I can sympathize. On the other hand, nearly 20 years of entrepreneurship has taught me that all three objections should be balled up and thrown in the trash.
In the immortal words of Steve Jobs: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” In other words, design encompasses everything that makes a great product great.
I recently sat down with Michael Cañar, one of the badass designers at my company, and asked him to share a few of his top design tips for small business owners on a budget.
1. Master the Hierarchy of Information
A hierarchy arranges things into levels according to their importance. When you’re trying to reach customers, show them the most important information about your small business first.
Even in the simplest ads or posters promoting products, a grasp of this basic concept is one thing that I see a lot of companies lacking.
What unique thing do you offer that your customers need? Decide what this is and then break it down it so that anyone can understand it.
The best example of how this works is a billboard. You’re flying down the freeway, you have maybe a few seconds to get the gist of its message. If it’s advertising the best cheeseburger in town, and it prioritizes the restaurant’s location over a mouth-watering photograph of its product, it’s wasted space.
Think of the top of the hierarchy as a juicy bone you throw to Fido--something he can actually catch, and that’ll ensure he pays attention to you in the future.
2. Seek Customer Feedback
You should always be seeking feedback from your customers to ensure you’re meeting their needs.
If you’re selling an app, for example, and you come up with a new feature, create a prototype and hold a design review with four or five customers. Ask them to try it out and see what they have to say about its usability.
Don’t pay too much attention to aesthetics at this stage. Focus on the problem you’re trying to solve and do it as quickly and cheaply as you can. Then take it to the people who are actually going to use it.
I’ve been doing this for years, but on every call with customers, there are times when I learn something new.
This isn’t to say that your customers can’t be wrong. Sometimes their feedback won’t make sense, or you might just be talking with someone who likes to complain. But you’ll learn to filter the helpful from the unhelpful with experience.
3. Study Your Competition
If you want to improve as a designer, look at what other designers are doing. Study both your competition and the companies you admire.
Visit a competitor’s website, and use it just like a customer would. Criticize what they’re doing. How are they using colors? How are they using typefaces? How do they use the spaces between?
Try using their app. See where you actually get frustrated. When dealing with poor design, one thing customers tend to do is blame themselves. They say, “It’s not this app that stinks at doing what it’s supposed to, it’s me.” But if you get confused or stuck at a certain point, don’t blame yourself--blame the design.
Look for patterns. Answer precisely how and why you got stuck at a certain point. Why did you think it was hard? What would you do better? You can use these experiences to create your own style guide for the future.
4. Be Consistent
For everything from a website to a magazine, you should set a tone and a mood and stick with it.
One big mistake I’ve seen companies make with their websites is that different pages have different looks that look nothing like each other.
Avoid creating what I call a Frankenstein. Titles, for example. Decide where they’re going to go, what typeface you’re going to use, and then stay with that format. Create a consistent flow from start to finish.
You’ll make a mental note for the people using your site that it’s going to look this way the next time they visit. After a while, it’ll be like coming home--cozy and familiar.
5. Be Simple and Legible
Keep your designs simple in content and style. I’ve seen ads with more than five different typefaces. The designer may think they’re being clever, but they’re only creating chaos.
This is my main message, and it goes back to the hierarchy of information. Strip down as much as you can, make everything as clean as possible.
If you have a webpage featuring 20 different things, decide how much of that you’ll be able to live without and keep what's essential.
If you’re pairing typefaces, you’re better off going with one typeface that has several different styles--regular, bold, italic, etc.--and using two or three different styles to create contrast.
It’s surprising how many companies fail on something as basic as visibility. They’ll throw a tiny light gray font onto a white background and call it a day.
Be legible. If people have a hard time reading your message, they’ll drop out and most likely head over to your competitor.
6. Leave Your Ego at the Door
Don’t get too attached to your ideas. Look for the right answer, instead of looking to be right yourself.
When I get too focused and start thinking I have all the solutions, it helps to show someone what I’m working on and get a completely different perspective.
At the end of the day, you’re there to serve the customer. What is the easiest path for them to take? Think about design as a story you’re telling, and take your customers on that journey.