Applying Web Design Best Practices to Building Material Websites
The web is at the center of everything, and although our logistic-heavy industry has been a bit slow, a Silicon Valley mindset is taking over the world of building materials and architectural products too. New players like Material Bank are leveraging the power of the internet to transform the sampling process while manufacturers are rethinking the distribution process by selling direct and turning to Amazon to grow sales online. Believe it or not, B2B e-commerce now outpaces B2C. In order to stay competitive, companies must carefully craft a strong web presence that can maximize sales by grabbing the interest of website visitors, and converting that interest into viable leads and sales. This is where UX comes in.
UX, or user experience, is a design discipline that pursues making websites, software and products more usable. It’s the mix of art and science that makes Candy Crush and Facebook so addictive. UX more than just making a pretty website, it’s about leveraging a keen understanding of your customer and the power of intelligent design to make something that’s desirable, useful, credible, usable, accessible, and findable. Those six tenants make up the UX Honeycomb, a methodology developed well-known designer and information architect, Peter Morville.
In this post we’ve curated building material and architectural product websites that have applied each of these principles well. Our roundup includes products that are sold both direct to consumer and through specifiers. These are companies with a savvy marketing-mindset and likely have decent budgets to match. You may not have the benefit of millions in venture capital funds at your ready, but you can still apply these best-in-class ideas.
Desirable: The foundation of good user experience
This might be the most basic element to consider: is your product desirable and it is solving a problem that needs to be solved? It’s what separates the smart infomercials from the absurd. Yes, you can buy something that sucks your hair up in a vacuum and cut it. (Remember the flowbee?) Sure it works, but do you really want to use it? There is an entire genre of useless inventions. In the B2C world, consumers buy them because they make a great white elephant gifts, but no one buys or remembers pointless building products. Your product must solve a real problem in a practical way, and you need an effective website that clearly conveys that value proposition to your target audience.
Too many building material and architectural product companies focus too much on the product themselves, and not the problem they are solving for the specifier. Ask yourself this, what does your product add to its category, how is it different than your competitors, and why should specifiers care? Answering these questions is the foundation of UX.
Useful: craft a website that lets everyone win
Websites with high engagement provide interesting and actionable information. Your website visitors should be able to learn about your product and make a commitment to it in as few steps as possible. You can streamline this pipeline by thinking strategically about how you layout information on each page.
Think of your website as a story. Good stories are logically ordered, compelling, and captivating. They have key elements: a problem, a protagonist to solve it, and an ordered structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Ultimately, your product should be the protagonist in a good story. The goal of your website is to draw the user into this story and provide them with an easy way to become a part of it. Effective websites aren’t boring, passive books. They’re like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to love.
That's what makes a website such a useful tool, after all: engagement and interaction. Your website is not static like a product brochure, catalog, or spec sheet. Many building materials and architectural product companies create websites that are essentially digital versions of their printed collateral. These websites are heavy on technical product information, and not enough on how to get specifiers to take action. There should be clear opportunities for users to “try on” your product on your website just like consumers do in a store. This can be actions like ordering samples, reading case studies, or downloading a catalog. And then of course we want that final “check out” too by encouraging visitors to make an online purchase, submit a request for a quote, or contact a local rep.
Consider how a user will navigate through the site. It's important to ensure that information is organized the way your specifier is thinking, rather than how you organize internally. Be sure to add in a direct call to action at key touch points to convert a user’s interest into action
Credible: People want to know they are making the right decision
Whether it's a large investment or an impulse purchase, customers like to know that they are making the right decision. This is especially true for specifiers, since this is truly a consensus sale that requires substantial buy in. Prospective specifiers are encouraged when your company or product has earned the respect of other respected professionals and brands. Including these elements on your site can massively increase conversions. This strategy is called social proof. Social proof includes testimonials, client logos, customer stories, reviews and ratings, accreditations and certifications, e-commerce seals and industry statistics.
It’s important to consider where in your website’s “story” you want to place these social proof elements. It’s smart to include them both on the homepage (to inspire initial confidence in the user), as well as on the individual product pages (to help push users considering a product into completing a purchase). Reviews, case studies, and detailed images on the product page are all key in the consideration process.
Another method of providing social proof is to humanize your company. People like to buy from other people, not faceless organizations. Consider adding information about your team to your site. Many product companies resist including this information, fearing it makes them look small. Yet when they talk about what makes them special they quickly tout their great customer service and personalized approach. People like knowing who they are buying from. And by showing the people behind the curtain, your company is portrayed as accessible and authentic.
Useable: It’s more than just being pretty
Useful, credible information does you no good if the website is hard for your target audience to use. While it’s important to create a website with a message that stands out from the competition, when it comes to the function of the website, being usable and functional is more important than being unique. In fact, we want to lean on those aspects of the online experience that are intuitive for users. This includes following established conventions for web design like overall flow of the website and the terminology used in the top navigation. Users expect to continue to scroll down to gather more information from years of conditioning on apps like Instagram and Twitter.
Finally, and we cannot stress this enough, make sure the damn thing works. Buttons and links all need to go where they say they are going, images need to load correctly, and there should be no typos. Check, re-check, and triple check your website on a variety of screens (phones, tablets, smaller laptops, larger desktops) platforms (Mac, Windows, iOS, Android) and browsers (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge) and make sure everything appears correctly.
Accessible: Reach as many people as possible
Just like buildings have ADA guidelines to follow, websites have a set to support persons with visual disabilities. The good news is that enhanced accessibility can improve search engine optimization (SEO), so websites rank higher in search results and reach more people. Following accessibility guidelines also encourages good coding practices and proper formatting, which make websites much more useable.
The complete ADA guidelines are exhaustive. Some essential components include having a website that is responsive and easily viewed on all screen sizes; ensuring there is sufficient contrast between the background and text for readability; allowing sufficient spacing between objects; and providing text alternatives and video captions. Using natural language also helps with accessibility. We all know building material and architectural products are knee deep in industry-jargon, so this is an important one to keep in mind.
Findable: Is a website really great if no one’s around to see it?
Making your website findable is all about optimizing it to work with search engines. Our marketing jargon for that is “SEO”. The algorithms behind Google rankings are both debatable and ever-changing but there are known factors that affect how your website ranks like page load time, mobile formatting, and other pages that link to your site. As we’ve discussed, following accessibility guidelines does a lot to improve SEO too. Google and other search engines like to see that all images have alternate text, markups are used correctly, and so on.
Ultimately though, there are no quick tricks to help your pages rank better. The biggest factor to improve your website SEO is the content on your website. Having strong keyword rich product pages that are well structured, and continually adding new relevant content on a blog are fundamental to improving SEO.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. More likely than not, you’ve been through the process of a website redesign that was a costly endeavor and took months to finish and you shudder at the thought of going through that again. But we have good news – you don’t need to overhaul your website. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. It’s smarter to stick with smaller changes over time. Thanks to the real-time analytics we can pull from an active site, we can make modifications and test them to see what works. When you go the route of making a big update all at once, it’s hard to see what worked and what didn’t. Worse even, website traffic often drops after a major update meaning you may break something that didn’t need fixing. So take it one step at a time.
Effective website design is the marriage of behavioral science with the art of your brand. Good UX is more than a website that looks current and on trend, it’s maximizing engagement, increasing traffic, and extracting value from every visitor to your site. Your website has the potential to be your best salesperson, but you have to set it up to succeed
If you have a question that hasn’t been answered or would like to find out more about how Epiphany can help get you specified, give me a call: 803.377.0106