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heading them off at the pass...

As I approach the public beta of numeroom.com the first proof of concept application for my distributed web development platform, I've started to share my work with a few trusted individuals. One friend who I'll call "mike" voiced strong objections to the current appearance of the commercial site that I've designed for the service. Mainly his issues revolve around the following points that he felt were not addressed by my design:

  1. Logo "not right" get a better one.
  2. Colors look dated.
  3. Features list has too much text, no one will read it.
  4. Marketing is very important, the best technology won't sell without good marketing.

I thought I'd take the time to write out reasons why I think his objections, though valid in many cases are not in the case of my site design.

Logo not right

I'll go down the list, first the logo.
In coming up with the logo I wanted to ensure several key concepts were indicated. a) it is recognizable at multiple viewing scales. b) It conveys a bit about what service the site provides.
c) It references the name of the site in some way. The logo above does all three, the point I made to "mike" was that because much of the features that the site provides for collaboration are entirely new, it would be difficult to find a name that encapsulated the totality of the functionality available. To point a) the logo looks identifiable as an browser icon in a browser tab. It looks great on the web page and it looks good in print, so that is one goal down. To point b) the logo conveys the activity of collaboration, the "n" shape consists of the top view of a room with two individuals (round blue and red balls) entering the room on opposite sides. This conveys the idea of collaboration and hints at a key feature. Finally to point c) I didn't want to sell the site based on a name that referenced only one of the sites features. The individual features are only aspects of the total collaboration experience provided by the site when put together and that is why having a generalized name was most important, a combination of "numerous" and "room" indicating the many features provided by the service. You can't make everyone love your logo design but as long as it does the things that connect your service to the design (as described by the important goals of the design listed previously) in the mind of viewers then it is good enough. Everything else comes to the usefulness of the services and that is another subject. Good logos allow good underlying businesses to shine but a great logo will not help a terrible business.

Colors look dated.

As an illustrator and graphic designer, I know a bit about creating a compelling design. However, a good design doesn't have a date. Be it 10 years or 20 years on, if it succeeds in presenting the material then it is a good design. The march of fashion in the web design world will go on, ultimately it is not the color selection on a site that gets the customers. It is again, a well implemented business and the presentation of something useful to the visitors. I will admit that my choice to go very basic in the design, to forgo flash animations and flashy 3D effect give it a very sparse feel, but that is exactly what I wanted to present. Though the site services appeal to consumers and businesses the nature of the business ensures that visitors come to the main page only to sign up, it is not designed to be a hang out spot...in fact making the services provided by the site as transparent as possible is important to advancing the needs of the customer (namely to collaborate with their colleagues, partners and customers in ways previously not available) having a non obtrusive design helps achieve this. I told "mike" that Google was and still has a very sparse design philosophy , one that works precisely because it gets out of the way and lets the users use the services. If I wanted to get more fancy with the design I could have done something more in lines with the many Ruby on Rails design clones that are popping up like mushrooms all over the net but then how would that make my design unique? It would not. Also, by keeping the design basic I avoid the cost in time that I simply can't have, why spend my time attending to the minutia of site design when paying attention to feature integration is more important from the customers perspective. People admire the site design once and then move on to the services, if those options are not compelling all the bells and whistles and the best designers in the world won't save the site.

Features list too deep

This one perplexed me to no end, as an engineer and a designer I tend to see things in two ways, from an aesthetic perspective and from an analytical one. This ability has informed my choices in art and design for as long as I've been doing both. While looking over the design of my competitor sites I noticed feature lists that were longer than mine, yet "mike" thought my descriptions were too long. The interesting thing is , the features have bullet point descriptions on the main home page to provide an immediate at a glance snapshot of key features without inundating them with descriptive text. The feature descriptions are optionally presented only after the visitor clicks on a link. If the initial description of the service and key features in a list isn't compelling , then they won't go on to read the details anyway. If however they find the list interesting they can read more in the feature details. "Mike"'s objection that the feature list page was too long was missing the point that the ones that come there are arriving to get information on specific features they find interesting that were mentioned in a short phrase in the home page bullet list. Additionally, the features also have video links for those that want to see the feature in action instead of read it, making the objection further moot.

Importance of marketing

I am not going to deny that marketing is important, if no one knows about that personal teleportation device you built in your basement you can't make any money from it. However, marketing is not the guarantee to a successful business. Like the logo design and the the site design, it simply provides a conduit to the actual service. If the users don't find those services useful then all the best marketing in the world is wasted. The web 1.0 era is filled with .coms that wasted billions on wiz bang marketing and sales events. Purchasing tons of "shwag" for promotional events and hiring the best designers for creating the sites, only to have all that effort go down the drain as the visitors came, saw all the bells and whistles but little substance and left. If the business doesn't satisfy the visitors needs it is going to suffer a slow blood letting until dead. As a self funded start up, I have to be very frugal with how I am deploying my funds and I chose to focus my attention on services and features that are extremely difficult or impossible (by patent protection) for competitors to emulate once my site is public that also provide a brand new experience that they will immediately feel is indispensible. If I could make passionate fanatics of those first visitors , they will take up the bullhorn of marketing for me at no cost to me. I think it is a more noble way to approach the problem as I am not presenting smoke and mirrors, because lets face it marketing is about selling something to people, even if they don't need it. I want to provides services to people who need them, so selling the service on its own merits is the only way to go. Again, google serves as a perfect example of this....when they launched their search service, no one outside their college affiliated and investor circles new about the site. However, their page rank algorithm ...which in hindsight looks like one of the biggest "duh!" moments of recent IT, was better at getting relevant search results than the existing providers at the time, all much bigger than google. In time and on the merits of this superior technology the user community voted them into the lime light, not marketing pitches selling their service as the best thing since sliced bread. The fact that when you came to their site , you saw a sparse design that lacked the flash of the competitors at the time didn't hurt as people came there for the search, and no one did search better than Google , no matter how "ugly" their site was. Of course web collaboration is a more complex service than search, and necessitates presentation to quickly convince the visitor that the provided features are indispensable to them but that doesn't have to come with millions of dollars of marketing, it just needs to get them using the service and if it is compelling it will do the rest.

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