Just about anyone these days can design a website, but to execute well takes a qualified team. In this episode, one of our Brand Strategists, Adam Kalwas, is walking us through why a designer won't be enough to complete a successful redesign. Adam is joined by some of Speak's VPs for a discussion about what informs web design and which part of the process is most important to get right.
Roberts: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us. You're listening to A Little Off Topic. One agency's water cooler chat on digital marketing, business, and all the things that get in the way, presented by Speak Creative. Let's get into it.
Kindra: Welcome back to A Little Off Topic. Matt Roberts, thanks for joining me. How are you doing today?
Roberts: I'm great. How are you?
Kindra: Doing well. We are missing our other Matt.
Roberts: Hmm... are we? I mean, he's not here, but are we really missing him?
Kindra: Well, we're sure he's on the beach sipping margaritas. That's his drink of choice as of late I think.
Roberts: Well, I mean, it's 10 o'clock in the morning. Hopefully he's not already into the margaritas.
Kindra: I said what I said, you're going on vacation soon too. So maybe he'll have some recipes to share.
Roberts: I'm sure. We're headed to roughly the same area. I'm hoping that I'll get to wave at him as he's driving back and I'm driving down.
Kindra: That drive is the worst.
Roberts: It really isn't that great.
Kindra: Well, glad to have you here today. We also have another guest today, Adam Kalwas. He is a Brand Strategist here at Speak. Adam, welcome to the podcast.
Adam: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
Kindra: I don't know if you have any vacations in the future, but you just live in a cool place right now.
Adam: Yeah, I'm basically working while vacationing wherever I go. So it's an all in one deal.
Roberts: To be clear this isn't like a "vacation state of mind" thing.
Kindra: It basically is, truly. Adam's wife is a travel nurse and has a new destination every couple of months. We've really enjoyed all of the locations he's shared with us. Has this been your favorite so far?
Adam: This has been my favorite so far. We've been to three different places. Definitely California so far has been my favorite, but each experience has brought something different from a culture and perspective point of view. So it's been really great just getting to see parts of the country that I've never really been to before.
Kindra: I'm glad you mentioned California because I didn't mention that's where you're at.
Roberts: I was going to say, give us a quick recap. You've been to Minneapolis, Albuquerque and San Francisco?
Adam: So now we're in the Bay Area specifically. Sunnyvale, which is like a couple minutes west of San Jose.
Roberts: Oh, nice. Okay. Very cool. So that's awesome man.
Kindra: It really is just vacation all the time mode.
Adam: Somebody up there likes me apparently. So I don't know how I got so lucky to be tagged along to this.
Kindra: Adam, you're going to blow our minds telling us this, but you don't think that just a designer will do, that's not all you need in a website process?
Adam: No and my sarcastic response to that is you also need a developer because otherwise the vision won't become a reality, but the real answer to that and ultimately why I'm here, is before all of that, which I mentioned the vision, you've got to come up with that vision somehow, so the planning phase. You need someone, this is kind of a shameless plug for myself, but you need a strategist on hand. Just because we are responsible for working with the client, really understanding what they do and what their needs are. That's really where everything starts is understanding their goals, understanding who the website is supposed to serve, and so that's really where all the pieces start to fall into place. So from that, my job is to basically create a blueprint, if you will, or a direction for where the design needs to go. Then ultimately, we're going to build everything out and that's where we get to the end of the project and the client walks away with a great website.
Roberts: I think it's interesting because maybe real quick, before we dig into the meat of what we're going to talk about today. The thing that you ended with is when the client walks away with a great website. We define great as something much more than good-looking, although we absolutely want it to look beautiful and for it to represent the client's brand well. But when we talk about a great website, what we mean is that it connects with each of the organization's audiences that they're trying to essentially make progress with and that the website does some heavy lifting for that organization. It moves them into closer connection and engagement with those audiences. So just to level set, when we talk about a great website and where its value comes from, that's really kind of the definition that we're working under.
Adam: I'm glad you touched on that because I don't think I've ever worked on a project where the client came to us and just said, "I want a really nice looking website. That's the end goal." Everybody wants their site to look great and function well, have a good user experience, but that's not the goal necessarily. The goal is, I mean, you name it, there's various business goals that people have. It might be to have more ticket sales. It might be to increase memberships. Everyone has a story to tell and they want to tell that story in a specific way. So that's where the strategy and the design all play a role together, because we're going to understand what the story or the goals are and we tie all of that up with the design. The design has to basically showcase all of that. So it makes what's on the site appealing to the audience members so that they take it in and it's very easy for them to get the information that they're looking for.
Kindra: So let's start from the beginning, back up a little bit. Can you tell us what all goes into the web design process? It's not as easy as a designer putting the site out there and launching it and sitting back. What goes into that?
Adam: Yeah, so there's a couple of different pieces that are involved in the planning phase. So I mentioned the blueprint. So that really starts with the site map. A site map, for those of you that don't know, is basically setting up an architecture for the site as a whole. It's not the prettiest thing to look at, because we're not focusing on design at that point. We're basically laying out the skeleton of the site. So we'll start with the homepage and then from there, we move into the navigation and the pages that follow underneath those categories that we set. We're basically identifying calls to action that will help guide the user along the way and then once we have kind of a thousand foot overview of how the site is going to be laid out from a page perspective, then we can start diving a little bit deeper per page.
Adam: So typically in a content planning workshop which is something that I lead after our kickoff with the client, we will do a wireframe of a homepage pretty much every single time. We might do wire framing of some other pages as well. But a homepage is a guarantee. So a wire frame is basically another blueprint, but this time it's page specific. So we're going to figure out there's a hero section and in this section we might have a background video, or we may have a static image overlaid with a header or a button, just things like that. So it really gives a direction for the designer so that they understand that they're not there just picking out great elements to go on the site, but they have an understanding that this is how it needs to be laid out and how they can make those creative inspirations work together with the setup of a page of the site.
Roberts: I only want to interject with the fact that you mentioned it, but I guess we're building up to the process that we go through, and I think there's a natural tendency from clients to want to start to see something that looks good and gets them excited. The thing to coach people on is, all of this all of the strategy work you're working through makes the exciting bit, the visuals and the ideas of "How's this going to look? How's our brand going to be represented online?" All that is super exciting and it's coming, but this makes that way more effective. Site maps, I don't think anybody says, "oh yes, let's jump into some site mapping today."
Kindra: Well, I say that every day.
Roberts: But it's critical for the success of a really great website that does the things that we want it to.
Adam: It absolutely is and I think that's where there might be a little misconception whenever clients come in. Everyone is so eager to get this thing started. They know that they signed up for a website redesign. A lot of people instantly think too, how is this going to look as a final product? And it's totally understandable to have that mindset, but you have to realize there's a lot of work that goes into before you even start picking out colors and all these kinds of things. A lot of that comes from, like I said, talking with the client, understanding where they want to go and then another aspect of that is just doing research after that point. So Google Analytics is probably my favorite tool if a client happens to have data that we can look at, because it already gives me an idea of how their audience was already using their site. We might do heat map testing in some scenarios to get a better idea of how people are also looking and using the site. Just to basically understand if there were buttons that were being missed and why are they being missed? Were they placed in the wrong place or maybe it wasn't as visible? So a lot of those factors go into how we also lay out a site map. It's not just, "we heard the client goals and we're just taking our best stab at it." There's a lot of research that goes on and I probably spend the majority of my time in that research phase. Then once I have all the pieces I need, it's pretty easy to come up with a site map. Probably takes me half the time, maybe even less than the research phase, to be honest.
Kindra: Adam, I feel like you've done a really, really good job of explaining some of the jargony terms, but do you find that clients get hung up on some of these technical pieces? Heat mapping, user journey, site map, when they just want to see a pretty design.
Adam: I don't think clients really get hung up on the jargon as much, because we take it one step at a time. So we're not doing multiple things all at one time. We want to have the site map done. Then we move into, like I said, that wireframe for a homepage or maybe some other page just to really break it down into perspective. So there's a lot to look at in that content planning meeting, but I always make sure that when I do my research, I come prepared to that meeting and I already have something laid out for them to look at. So we're not just starting from a blank canvas because that can be pretty daunting. It's like, "okay, well, we're starting with the homepage and what do we do?" So that's, that's really where a strategist will come into place and they will basically help guide the client from the get-go. So that makes things flow a lot easier and then from that point, it's really just moving into kind of the next thing. So once we have site map and wire framing done, that's where I want to put together a user journey for them to look at, so that they understand, "okay, we know who your audience is. This is basically going to be the direction for the site. Now, what's an example of an audience member? How would they actually use this?" So we help the clients put that into perspective. Just basically getting them from point A to point B, they might enter the site through a social media ad and then from there, they land on this page and then what's the next step that follows? How do they get to that end goal that we're trying to get them to meet? Is it easy for them? Are they having to do a lot of clicking, which is obviously something that we don't want them to do? So in the user journey, that's really where a lot of things come to life that we laid out beforehand. Then if that looks good, basically we move into content creation. Content creation is the thing that people really don't realize that you really need to do. I actually wrote a blog on this just a couple of weeks ago. I think it was published yesterday, even, so another shameless plug.
Kindra: Own it.
Adam: But basically, we've always debated what's better. Is it better to go with a design first approach or is it better to have content that we can build design around? Through trial and error, I think we all agree that it's better to have content first. We don't necessarily need all of the content, but we need to have at least an idea of what the majority of the content will look like, so that the design that we make is going to better equip or better handle what the client actually has to show. You don't want to just put something together, use a lot of placeholder text and content, and it's going to look great at that point and then once we start putting the client's content and all of a sudden, it just doesn't look right for some reason. It didn't have that same spark that it did when we had mock-ups to show the client. An analogy that we always use which is really overused at this point, but it's like someone is house hunting and they see a staged home and they really love it. They buy the house and then all of a sudden they put their furniture in and it just doesn't have the same feel. It's because that staged furniture was not theirs to begin with. So we want to avoid those issues at the end, because that really kills the excitement at the end of a project where already a lot of work has gone into and so we don't want that to happen. We want everybody to leave the project feeling great, excited, and motivated that they have this great product that they can work with and accomplish a lot of great things that they set out to accomplish. So, yeah. Content creation is crucial to having a successful design as well. So, I mean, I just listed four key elements in that first planning phase. So you can just see how much work really goes into it. Not just from our side, but even the client side with the content creation.
Roberts: I obviously get the chance to talk to folks who haven't yet engaged with us and it is one of those things that when we talk about process and we talk about kind of going through a strategy phase before we get to design, you can start to see some eyes start to glaze over. Sometimes when you start talking about site mapping and wireframing and discovery, there's that little bit of like "okay, get back to me when something exciting happens." But the thing that really begins to have the light bulb click for somebody, the thing that I almost always see is when we get to user journey and how we plan for conversions on the site. You get to pull back into the idea that the wireframing and site mapping that we've done, all of that informs exactly how we're going to move this particular person that you want to serve into a transaction with you or into closer engagement with you.
Roberts: And they're like, "Ohhhhh!" There's kind of like just this almost aha type of oh. It all finally makes sense and then if you can get them to mentally turn the corner on like, "Hey, this is actually why we do all this" then suddenly it's like, "oh man, why would we do this any other way?" So props to you guys for working through this process to really get it refined to something that, that works.
Adam: Yeah and just going back to the original question of this podcast is "so you don't just need a designer for a redesign?" and I mean, the strategist has to basically lead that strategy throughout the entirety of the project. It's a lot of things to think about. Whereas a designer, we want them to be thinking about those things as well, but they have a lot on their plate as well. I mean, they have to think about, "okay, we have all these pieces to work with now, how can we dress this up and really make it excellent for the presentation, make it interesting, make it flow well and help really accompany what the client is trying to share with the audience. Like how do we make that even better and even more engaging?" And so that in itself is quite a lot to go through and so that's where after a content planning meeting, the strategist typically meets with a designer. A lot of times we may even get a developer involved as well, just so that they're aware of what they're building and how it needs to be built. But we all work as a team. I help guide the designer, and the developer in terms of what they need to be doing to make this a success and ultimately be thinking about the conversion strategy, the user journey, all those different things that may not always have top of mind, because they have their own role that they have to fill and the designer needs to make it look great, needs to make it function really well.
Adam: A developer needs to make sure that the site isn't slow loading and just a lot of those pain points that people will be like, "okay, this I can't even get to this page. It's like, why, why am I here? I'll go somewhere else." We don't want to have any of that happen and so everybody plays a crucial part. But just always being that voice of reason, making sure that what we're designing helps the client achieve their goals and even being an advocate for the client. They may have different things pop up in the project that maybe weren't discussed originally and it's like, "okay, well does that make sense for the strategy that we have? Can we make tweaks on the fly if we do, how do we go about doing that?" So there's a lot that goes on. It's a lot more than "I signed a deal. I'm going to have a great website and we'll be out of here in a couple months and everything went flawless." Like there's a lot of moving pieces, a lot of work that has to be done. It's great work. I mean, I think we all love what we do and my favorite part is definitely just a sense of accomplishment at the very end of a project. Seeing a client walk away and they're really impressed with what they have, like nothing really gets better than that feeling in this industry, for me.
Roberts: Well, and it strikes me that one of the things that maybe is worth playing out is if an organization is saying to themselves "maybe we'll just hire somebody who is just maybe that web designer kind of person, and we'll work through together." The client, of course, is going to fill in on their own as much as possible fill in that strategy gap that exists or they're gonna look for that designer to help fill in that strategy gap and to the extent that either of them kind of are crossways with kind of understanding exactly how all that comes together, it can really gum things up, cause problems and you end up getting something that you're either not happy with or it doesn't achieve your goals. And in both cases, especially on the client side, for a lot of people, they don't have this ongoing expertise of how people behave on the web. I think maybe one of the things that it's so much an assumption of what your role is that maybe we just run right past it, but like you are interacting with clients all day every day, looking at data, looking at how their audiences behave on their websites and making solid recommendations based on understanding all of those behaviors. So that's, I think, the thing that is worth surfacing and pointing out and making sure that people really get what a strategist's role is. It's not just guiding the design to kind of safe business assumptions. It's really also informed by all of this behavioral stuff that you just have, through working with as many clients as you work with.
Adam: Yeah and I definitely think some of the things that I try to challenge myself with is you can get an early easy habit of going, "okay, I've done many websites already. I can kind of keep with the very similar strategy because it's effective." I really try to kind of push my boundaries sometimes. The internet is ever-changing. Especially when you're talking about SEO and all those different things, I mean, that changes from month to month, year to year and so we're always evolving. We're always growing and it's no different for websites. I mean, websites today look a lot different than they did a couple of years ago and that's ultimately why we have people coming back to us that maybe did a website with us a long time ago that’s starting to feel a little outdated. How can we modernize it? What different tools do we have at our disposal but just presenting information in different ways. Certain people have different tones that they want to go about their messaging. I mean, it's not just "here's content and let's figure out how to put it in." There's a story that they're trying to tell. There's a way that they're trying to tell it, and all of that plays a role in how we lead the strategy for the site.
Kindra: This is maybe a question that is something that we touched on with Lisa when we were talking about content and UX, but are there any trends that you're seeing as far as content planning goes, like something that clients are wanting to include more and more that maybe they weren't a year ago, based on how the market has changed?
Adam: That's a good question. I wouldn't say I've necessarily seen anything too drastic. I think more and more people are trying to, if they have these assets, definitely want to get away from written content and really showcase what they do through video through pictures. So we're incorporating a lot of different types of assets on the site which obviously plays a big role. You can look at it if it's even just written text, some people may have just a couple of sentences on different things and others may have long kind of dumps of texts and so just figuring out how to best present that information. If you have a lot of text written that we're just saying, "alright, you need to cut this down because it's not going to make the design look good." There's different elements that we can use like accordions or columns and different things like that.
Kindra: A little more interactive.
Adam: Yeah. That's again why it matters to have some of that content upfront, because if we don't know that and we're just designing just to design, then we're going to run into issues down the road. We want to get in front of that before so that we know what to design out for, and then we have those elements built so the client can just very easily use the column structure because that's what's best going to serve the kind of content that they have. So I would say probably just seeing a wider mix of content. It's not just always text and really just figuring out how to best utilize those things. Some people may have a lot of PDFs and a media type gallery page. Those are all good things because it makes the content different and interesting. So I always say you need to have written text, especially from an SEO perspective, which that's my background and where I started. So I'm always thinking SEO for clients even when they may not be. So that's definitely helped me just strategize even better. But having a mix of assets is always really good to see, because our attention spans are getting shorter. So people aren't going to sit there and read long lists of texts. Like they want to watch a video. They want to look through the pictures to get a feel. So yeah, that's probably the biggest trend I've seen in the last couple of years is just the mixed media use.
Roberts: Awesome. Well, can't wait to have you back on in another few months and find out where you are next and have you tell us more of what's happening around strategy planning and new trends, but before we let you go, we have our off topic question of the day, which is you obviously have been to like, I don't know, 18,000 different places. What's your favorite thing that you've eaten on your travels to date?
Adam: Okay. So if we're speaking just travel nursing wise which man, great food everywhere you go. If you can tell by my appearance, I'm a guy who loves food. But I would probably say California again. I mean, just untouchable, as far as Asian food goes, my wife and I love Asian food. That's probably the thing that we could survive on every day.
Adam: But yeah, I mean, it's pretty unmatched here. Whether it's pho, sushi, ramen. You name it.
Roberts: Give us a favorite man.
Adam: There was a restaurant in San Francisco that we went to, it was early. We had no intention to go there originally, but the place that we wanted to go to in Chinatown was just packed. So we were like, "alright, let's get out of here." because it was like a two and a half hour wait. We're used to Memphis. You could hop in a restaurant and within 15 minutes, you're good. So yeah, that was definitely a bit of a culture shock for us, but we stumbled upon this Japanese place just in the city, West, in a kind of in a little tucked away neighborhood. We were like, let's just go for it and so yeah, we got in there. The sushi was unbelievable. We also had some pho and it just blew our minds. Like literally you could walk into any place and you could have a great meal. So far everything has been a hit. So yeah, definitely shout out to San Francisco and the bay area for fine food.
Roberts: Awesome. Alright man. Well, can't wait to get out there and have you take us to some great places to eat and we'll let you pick up the bill too.
Adam: Why not?
Roberts: Thank you for joining us, man. That was great stuff.
Roberts: From myself, our panel today, and all of us at Speak, thanks for getting a little off topic with us. If you liked today's episode, you'd love the content our team is cranking out on our blog, head over to madebyspeak.com to check out the latest and greatest. If you enjoyed the show, subscribe and leave a review on your podcast platform of choice and see you next time.
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