The Website Triad

Who is the first person you call when you need a website? It should be a technical communicator. Often described as a web content developer or web writer, a technical communicator with knowledge of the important disciplines of web usability and user advocacy will save you thousands of dollars when building or enhancing your web presence.

Most people contact a web development firm that may or may not include a technical communicator on the team. Web developers are necessary for building a website. Their job is to make the website work. They code the HTML, XML, Javascript, or Flash, they build the links, they ensure the page loads quickly and that the meta information is correct.

A web designer might be the first call you make when thinking about your new site. Their job is to make the website look pretty. You want an up to date look and feel for your site, you want the colours to be attractive, and the overall design to be inviting. Designers create or modify CSS and page templates, create the visual images needed for the site, and give the entire site a pleasant, uniform look.

The efforts of those two professionals give you a site that looks nice and works well. There are no broken links. Images don’t overlap. The site is attractive and functional.

But does it do the job you need it to do? Can customers or potential clients find the information they need? Does the user interface (UI) support the user in achieving their goals? Is it usable?

If you had called a technical communicator first, that individual would not only project manage the site’s development and co-ordinate the activities of the web developer and web designer, but they would ensure your content is well written and makes sense. They would ensure any user of the site is able to navigate to what they want easily, and is prompted to take the right action. They would ensure your website meets the objectives you have for your web presence. They would review and improve the work of the designer and developer, pointing out any potential bugs before the user sees them. And they would keep you from spending money on bells and whistles that may make the website cool but contribute nothing to the value the site offers visitors.

Getting a good website requires having each member of the website triad — the technical communicator, the web developer, and the web designer — work together to make a site that does what you need it to do. Whether you want your site visitor to buy something, pick up the phone for an appointment, or just get necessary information quickly and effectively, the way your site merges functionality with design in a way that leads the visitor to take that action is largely the result of the technical communicator’s skill in unifying the development and design efforts.

Web content also needs to be optimized for search engine results (SEO), something a good web writer or content developer can accomplish as well.

Usability for a website means that the visitor can accomplish the goals they had when they came to the site. If customers leave without buying because they couldn’t figure out how to navigate to the product they want, or they get frustrated because they cannot read the faint gray type on the web page, your site has failed, no matter how much money you spent on it. If you are hiring a creative agency, make sure they have someone with technical communication skills assigned to your project.

Technical communicators save companies money, time and headaches no matter what jobs they are asked to do. Helping make websites that work is just one of them.

Bad Websites — poor usability, interfaces, navigation or content
Good Websites — great usability, pleasing interfaces, efficient navigation, and purposeful content.

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Pretty but Useless

Usually when companies need web sites designed, they call a designer. It’s no wonder — they are thinking about the look of the site and how it will represent them and their brand. But more important than the look and feel is the site’s usability — does it allow the visitor to accomplish what they need to do to meet the objectives of the site?

Often, that question is never asked. Designers are not anchored in the content or the functionality of the web site. They can deliver a beautiful web site that might even win design awards. Your users will be impressed by its glitz and glamour. But will those users take the action you want them to take when they visit your site?

Content is what drives the visitor to place an order, call for an appointment, or contact you for more information. Navigation must support the content so the users can find what they’re looking for.

As an example, let me cite what happened with one of my clients. They had paid thousands of dollars to have their website redesigned, and one of its features was a very cool bit of Flash that zeroed in from outer space onto the company’s building. This trinket was on the Contact page and was supposed to help you find the company’s offices if you ever wanted to go there.

Where are we?Where are we?

Well, good luck with that. While the Flash was impressive, the end result was a pointer on a named street near cross streets that you HAD TO KNOW were in Saskatoon. Zooming in from space you got a vague impression that you were going to the prairies, but without any way to zoom back out to situate yourself it was impossible to tell even what city you were in. Addition of the street address was some help, but the user would still have to look up that address using some map program. Why not save the $$ it cost for the Flash and just embed the link to Google maps? That would provide far more functionality for your visitor, at almost no cost.

As technical communicators, we are experts at making sure information — content — is delivered to the user in a way that helps them accomplish what they need to do with that information. We often find ourselves as the bearers of bad news to clients who have invested in beautiful design or fancy development without any consideration of the content on the page.

When you need a website, be sure to ask your designer or developer what they know about making content usable. Better yet, hire a technical communicator who will spearhead that project for you, and ensure you get a site that works. It’s a better investment of your dollars, and it will still be pretty.

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