There’s a very good article at Smashing Magazine about ‘redesigning with personality‘. The opening paragraph is very true:
Redesigning a website can be the seven-layer taco dip of hell. You’ve searched for inspiration on dozens of websites, captured screenshots, jotted down notes, consulted friends and colleagues, maybe even interviewed users. But despite your due diligence, your vision for the new website remains unclear.
Whether the website is for a client or for yourself, if you’re struggling to find your way, it’s probably because you are starting from the wrong place. The inspiration you seek is not where you think it is. It’s not in a blog post entitled “25 Amazingly Beautiful Websites.” It’s not in your Twitter stream, nor on Facebook. It’s not even on the Web. It’s right there on your seat. It’s you.
Just for a moment, stop thinking about HTML semantics, CSS magic and jQuery tricks. Instead, ask yourself, “Who am I, and what do I want to say?” What do you stand for, what’s important to you, and who are you speaking to? Let’s make the answers to these questions the trailhead of your redesign journey.
This is entirely true. It’s very tempting to copy other ‘cool’ sites you’ve seen, to borrow the latest effects, but most of the time, these don’t add any value to your message, and do nothing to help your users accomplish what they’re trying to do (ie, it’s just eye candy – the all-to-common lightbox effect comes to mind).
If you understand your purpose and your users, then there’s no point in copying other sites. Other sites may demonstrate interesting approaches to what are broadly similar problems, but the value that each bring needs to be carefully considered and tweaked to reflect your specific needs.
The article talks a great deal about injecting personality into the site. I’m not convinced that this is going to work for most of the companies and sites that I’m familiar with. In the vast majority of cases, the sites I’ve worked on provide a service (and if they’re a government site, they have a monopoly in the area), so people visit the site for a very specific purpose and they want to do that as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
What people are there to do is discussed in another Smashing Magazine article, which talks about the ‘short head‘ approach. Of the many and varied reasons why people arrive at your site, a few key reasons might stick out (this is called the Zipf curve).
If you’re stuck for ideas on what to focus on, and what problems to solve, you need to accept that you can’t address them all equally. But you can address the top 10 or so with comparatively little effort, if you take the time to clearly identify what they are.
Despite my misgivings about personality in websites, some of the suggestions are very good. Identifying the tone (‘voice’) of the content is a good idea, and creating a visual lexicon will encourage a familiar, consistent, and easy to understand interface.
For me, most of this should come out of a decent understanding of the business and who their users are. Copying other sites will never result in a solution that genuinely works.