Corporate web design trends

Conscious of the fact that I have been very much focused on the internal digital landscape, I decided to have a look at what is happening on the external front. The most notable development in external web design, for me, is the shift in focus and importance placed on ‘user-experience’ (hallelujah!). And I dont just mean visual user-experience.

Gone are (…or ‘should be’) the traditional heavy corporate rhetoric and the self-gratifying websites that the CEO could show-off to his family and friends. Gone are the big images that are completely irrelevant to the content and what the visitor is looking for. Gone are the long lists of over-glorifying ‘news’ stories and gone is content for content sake. We are moving from ‘look how big/important we are!‘ to ‘how can we help you?‘.

Below I have selected some sites that I believe are best-in-class examples of these new trends.

I must stress at this stage that I have deliberately avoided any designs from my own agency as I don’t want to be accused of bias or favouritism, and also to show that I am a very good sport. I am a firm believer that good work should be recognised even if it is not our own.

If you have any other suggestions please feel free to add the link in the comments below.

Bloomberg

Visually engaging and definitely different. The user-experience (UX) is one step ahead of most sites. The information is well organised and you are immediately and subconsciously drawn to the most important content. Everything is only one-click away and I like the ‘get to know the company at a glance’ approach. Bloomberg is ‘selling’ itself but in a refreshingly direct and no nonsense manner.

Petrofac

I really like the practicality of this design. There are definite hints of the new Facebook layout. It is clean, easy to navigate and still visually engaging. Great use of font sizes to attract your attention to content, and the imagery tells the story.

Standard Chartered

Normally I am not a great fan of sites with heavy background images, but I really like the way that the background image is part of the content on the page and the interactivity it brings to the page.

Xstrata

Although I like the layout (it is fresh and colourful), the main thing I like about this site is the story….and everyone knows that a good story is not just about content but how you tell it. The colours and imagery do the content justice.

ARUP

I really like this. It is a great example of liquid design (fluid layout), making it not only ideal for the different screen resolution but also for mobile devices (according to Office of National Statistics 50% of us are now going online via mobile devices). It also follows the trend of blog-style layout, which is easy to read yet not often used for corporate sites. It works and I like it a lot.

I hope you like the examples and, as mentioned above, please use the comments box to highlight other good corporate design examples…or let me know your thoughts on the trends that you feel are important (examples please!).

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What can we learn from The Gruffalo?

The Gruffalo by Julie Donaldson

If you are a parent with small children you will have undoubtedly heard of The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. If you don’t or haven’t, don’t worry… it isn’t prerequisite to this post (but I’m not going to lie… it does help).

After being made to watch the film for the fifty-fourth time (yes, I have been counting) the kids mercifully asked if they could watch some of the other content on the DVD. My initial joy quickly sank away when I saw that the ‘additional content‘ comprised of the Extended Credits (I’d rather stab myself with a blunt spoon) and ‘The Making Of…’. Briefly considering the spoon in my one hand, I opted for the controller in the other, selected the ‘Making of’ and prepared myself for a few more wasted minutes of utter boredom.

This was not to be the case. In fact, what followed was 10 minutes of the most fascinating film footage I have seen in a long time.

Although The Gruffalo is only a 30 minute animated film aimed at kids who barely have a notion of the world around them, the level of detail and meticulous planning that went into making it is astounding.

The original 11 page children’s book was first turned into 1000s of pages of sketches and walls covered of storyboards, making sure that every detail was true to the original story so that it would not only meet the expectations of the hordes of faithful fans but also of the other stakeholders, such as the writer herself.

You would think at this stage a couple of clever geeks turned on their Macs and started animating. Not so. In a bid to achieve a higher level of depth and realism, they decided that they would mix CGI with the traditional plasticine approach, building the ‘set’ (woods and streams) in clay and superimposing the computer-generated characters onto it.

This relatively untried approach was first thoroughly tested and only when it proved feasible and effective was it applied to the making of the movie.

Then the characters themselves were analysed to a granular degree. As they had only existed in 2D in the original book, how would they adapt to 3D? How would they interact with each other in this semi-digital/semi-real world? The characters were first plotted out in sketchy 3D, their facial expressions and body language analysed and only when the original cartoonist, the CGI team and the producer were happy, were they signed off for animation.

The producers considered the music an integral part of the storytelling. They didn’t want it to distract from the characters and the story but were convinced that it would add an essential ingredient to the experience. An entire orchestra was wheeled in to add music that can, at best, be described as background, but anyone who has watched the film will no doubt agree with me that it is what makes the film.

Finally, there were the voices to consider: although it is only a 30 minute film, and each character, apart from the mouse only plays a small role, the voices add so much to the experience. Not a penny was spared, as the likes of Helen Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane and Tom Wilkinson were selected for the roles. Getting the tone of voice right was the icing on the cake and added to the success of the film, which has won an Academy Award and a BAFTA nomination.

I think (hope) by now you can see where I am going with this… What can we learn from The Gruffalo? Lots!

For sketches, read planning. For doing the story boarding and getting the writer’s buy-in, read building a solid business case. Stopping the geeks jumping straight in with animation can be interpreted as not letting IT lead the way. Trailing the CGI and plasticine approach suggests proof of concept. For analysing the characters to a granular level, read understanding the users and gathering the requirements. Getting the background music right is equivalent to ensuring the design and layout adds value to the user-experience. And finally, getting the characters voices right refers to ensuring the solution has the right tone of voice, one that appeals to the user/audience.

These steps are key to the successful implementation of any digital solution, whether an Intranet, a social collaboration platform, a corporate website or a public facing digital campaign… And yet so many clients don’t give themselves the time or budgets to ensure these steps are completed to the required level of detail, often resulting in an inadequate solution that needs to be rebuilt/re-analysed 1 or 2 years later.

But then maybe the mouse was right…

“Don’t you know, there is no such thing as a gruffalo”.

License or open-source CMS, that is the question!

I promise I will try to improve on the Shakespearean rip-off titles but as I have been asked this exact question several times over the last few months I have decided to tackle this topic in my first post of 2012.

Over the last 10 years I have worked with a wide spectrum of CMS platforms, ranging from in-house built systems to Joomla and Magento, from Open-Text to SharePoint. Which one is better? Why? And most importantly, why should you pay for a license if there are free solutions out there?

Firstly, the final decision should not be taken lightly and certainly should never be based just on the financials. The cost of choosing the wrong CMS is almost certainly going to be more expensive and painful than any license fee.

Having said that, Gartners CMS Quadrant might be ‘Magic’ but no amount of wizardry will get round some of the extortionate fees that are being charged for the CMS solutions presented in it.

So here it goes…based on my experience working with a large variety of CMS options, I am putting my stake in the ground and giving you my  preferences…

Enterprise level

If you are looking for a serious enterprise solution that can easily be integrated with an Intranet, CRM or ERP then you will want to look at a licensed solution like Sitecore. Honestly, it will all but make the coffee. It is totally flexible in terms of design, extremely user-friendly and relatively easy to set-up and configure.

Sitecore offers an impressive Direct Marketing System (at an extra charge), which is truly unique and integrates full email marketing, CRM and reporting functionality directly into your CMS. Very useful if your company runs marketing campaigns and microsites. Personalised content obviously comes as standard with Sitecore.

However, be careful if you need more than 10-12 concurrent CMS users – which, in practice, even for large corporations tends to be a lot…remember its ‘concurrent’) – as Sitecore license fees take a steep jump at that level.

Conclusion: a compelling argument for enterprise level businesses that require multilingual web sites, integration with CRM/ERP/Intranet and top level support, security and continuity (latest technology updates).

Alternatives: Episerver, SharePoint, Autonomy, Open-Text.

SMBs

Although I have directed this at Small and Medium Businesses, the reality is, whether you are a large or small business, you might not need fancy integration or digital marketing systems. You might just want an honest, easy-to-use CMS that offers continuity and security, doesn’t cost more than the mortgage on your house and allows for total flexibility in terms of concurrent users. My preference would be Umbraco. It is a great CMS. Yes, multi-language sites are a little more clunky to deploy. Yes, it is open-source (honestly, does that make it less secure…no!). However, it is FREE and just as capable of managing large sites as any other CMS out there. But the reality is that, out-of-the-box, that is all it does…manage your site.

Like most well recognised open-source platforms it does have a massive community that is constantly generating new plug-ins which can be relied upon if you need to go beyond the pre-fab functionality. But integrating bespoke code does tend to add to the development costs.

Alternatives: Django, DotNetNuke, Drupal, Worpress (dont knock the latter…I have seen great sites in my time developed on WordPress).

Bespoke CMS platforms

Many agencies, including the one which I founded and owned until 1 year ago, have their own in-house built CMS platform. I would approach these with a huge helping of caution and pinch of scepticism. First of all, and lets be honest, the main advantage for an agency to have a bespoke CMS is that it ties the client in. What they dont tell you is that if you want to change agencies, you dont get to take the CMS with you…so its start from scratch I am afraid! They are also normally accompanied by hefty SLAs and maintenance contracts, because no one else can mess with the code except for the agency.

There are advantages. They tend to very much geared to specific requirements, so rather than trying to do everything and being ‘a master of none’, they should do the job better than standard CMS systems. They can be tailored more easily, because the agency has probably done it before for another client, and because, as it is their system, they are fairly comfortable at making it even more bespoke.

But honestly, I am finding it hard to conjure up a compelling argument that can’t be shot down faster than Dick Cheney’s hunting buddy.

My conclusion:

Unless they let you own the source code, the agency has a seriously credible portfolio, their financials are as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, I would stick with the the well established platforms.

The choice between open-source or licensed CMS platforms is a difficult one and really depends on your business requirements. Usually a license fee implies you will get solid ongoing support and updates, as well as a more seamless and complete platform. However, consider carefully if you need these added benefits and, if money is tight, whether the license fee is better spent on improving the content and functionality of your site.

I have chosen two .NET platforms because that has been the framework I have worked with in the past. I would love to hear (and get push-back) from the PHP evangelists out there.

I hope this has helped to demystify things a little bit and steer you in the right direction. However, remember to research the options carefully, ask for demo’s and be clear about your requirements before you make a choice so you avoid excessive costs or end up getting a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

An Intranet is not just for Christmas!

I admit that the title is a little obvious given the time of the year but that makes it all the more appropriate for the purpose of this article.

For those who are not sure what an Intranet is, I am afraid the Wikipedia definition is not particularly helpful and will probably only add to any existing confusion. Essentially an Intranet is an internal platform that allows people within an organisation to share documents and content.

Most of the businesses I work with already have an Intranet, or even several Intranets. They have had them for several years. However, all too often, their purpose has long been forgotten. It is there and people use it but mainly to order sandwiches or as a very expensive common address book, and the organisation might use it to force-feed corporate news that nobody reads. A little harsh…yes, but true!

Most of these Intranets were set up with the best intentions, but after they were deployed, or sticking with the Christmas analogy ‘unwrapped’, there was initial excitement but after a few months they were left to fend for themselves. Not unlike most Christmas presents.

So what makes a good Intranet…one that is not left abandoned?

  1. Good looks – yes, sadly in the Intranet world, good looks are key. Users are now so used to seeing attractive web content and web sites, that an Intranet simply has to follow suit if it to stand a chance. This doesn’t mean bells and whistles but it needs to looks alive and engaging.
  2. Address business issues – the Intranet is one of the most effective mechanism to address change, cultural divides, HR challenges, collaboration. Make sure you have clearly defined business objectives and that the Intranet is addressing them. Don’t try to hide from the negative issues and challenges either. Your staff know they exist…so use the Intranet to deal with them.
  3. Content, content, content – it is all about the content. Make sure that you know what the users are looking for and surface it in the right place. Create content owners and content focus groups. Train people on how to create interesting content. Provide guidance through ‘how to guides’.
  4. Accessibility & mobility – according to the Office for National Statistics mobile internet usage is now nearing 50%. Consider your users. How are they accessing information? Would they (and therefore the business) benefit from a mobile (or even multi-device) friendly version. These can be easily implemented using platforms like SharePoint or Sitecore at a negligible cost, but with considerable benefits.
  5. Communicate & market – promote your Intranet, launch it with a bang and keep promoting it.’Build it and they will come’ might have worked in Field of Dreams, but it doesn’t work for Intranet. An Intranet needs to be supported by communication and marketing campaigns. A nice example I saw last week was a client of mine offering an iPod to the person who invited the most colleagues to set up their MySite.
  6. Dedicated core team(s) and buy-in from the boss – create core teams that are responsible for the Intranet and its content. Get senior management to set the example. One of my clients runs a great blog on their SP2010 Intranet. Hugely popular and throws down the gauntlet to the rest of the organisation.
  7. Governance – I know…it sound bureaucratic and maybe even a little dull…but it is essential. Strong governance is a critical component of a well managed and effective intranet. A governance model will provide clarity, give purpose to the content and avoid duplicating effort and costs. Consider not just an operational but also a content governance model.
  8. Measure success – statistics and analytics are used for public facing web sites, but rarely on the radar for Intranets. Metrics are hugely important to know what people are visiting, how they are getting there and where they are exiting (read losing interest). I would strongly suggest monthly evaluations!

Finally…An Intranet is not just for Christmas!…Build on it, let it evolve, refresh it, reassess its functionality, measure its effectiveness and keep your fingers on the pulse of technology. Tomorrow social media will be today’s fax machine. Digital moves fast and your Intranet should be at the cusp of technology because most of your users are.

Merry Christmas and festive seasons greetings to all!