At Studio Mashbo we like to throw around the phrase "best practice" a lot. It's what we aim for; we code and design with it in mind and it guides us through our project processes.
But What Is It?
We don't have to pass a test to work with the web. There are no mandatory certificates to collect before using the title "web designer", "web developer" or even to run a digital agency.
Yes there are higher-education courses that look to prepare students for a digital career. But many have cultivated careers working with the web with little or no qualifications.
This Is a Double-Edged Sword
On the positive side, the web is a meritocratic playground. Have a good idea? A flair for a certain technique? Or simply boundless energy? Then you may well find success, users or a positive reputation.
On the negative side, this opens the gates to pretenders, cowboys or even those with malicious intent. How are you – as someone in need of digital services – to quickly determine whether an agency is of good quality and capable of producing sound products?
Whilst – unlike more-traditional industries, such as retail or professional services – there are no institutions, sitting atop the creative and web industries providing governance, there are standards with which we can comply. These have naturally developed to encourage intelligent use of web technologies.
Best practice web planning, web design and development considers these standards. Here's what to look for:
Best Practice Development
A good-looking website demands attention. A good-looking, but unusable, website gives a visitor ample excuse to leave.
It's important for all websites and web applications to sit on a strong coding foundation. Like a house, you might enjoy the latest wallpaper. But if it's not pasted onto carefully planned walls, using solid materials, then somone's taken a shortcut.
HTML5, the latest HTML standard, has clearly defined conventions. Semantic HTML code is encouraged to identify the different sections of a page: titles, images, forms, buttons, headers, footers, etc. This should be written purely to be functional and useful, separate from any styling or complex layout considerations.
Thoughtless, untidy or incorrect HTML code won't necessarily break a site, or lead to any visual problems, but it will mean compromising the experience for future devices and for those using your site with assistive technology.
Best Practice Accessibility
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the nearest we've got to a governing body. W3C comprises of an international community of member organisations, members of staff and members of the public.
Their WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) initiative looks to set a "single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of indivisuals, organisations and governments internationally" – including those with disabilities.
By aiming for one of three increasingly strict WCAG standards – A, AA or AAA – web developers, or those responsible for web output can ensure a good level of accessibility to users on a massive range of devices and those using assistive technology.
Best Practice Web Design
Relatively new and popularised after we started browsing the web on our smartphones, "Responsive Web Design" looks to allow for our websites and web applications to adapt to different screen sizes, resolutions and device types.
Anyone ignoring Responsive Web Design is in danger of undermining the experience of browsing a site, or using a web application, on a modern handheld device. Devices which are increasingly used for internet access.
Even newer is the "Mobile-First" approach. Instead of designing and building a 'normal' website and allowing it to squash down for smaller screens as an afterthought, Mobile-First suggests we flip this. Instead we should start from smaller screens and then make adjustments for the site to adapt as the screen gets larger.
The restrictive nature of the smaller screen forces us to seriously consider our hierarchy of information. It also encourages a more ruthless approach to content – if you manage to succinctly sum-up up your product or organisation to save space on a mobile device, why continue waffling just because there's extra space on a larger screen?
Search engines will generally look for three things in a website to justify prioritising it over other websites in its search results pages:
- Technical setup
As Google – and its algorithm – gets smarter it bases these more and more on:
- Well-written, regularly updated and useful web content
- A clear and intuitive user experience – on a wide range of internet-enabled devices
Essentially well made websites.
You Can't Beat the System
No longer will search engines tolerate manipulation or trickery. Yet without intelligent content or a good quality user experience, many still want to take shortcuts in order to see themselves high on the first page of search engine results.
"Keyword stuffing" is a classic technique that involves unnaturally mentioning too many keywords relating to your business and your industry. Google will now notice if keywords are overused and might penalise for it.
Content Strategy and User Experience (UX)
Attracting more visitors to a site is great – but once they've landed will they then find what they want? Will your site encourage them to get in touch? Will they leave thinking your organisation is an industry pioneer? Will they take the time to visit each and every section of your website?
These are the important questions.
As part of a content strategy exercise, concentrate on building a foundation based on:
- Clarity of communication
- An engaging tone of voice – fitting with your branding approach
- Compelling call-to-action messages
- Your microcopy (the wording of buttons, instructions and other small passages of text)
- Think about your visitors, humans visiting your site – not search engines.
As part of a User Experience exercise we consider:
- The optimum hierarchy of your information and content – which will be most useful to appear first, what can be deprioritised, etc.
- Whether your content, pages and information can be found effortlessly
- The ease of using your website and navigating between sections
- How clearly information, tasks and functionality are displayed
Design for visitors – not for your boss!