design for your customers, not your competition
When we site down with a client for the first time, I always brace myself for the revelation that the website design they are dreaming of is based upon a montage of competitor's sites. On the surface this appears to be an acceptable, even reasonable assumption to make. After all, they are trying to convey a similar image, product and professional image as you, so it makes sense to base your competitive design upon what they are doing...
... or does it?
In my experience, this approach has become entrenched in the self-perpetuating cycle of trying to out-feature or out-design the competition, without considering whether or not customers like those sites too. Worse is when a local industry has a 'celebrity' website or two that everybody tries to emulate. The objectivity of separating appearance from substance is easy to miss because everybody involved knows the subject matter so well. What tends to get missed is the detail of how customers are (or more importantly, aren't) using those sites.
To avoid this trap, or at least temper it, I would suggest the simple process of involving non-industry types in evaluating the websites you like so much. Start with family members (if only to sharpen your interviewing skills), then branch out into loyal customers and friends of the business. Suppliers are also good sources of objectivity, since they know the business but operate at a different level (this is especially helpful if they actually have to interact with your competitor's websites).
To build up a reasonable impression of how these people see the websites, follow these simple rules:
- Keep the questions simple, like "what's your first impression of this site?" and "is there any one thing especially interesting or useful about it?" Avoid specifics.
- Ask only a few questions, and keep them consistent across the people you talk to.
- Don't bother with open questions like "should we be doing what they do?" because the answer will invariably be "yes". Instead direct questions at their experience, like "did you find that feature useful?" or "did their website give you any kind of impression of what their business might be like?"
- If you can, get them to try and do something practical on the website, like find the phone number or store location.
Once this is done, sketch out what you think encompasses the most effective bits, cut the list in half (which will make the other half that much more effective), and compare that to what you had originally envisioned. You'll probably be surprised how distant the two designs are.
This is a pretty light exercise in research, but even this small bit of legwork could save you from designing a site that your competition is envious of, but your clients don't understand or appreciate.