January 2003 Newsletter

Online Product Design Manuals for 2003

**** 4specs Quick Picks

Do You Want to Inform or Persuade?
Click Z

Redesign Time?
ClickZ

Jacob Nielsen - Top Ten Web-Design Mistakes of 2002
UseIt.com

**** The 4specs Perspective

This newsletter started with a question about what I would do if I were hired to redesign a construction-product website. As 4specs keeps me very busy, I do not do outside websites, but thought my perspective would be valuable to the construction community.

I think that Online Product Design Manual is a better description than website when your objectives are to have designers and specifiers include your design information in their plans and specs. This shift in emphasis also helps the marketing department make their argument that they should be controlling the Online Product Design Manual and not the IT department or consultants.

I review over 1,000 websites per month as part of maintaining 4specs. My observation is that websites are getting worse from the perspective of useful information for the specifier. Specifiers routinely complain about the difficulty in finding design information, or even a technical support phone number, on the website.

Many websites are heading towards Flash (a technology developed by Macromedia), becoming database driven, and include the latest technology. Jacob Nielsen has been quoted about splash pages "says to me that this is a site that cares more about image than usability." Here is the full article:
(Link no longer works)

I recently looked at the Mero website. As far as I can determine, there is no design information on the website. They spent a lot of time and money on the flash and have not yet developed the meat. Consider this - if your user cannot complete their design task 90% of the time from your online design information, then the website is a failure. Mero exhibited at the AIA2002 convention, so you know they want to be included in project designs.
[Change in company name and website, new one is just a bad]

After a discussion with a CSI board member about the CSI website in October 2002, I spent one hour and did a quick redesign of the CSI home page. While rough, this redesign demonstrates many of the principles of Web site design that will be reviewed in the 2003 Getting Speced Newsletters. My purpose was to improve readability, speed up the website, reduce the server load and increase reliability.

[CSI has completed a major redesign of their website and I am removing this link.]

Too many IT departments and web designers do not understand the purpose of the Online Product Design Manual. Here are my proposed purposes of the 2003 redesign of your Online Product Design Manual:

  1. Sell products through specifications and substitutions
  2. Receive the maximum number of free users from Google and other search engines
  3. Simplify the maintenance and further development of the OPMD (preferably by the marketing department and not outside consultants)

A company selling consumer products has a different problem in the consumer areas and a public company needs to provide the financial information. My comments are focused on the Online Product Design Manual and not the general website.

Many web designers make assumptions that I believe are incorrect. Here are the major problem assumptions:

  1. The architect is very visual, and therefore the website must be very visually appealing, regardless of the increase in download time.
  2. Architects have high-speed internet connections.
  3. Their computers have javascript and the latest flash plugins to fully utilize the latest website toys.

Here is my perspective on these points:

  1. While architects are very visual, time and usability are more important in their work. They simply do not have time to waste looking through your Online Product Design Manual at pretty pictures.
  2. I spoke in December with 2 independent specifiers. Recall that the 125 members of SCIP wrote 7,000-9,000 project specifications worth $70-90 BILLION. Both were frustrated with many websites as they both use dial-up connections. Further, even with my high-speed dedicated connection, many websites are still very slow. Consider the CSI example above.
  3. In larger architectural offices, the users do not always have administrative privileges on their computer to add programs or even run javascript. While the number of users not permitting javascript may be small, I talked with one specifier in a top 25 company that could not access many websites due to flash and JavaScript not being enabled on her computer for security reasons.

This newsletter is an overview. I plan another newsletter later this year with specific suggestions. It will probably be very boring, unless you are planning a major redesign of your Online Product Design Manual. I have the article roughed out; let me know if you want a copy before it is completed.

The first steps I would take if hired to redo a Online Product Design Manual are:

  1. Eliminate any splash pages, and make the home page a meaningful page. This includes access to product information, specifications, CAD details and your phone number from the home page.
  2. Eliminate frames, as they do not work well with search engines.
  3. Set up meaningful website statistics so you can track what is happening on your website.
  4. Simplify the key pages, as I did with the CSI page. Eliminate all javascript, images that are really text, and fancy stuff. You will know what that is when you compare the two CSI home pages.

Much of the organization of the Online Product Design Manual is defined in the WebFormat™ document published by the Construction Sciences Research Foundation. This was written two years ago and is still on target. You can access the document and sample pages.

Your comments are always appreciated.

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Colin Gilboy
Publisher - 4specs
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