Who would have thought that if you want to learn some useful tips about website (re)design you have to search no further than the new European Parliament website? And who would have thought that, in the age where, thankfully, the various EU websites are becoming more user friendly, there is one website that, well, has a slightly “out of the box” design? But the EU (and its web universe) is full of surprises, so here we are, being offered a brand new European Parliament website. And since it seems to be quite different (in look and logic) than the new websites of the other EU institutions (European Commission, Council of the EU and European Council), maybe we can learn a few lessons in website design:
1. Place a large banner on the homepage; the bigger the better. You have to make sure that people who have netbooks *only* see the banner when they land there and those with a normal/big laptop screen have at least half of the screen covered by your banner. They are on your website –> they are interested –> they are eager to scroll down to actually see content. Bullet-proof logic, can’t fault it really.
2. You have a website with a lot of information. You also have a mandate to ensure “transparency”. Now, what is your main concern when designing the website? Form or function? For those of you who answer function, I suggest you think again. Or try to learn something from this guide. Form is, of course, the key. The page has to look cool. Full stop. So try to make it as similar to the magazines and social network pages people are used to. If that means making some compromises on its actual use, be bald and go for it.
3. You’ve decided to go for the *cool look*. Good. This makes things easier. You don’t actually need to care about navigation. Why try to design menus that actually help people go through your page? Menus are there to look cool, who said they actually need to also have a function? Gather some random words (thinking of categories is really a waste of precious effort and time), add sleek icons to them and there you go: you have your main menu. Does it capture the essence of your activity? This should really be the least of your concerns. It is the main (and sometimes the only) thing people see when coming to your page and you made it look cool. Ah, and if you feel it’s not sleek enough, add a slow-moving (but cool looking) arrow that is, by chance, the only means of navigation through the menu. Now you’re all set.
4. You have one main menu, on top. Really, no matter how cool that looks, you simply cannot rely on only one menu. This would be really careless of you. The more menus, the better. It shows the complexity of your activities. You think that’s difficult to achieve? Think twice. Who said the menus should look the same or be linked in any way? In fact, it’s just the opposite: the more diverse, the better. It won’t confuse people, it will simply make them stay longer on your site, searching for the information they need. After all, isn’t that what you actually want?
5. When designing your various menus, be creative and come up with new ideas. Drop-down menus are out of fashion. So is the left side menu. Place all your menus and sub-menus on top. The viewers will be confronted with a sea of words and ever-foldable menus that will push the actual information even lower on the page. Same as in lesson 1: if they are really interested, they’ll find their way. And don’t give them any help, by streamlining the categories or putting them in an order that makes sense. This would make it far too easy and not challenging.
6. Since we’ve established already in lesson 2 that navigation and usability are rather low on your agenda, you only have to make sure of one basic thing: the viewers should *never* be able to come back to the exact point of their search where they were before. This is, after all, a journey of discovery and you wouldn’t want to spoil the fun, would you?
7. Let’s go now a step further, to the actual content. I know, this is drifting a bit away from the coolness factor, but believe me, there are a few things you can do with the content to keep the viewers’ excitement alive. Firstly, you can put the same information in various places, therefore allowing for various paths of discovery (don’t worry, you don’t have to think of any logic behind it). Alternatively, you can split the information on one topic in different parts of the website (obviously each one with a different look). It would be too boring if everything was grouped and the readers could actually find what they need immediately. A good example here is the information on EP committees. You can find the list of committees here, under the item “Policies” on the main menu; general information about committees can be found here, under “Organisation”, some 3 clicks later, through the labyrinth of menus; and the latest news about Committee activities are here, on the top right menu of the main page, under “Committees”. There you go. This type of structure (!) opens many opportunities: you can, for instance, create quizzes asking people to find all the information on a certain topic. And no worries, this is just for fun. No one will actually find every single item, you can always hide something so well that it might even take you a couple of hours to locate it. The fun of searching! Ah, I almost forgot, it might seem like a detail but it’s quite important: if you link on your page to a very specific item (like a treaty article, for example), do not create a new page dealing specifically with that, but have the readers download hundreds of pages of PDF documents. It will certainly enrich their knowledge of the topic and give them the context to understand the specific item. Remember, it’s all about the readers and offering them the best online learning experience.
8. What is a website nowadays without a matching social media presence? In fact, sometimes, social media presence is even more important. Therefore, why not pay more attention to the Facebook page than to website itself? After all, that’s where your fans are. Compared to that, coolness-wise, your website will anyway be just a boring repository where die heart geeks go to find more information. Or try. Oops…that’s a small lapse of logic there, but never mind….
9.Designing a new website, or redesigning the old one, can be a daunting task. That’s why the best thing is to try to involve all departments; share the fun, give them ownership of their section. Why not even create a competition and thus encourage them to keep their work secret from the others. Coherence is overrated. Who (apart from few geeks) will have an overview of the entire website anyway? If in the end some pieces really don’t fit together, blame complexity. It always works.
10. Your page is almost ready. You’ve worked so hard on it and are eager to show it to the world. Just go ahead! Really, don’t bother with testing its usability (or if you’ve done that already, don’t bother with incorporating the changes suggested). This will only delay your launch and you really don’t want that. And if, on the very first day, your page crashes and it’s not accessible for most of the day, well, bad luck for whoever needed it then, for you it’s simply a sign of popularity. Be happy that so many people (much more than you could ever anticipate!) are checking the new look.