We all know the difference between a professionally developed site, and one that looks like your nephew built it.
That is, we all know it when we see it. But rarely do most people have much insight into what causes us to perceive one website as highly professional and another as amateurish.
There is quite a bit that we, as humans, infer from non-verbal messages. For example, imagine when a large, unkempt, muscular stranger says something that would appear friendly, except for a menacing expression and threatening tone of voice. Which message counts more, the verbal one or the non-verbal one?
Appearance does count, often more than the actual words we use. And we tend to draw our appearance and contextual cues from many small inputs. For example, the perception of a menacing expression above may simply be the result of small muscle contractions around the mouth and eyes, which our brains happen to associate with the idea of ‘threatening’.
In a similar vein, there are non-verbal cues that we tend to associate with ‘professional appearance’. Some of these are the result of prior experience (it’s done that way on IBM’s website), and some may be the result of our natural, built in mechanisms. For example, humans are very sensitive to symmetry, and testing has shown that we are more likely to consider someone attractive if his or her features are symmetrical. In the world of publishing, one of our built in biases relates to consistency.
For this reason, marketing departments in many large corporations publish large books that specify design and color standards for their logos, ads and publications, because a lack of consistency can severely undermine their brand. On a website, consistency is even more critical, since an inconsistent page may be just a click away.
The problem is that maintaining standards is a daunting task. Certainly, many mid-sized companies aren’t prepared to undertake this effort, and even some large ones neglect it. On the other hand, companies like Apple and IBM always maintain their standards.
If you have an actively maintained website that is updated continually by multiple users, the chance of obtaining a high level of consistency is really difficult, unless it is enforced through the content management or content publishing software used for updates. That’s why, since we introduced our first Content Management system in the late 1990’s, we worked hard to limit the user’s choices, rather than expand them. Of course, we allowed overrides where necessary, but we actively discouraged most of our clients from using them, since it would mostly result in inconsistent typography and an amateurish presentation.
We have just recently started embracing open source content publishing platforms such as WordPress and Drupal, because we feel that they have matured sufficiently to provide us with a level of comfort. One of the unfortunate (in our opinion) features of these platforms is the availability of a text editor that is configured, as a default, to allow the user far too many choices.
On most of the sites we develop on these platforms, we borrow a chapter from Content ManagerTM, our own CMS, and provide buttons such as HL (headline) and SH (subhead), rather than an orgy of choose your own font specifications. This way, without thinking, you automatically have the correct format specifications for each usage, as determined by the site’s designer, rather than whatever the user happens to pick that day. If you really need more flexibility we’ll provide it, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.