Walking the line between usability and aesthetics

I’ve always had a rather broad practical streak. Which is probably why usability studies interest me. Well, while working on our website, we engaged the services of a graphic designer. With my background focused on usability and her background focused on aesthetics we had varying opinions on what to prioritize.

Don’t distract your audience

Originally, I put up a picture of Hallett Peak from the Rocky Mountain National Park as the background. I love this mountain – it was the inspiration for our business name. With a 1,000 foot sheer drop into a lake, it’s absolutely amazing!

To say our designer was less than thrilled would be an understatement. The picture itself was great. It was so good that it distracted our audience from the purpose of the site. Not to mention the fact that no one but me knew the significance of that particular mountain.

Make it readable

Text size and readability are very important to me. Especially since we are in the business of writing. The graphic designer was concerned with the visual aesthetics of the text and wanted to decrease the font and change the color to gray. These two properties make text more visually appealing when looking at it as a whole page. I wanted to keep the text larger and black, the high contrast and larger size are easier to read on a backlit screen.

SEO

There are several design principles I incorporated into our page while writing the HTML and CSS. First and foremost, I wanted to make sure it was search engine optimized. Research shows that text is better than images because the “spiders” can read HTML text, but can’t read pictures. So I made it text based as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the almost exclusive use of text caused several formatting headaches. Most notable was the mini portfolio on our home page. The pictures/text refused to line up with the background color and displayed differently in each browser.

The designer suggested making each segment a picture as a quick fix. But then we would lose the full effect of the text, and there would be several extra steps to changing out examples as our portfolio grew. As a fellow business owner, I’m sure you know how I felt about adding extra steps to any process!

Walking the line

That’s how it works with graphic design and usability. Usable isn’t always pretty (just look at foremost usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s page). And just because it looks good doesn’t mean you can complete the most important task at hand (for example, just about any .gov page; clean cut, but finding usable information takes, um… experience).

When navigating the line between these two, you’ll have to find your own balance. The most important thing to remember is to make sure your users can complete the single most important task on your site. For Hallett Peak Copywriting, that task is requesting a quote.

My line

With the help of the graphic designer, I found where I was being stubborn (the background), where we needed to compromise (the size and color of the text), and where to draw the line (keeping the page text based). I found a background that wasn’t distracting, shrank the text some but kept it black and did more research to fix our formatting. At the end of the day, we have a site that is both fashionable and functional. A win-win for HPC, our designer and definitely our customers!

Julie is a co-founder of Hallett Peak Copywriting, a Central Illinois based freelance copywriting business. For more information on Hallett Peak Copywriting, visit hpcink.com. You can also follow Hallett Peak Copywriting on Twitter @HPC_Ink to get updates on our business and our blog.

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4 tips for choosing a freelancer

In the process of setting up our business, I’ve done a lot of research on freelancing and freelancers. It’s surprising how quickly you can weed out freelancers who don’t know what they’re doing from those that do. If you browse freelance profiles on a site like eLance.com or oDesk.com you’ll see what I mean.

1. Check Samples

Writers are easy. The proposal is their first audition piece. If a freelance writer can’t put together a stunning proposal, when their business is on the line, don’t expect too much when it’s your business on the line.

For graphic and web designers, just go to their portfolio. No portfolio? Not a good sign. They could be new to the business, but they should have something either from classes or from their own experience that they can show off. If you decide to go with someone without a portfolio, just know you’re taking a risk. It may pay off and you’ll get the perfect freelancer who you’ll use for years, or it may be a bust.

2. Look at Experience

Once you’ve narrowed it down to the professional candidates, look for someone with experience in your project’s area. That article writer with an amazing portfolio filled with magazine articles may not be the best candidate for your web content. Each kind of writing and design requires special knowledge in that area. Some skills can be transferred, but for the best results look for someone with specific knowledge of your project.

3. Consider Perspective

While looking at experience, also consider your freelancer’s perspective. If you need a fresh set of eyes to ensure a layman can understand your project, choose someone with limited experience in your field. If you need a last check to ensure you document is technically correct, choose someone with insider knowledge.

4. Match Character

Once you’ve narrowed your candidate pool to those that are qualified and will be technically helpful, choose one that will work with your business’s style. For example, if your company keeps their messages light and fun, find a writer that makes you laugh. If your signature style is conservative, don’t choose a comedy writer expecting them to be able to change the way they write.

Choose Wisely

Of course, freelancers bidding of your job should know all this too and only bid on jobs they feel are a good match, but don’t count on it. Freelancers only know as much about your company and your project as they can find in public forums and that you tell them, they can’t read your mind.

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Creating a contact list for marketing

“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” -Oprah Winfrey

In my opinion, Oprah Winfrey – a self-made billionaire, who at last count had 44 million U.S. viewers a week – is qualified to give business advice. With numbers like that, it’s safe to say she knows what it takes to start a business, build a brand and keep her customers (44 million!) coming back for more.

Last week, as I painstakingly created a  contact list for our marketing efforts, Oprah’s quote was retweeted by someone I follow on Twitter.  As I reflected upon its meaning for a moment (anything to take a break from actually working), I began to think about the list I was building and what I could do now to ensure  the list – and HPC – would be better positioned for the future.

The list began as a fairly simple assignment: create an Excel spreadsheet with one column for business name, one for address, one for phone number and one for the name of a specific contact person. Now, as I began to ponder Oprah’s words, I considered what I could do to make the list more complex – increasing its functionality as we proceed with our marketing efforts.

The Result

Although it has added more hours to an already tall task, HPC’s contact list now contains columns to:

  1. classify businesses by their propensity to use our services (based on a review of their current marketing/advertising efforts  among other items).
  2. document where we obtained the contact information.
  3. categorize businesses by industry.

Many of the tasks involved in starting a new business aren’t glamorous. By learning from those that have come before us, we can avoid costly mistakes and maximize our time and effort. Sometimes that means reading a blog post like this one, and sometimes it means taking a break to check your Twitter feed. Thanks, Oprah!

Posted in Direct Mail, Marketing | 2 Comments

My biggest business lesson

There are a lot of things to learn when starting a business. The biggest one for me was patience.

You can pour time and effort into a start-up, but really it all comes down to time. Your market needs to get used to you being there and get familiar with your product.

I had to learn this one several times before it sank in. My first experience was as a Photographer, I had to become familiar with event hosts. Most events in the area I was targeting already had a photographer, but I managed to get my foot in the door.

I managed to break even on this attempt, but didn’t give it enough time to take. Several hosts invited me back the following year, but I’d taken a full-time desk position over the winter and didn’t have the time.

My second experience with patience was writing for examiner.com as a Pet-Friendly-Places Examiner. This attempt was much more successful.

A series of 16 articles, created over three months, and marketed to local dog friendly groups through social media proved successful. I managed to reach over 150 people in a single week during the peak.

I learned that if you have something people want, and you keep showing up on their radar, you will get business eventually. Just be ready to support yourself until then.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your business?

-Julie

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Social Media Marketing

I came upon Entering Social Media the Right Way: Four Key Steps by MarketingProfs today. I found myself comparing their advice with my recent experience marketing through social media.

I started with a basic understanding of how to use Twitter and Facebook from personal use with friends. Add some research on how to reach a target audience in a non-marketing environment, and my trial and error experience supports that the MarketingProfs steps are a good starting place.

The four steps were Listen, Interact, React, and Sell.

As an independent writer, I found these steps all joined at the hip. I perused groups formed by my target audience and was then able to match articles I’d posted to interests expressed by group members. By participating in and contributing to on-going Facebook conversations, I was able to drive traffic to my articles and attract users to follow me on Twitter.

This core group would then visit new articles when I posted them on either Facebook or Twitter.

How have you used social media to market your business? What have your success rates been in these venues?

-Julie

Find out the benefits of social media in an upcoming post.

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The beginning

Starting a business is hard. There are all sorts of the regulations to research or stumble upon. You have to find all the right places to register to operate legally, which includes the one office clerk who believes any partnership is an LLP and a sole proprietorship can be owned by two to four general partners.

Then there is the start-up business failure rate. Mind you, when I looked for online supporting documentation, I originally looked for business success rate. Google pulled up articles on failure rates. Not terribly encouraging.

So, here is the journey of Hallett Peak Copywriting. Hopefully you can learn from some of our mistakes, share some of you own and we can make the journey a little smoother for each other.

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