Beauty and Brains

Agency website design "versus" functionality?

The web is a furiously fast paced environment.  Recently we noticed a few agencies building new estate agent websites when their last offering was less than a year old, so we set about analysing the last 20 agent websites we built to see if this was a trend.  The average lifespan of the site those agents were upgrading away from was just over two years.  More alarming still, they were nearly all shorter lifespan than the sites that came before them, so things are accelerating too!

Keeping abreast of what is needed can be daunting when things move this quickly, especially when it’s not your day job.  Whilst 2–3 years might be a short cycle for upgrading sites, it’s not frequent enough for the average person to get familiar with the process.  Much like doing building work on a house, it’s hard to become comfortable with what to really look for when you only do it once every few years.

So, in this article we’re going to investigate the changing landscape and try to give a balanced framework within which you can analyse the changing nature of your estate agent website requirements.

We’re going to highlight some trends into two broad categories: DESIGN and FUNCTIONALITY.

The Good Looking Geek?

One of the issues we experience is that the design side of the equation is much easier for most people to get their head around.  It’s easier to visualise, and typically we find the buying requirements are driven by wanting a fresh “look”, rather than being driven by understanding the changing functional landscape.

Yet both design and functionality are absolutely essential.  Only by getting both to work in harmony, can you get a truly excellent end result for your business…

Your site needs to impress vendors, and a big part of that is the design impact.  But these days brand experience is as much about usability and the overall experience, as it is about pure visual design, and this often gets missed.  Ignore the interplay between graphic design and solid usability at your peril.  Indeed some of the extreme design trends that we see swing too far, too quickly, to the detriment of good solid usability.  Yet great design makes you stand out, and speaks to your vendors in a way that is simply magic.

Given the focus on design, the importance of the underlying engine is often overlooked.  Customers will typically have a couple of features they have seen which they really want, but rare is the customer who comes with a detailed picture of functional requirements, and rarer still is one who comes with a detailed understanding of the importance of a better hosting set up, or framework for SEO.  This is hardly surprising, as lots of this stuff is invisible and technical by nature.  It’s the domain of geeks.  We live in a sales driven world, and sales folk and geeks aren’t common bedfellows.

Worse still, it’s really hard to be good at both sides of the equation.  The best design tends to happen in creative studios.  As soon as you get a couple of excellent front end developer / designers together, they get clients approaching them directly.  The fixed costs of setting up a new design agency are low, so they break out on their own, in order to work on better designs, for more interesting clients.

brainYet the engineering scale and resource to build a proper, highly functional estate agency platform is not trivial.  Of course it’s easy to build a search function that returns a few properties in a price range, and has property detail pages, and what not.  But that’s simply not adequate if you want an effective marketing tool for your business.  To build one with polygon based search, that runs blazingly fast, that has real time feed engines, and super-smooth processes that channel users into saving properties, and ultimately registering with you, then extracting and parsing out the valuation leads as efficiently from that applicant flow, is hard.  Properly, hard.  And it matters.  If nothing else it matters to your search engine optimisation (SEO).  And your SEO matters deeply to the number of valuation enquiries you get on the phone.  The best back end engineering can only happen in big engineering outfits.  And those outfits are the domain of nerds.

So maybe you have to choose…  You can opt for a smaller, highly creative, web designer, that will make you look striking, and can build you a basic property search to go with it.  Or you can opt for a geek led platform, that does the pipes and plumbing really well, but they can’t do the interior design for toffee.

Let’s look at what’s happening in both their worlds right now…

Great Design

Flat design:  Sites are losing all their bevelled edged, rounded corners, and graphically rich buttons.  Fades are going and the styles look starker, and more minimalist.  But you need to be careful.  Make your buttons flat squares, and unless you are very careful with your colour palette, you risk all the active elements blending into the site framework.  However, when done well, they pop.  There’s a reason that Google, the BBC, and so forth, have all gone flat in the past couple of years.

White space:  Design has become more luxurious.  Gone are the days that we felt the need to stuff everything above the fold.  The scroll wheel, of flick of the hand on an iPad, is your friend.  We’ve become clearer in our “information architecture”, and we’ve given our main messages (which are often more vendor focused) more space to breath.  The calm focus that results is welcome.

Bigger panel photos:  Big, open, flat design has come hand in hand with big photography.  Wide, “storyboard” layout sites have become the norm.  Though a recent user-testing exercise we ran with real users highlighted a very real issue to beware of; taken too far, these mega photos become a blocker to “scrolling over”.  It’s easy to get carried away, and when you do, usability tanks at the hands of design impact.  And as we trend towards bigger photography, you need to consider whether you actually have the photography style to pull it off.  If you’re going to head in this direction, you would do well to include a bespoke photography brief and budget, otherwise it can backfire and look cheap.  So, if you want to go for it, then go for it properly.

Parallax, and sticky top menus:  Design got funky lately too.  Monolithic pages are gone.  Now we have “sticky top menus”, and some “sticky bottoms” too!  We’ve also got “parallax”, an effect where different panels of the website scroll at different speeds, creating a striking impact.  Design is blending into the user interaction model.

Responsive design:  This almost goes without saying these days.  Over 80% of theresponsive sites that agents are buying today are responsive.  However there’s a whole world of quality difference out there.  The word response can mean a host of different things.  Some sites just flick through one “break point” to cater for mobile, where others reshape through 5 or more subtle design rejigs as you move from desktop, through tablet, phablet, and down onto smaller mobile screens.  There’s also an opportunity for really wide screen monitor layouts too, which very few people address.

Move investment:  All of this comes with a price tag (not something we charge for, so we have no bias here, read on).  However, we’re delighted to see that agents are starting to value higher quality design properly.  Good quality creative, especially when blended with proper usability testing, isn’t cheap.  It’s a skill.  But as the world moves online, agents are realising that investing appropriately in the web, like the bigger brothers of newsprint and physical branch outfitting, yields better returns.

Great Functionality

Speed:  Sites need to run properly fast.  And this isn’t trivial to do well.  There are free tools to assess this online, and it’s important you investigate the difference properly.  We all know how short people’s attention span is supposed to be online, but you’d might be staggered just what a difference that speed makes in terms of user journeys on your site.  Page impressions per visit go through the roof, if they get fast response.  And this has a big impact on Google… which has a big impact on the number of phone calls you get for valuations.  So you really do need to care.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO):  Everyone will tell you they’re good at SEO.  So you also need to get properly educated on the essentials that you need to demand.  Beyond speed, you need clean URLs, and proper tagging and titling on your town pages.  Then if you have the marketing resource to worry about content, then you should really be thinking about how you approach location area guides within the structure of your site.

Profile systems:  People expect user account systems to be seamless these days.  They need to be elegant in allowing people to save properties and search profiles, without demanding contact details at the outset.  Then, once they’ve drawn people in, they need to super smooth in terms of extracting that information whenever they can.  All contact forms, on branches, staff, valuation forms and properties alike, need to channel people into the same fly trap.  Then matching email alerts need to haul them back to your own site, before they head off to their portal of choice.

Software integration:  Get ready for the next generation of software integration; where your applicants can’t so much as breath on the front end of your website, without your back office system knowing about it, and where house hunters can’t step into your branch without a super-professional email follow up inviting them into their fully synchronised web account.

Implied search:  Your website needs to act like your very best negotiator.  Forming an immediate impression of what the site visitor is searching for, and holding it in mind (and between user sessions).  When they sign up, it needs to pass this search history and information on to you.  And when they move around the site, it needs to use that intelligence to offer prospective vendors, appropriate properties, so you look like “their kind of agent”.

What?  You want it all?

Wait.  Here’s the great news.  You no longer have to choose.

There are a new breed of “platforms” arriving.  In the world of regular publishing, “content management systems”, like Drupal and WordPress have become entirely mature.  You wouldn’t dream of writing your own publishing engine, it would be a crazy inefficient waste of cash.  And now, as the web matures, the specialist platforms are coming to the estate agency market too…

These days, you can choose your own website front end designer.  Get someone local, who can serve you really well, who understands you, your brand, and can produce you great, cut through design.   And you can pair them up with the emerging back end website platforms so they can climb much higher than they could if they had to re-invent the wheel.  Those platforms are starting to offer development foundations which give the finest of design firms the ability to stand on the shoulders of all the enterprise scale engineering that makes a really fast engine.  Think of it as Mercedes-Maclaren, or Beauty and the Beast.  The best of both worlds.