Website Design vs. Functionality

What matters most to your estate agent website?
Great design or great functionality?

Beauty and the Beast

The web is a furiously fast paced environment.

Keeping abreast of what is needed can be daunting when things move this quickly.

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?

The design side of the equation is generally the easiest part to get your head around.

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.

Great design makes you stand out, and speaks to your vendors in a way that is simply magic.

The best design tends to happen in creative studios.  That’s why we offer beautiful, tested Homeflow Template websites, plus the option to work with one of our Design Partners on a new Bespoke design.

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 the 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.

Yet great design needs to run on the right, highly functional platform. A good design agency may be able 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 – like Homeflow.

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?

With a Homeflow Website you get great front end design – whether you choose a Homeflow Template, or  to work on a Bespoke Website with  a front end designer.

Then pair this front end design with the Homeflow website platform – why reinvent the wheel?

Think of it as Mercedes-Maclaren, or Beauty and the Beast.  The best of both worlds.

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