Andrew Areoff says the design of a website is vital to the image of your business

If you build it, they will come. As well as being the only memorable line in a poor Kevin Costner film, this also appears to be the mantra that many in the financial services sector adhere to when developing a web presence.

Having operated in this sector as a web designer for some years, I am constantly amazed by the web offerings of companies, both big and small. Either there is not enough information – or there is too much. If it is not bland – then it is a riot of colour with more bells and whistles than a convention of morris dancers.

When you offer a product or service over the internet, you need a professional website that caters to the needs of your target audience. For example, the tone and functionality will change whether you are a product provider talking to an intermediary or a retailer going straight to the customer.

Similarly, a broker will need to set out in a clear, succinct and distinct fashion how it can help its customers. But it is mind numbing the numbers of sites that I come across where the most basic and crucial items like contact details, and telephone numbers in particular, are not easy to find or even absent altogether.

There is no excuse for this and every site should include a quick and easy to find phone number that should appear at the top of the website homepage.

Common sense

Where a large number of insurance products are being advertised they should be clearly laid out with easy to use navigation. It is common sense, but you will be amazed at the number of times both web designer and the customer they are designing for get carried away and try to ‘jazz’ up their offering.

The designer often ends up designing the pages for himself, and his peers, and the customer gets swept along with his expertise and enthusiasm. It always ends up with a messy page.

Building a website is just a matter of figuring out who your target audience is so you can design a website experience that best meets or beats their expectations.

While you want your website to fit your target audience, you also want your website to stand out from the competition. Websites are either under-designed or over-designed.

The former gives the visitor and potential customer a potentially bad impression of the insurance company/intermediary in an industry where a high level of credibility, trust and reassurance is required. The latter means the site can be harder to use due to the overuse of pale colours, tiny text, intricate arrows and buttons.

Major insurer websites such as Norwich Union combine a mix of design, usability, approachability and clarity of products and information.

There are some golden rules to be followed when designing a website. Rule number one is that the user should only ever be one click away from the home page, contact page, ‘about us’ page and FSA regulatory pages (this is called one click technology). It makes the website easy to navigate.

“You will be amazed at the number of times both web designer and the customer they are designing for get carried away and try to "jazz" up their offering

The home page is crucial. It is the ‘call to action’ and sets the tone for the kind of company that you are seeking to portray. The front page should contain call to action buttons/links like “get an instant quote”, “apply online here”, “find out more information”, “contact us for more information” and so on.

The user has to be invited and encouraged to do something like qet a quote or contact the company and this should be clearly conveyed. Furthermore, the site visitor should be encouraged to delve further into the product via the links or buttons.

Elsewhere, the website should contain up-to-date information. Latest news, press coverage and similar pages should only be used if the information is kept up to date and not if the last press release or newspaper coverage was in 2004.

Outdated information

How many times have you come across such shoddiness on websites? If perception is everything, then I hate to think what impression those firms that permit such outdated information on their site are giving.

It is particularly repugnant in an industry that is constantly changing with new products, regulations, rates and offers an everyday occurrence.

Accessibility is another key point that should be borne in mind when building a site. It is important that the site should be designed in a way that conforms to the Disability Discrimination Act.

In other words, the user should be able to increase the size of the text in the browser, images contain alt tags, printable pages etc. This should be able to be completed without difficulty. Introducing this functionality also aids usability of the site and is likely to result in more visitors to the site being able to access your products and services.

You don’t want your firm attracting bad publicity simply because your site was designed without the disabled being considered.

Finally, it you want to include a money gathering functionality on the site – don’t try to do it yourself, call in an expert. Accepting credit card transactions directly through your website is common.

A professional designer can build in features that will let you set up an online “shopping cart” and walk you through establishing an online merchant account with a credit card company.

Get the basics right by having a professional web presence and the benefits in terms of reaching out to new customers and servicing and retaining existing ones will be easily evident. IT

‘ Andrew Areoff is managing director of Areoff Design