Now that you picked your domain and know where you are hosting the site, you are ready for the 3rd lesson in "Farming the Web." This week you will learn the basics of how your website should look.
I believe that small farm websites should be designed with simplicity and clarity that allows the distinctness of the farm to shine through the design. Most of the design story should be told with high-quality farm photographs of which each farm should have many because all farms have a aesthetic beauty that is unique to each farm. (In short: get a digital camera today and start taking photos if you aren't already.)
Be Simple, but be Clear
I talked to one farmer a few months ago who has an old, worn out website which he freely admits is past its time. He believes that this website helps him keep a low profile and seem more down-to-earth - he doesn't want too look too polished. I understand his position, but he has a special luxury since he has enough customers for his whole crop and doesn't worry about bringing new people in to the farm. The paradox of this situation is that he is very consistent about adding new content to the website from recipes to newsletters to photos. He spends at least a morning a week producing content for his newsletter and website. This is great, but due to the layout and navigation of the website it is almost impossible to find the photos or recipes unless you are receiving his newsletter. Farm websites should be clear, easy to navigate through, and have lots of content to connect the online visitor to the farm.
The Golden Earthworm farm website succeeds with elegant and simple web design.
The best way to describe good web design is to show good web design. Golden Earthworm Farm in Jamesport, NY illustrates the idea of clean navigation and a good use of photography. One idea in web usability in continuity; how does the user know he or she is on the same site when a new page is loaded? The Golden Earthworm site is so defined by the photos in the header that when they change on each page, I have a momentary confusion if I am on a new site. The header text does stay the same on each page, but the photos are so dominant that you only see the text if you are looking for it. Define a "template" for your site and stick to it. Otherwise, Golden Earthworm does a wonderful job of providing clean navigation and content.
Activate your Design
I don't want to be rude to anyone about their design, but the best way to demonstrate bad web design is to show bad web sites. There are a lot of pitfalls along the way -- I think I have hinted at some of them already. One mistake that almost every farm website makes is that the front page is not "now-oriented." This being 2007, not 1998, the bulk of you front page should not be an introduction to who you are, where you farm is, etc. The front page of your website should show change; either what you have just added to the site lately, your farm blog, or up-coming events. This is very important: let the visitor determine his or her own way through your content -- your job as a designer is not to force what you feel is important on your visitors. You should simply make it possible for the visitor to learn exactly as much about your farm as they need to.
Coyote Hill Farm web design needs to activate the front page of their website to entice visitors.
This is a difficult concept to convey, but take a look at this site (http://www.smallfarmcentral.com). I use a blog-style opening to my site -- so on any given day the first content that each user sees is different and often completely unrelated to the core business of website software for small farms (which you can freely demo). I allow the user to come to Small Farm Central for the information that they need and I try to tease people to connect further with the core business. For example on the front page, a visitor will most likely read the title of the blog entry first after reading the title of the site "Small Farm Central". If the article piques their interest, they may read it or start to look around to see who is providing this content. In the header on the front page I have a short 3-line introduction:
"Because you are a farmer and a business person -
Because you need to connect with your customers -
We do the technology so you don't have to."
and a short heading in the left column that is titled: "Small Farm Central is..." and links to more information about the core business. I trust myself to interest the visitor with the blog and allow the user to find their way through the site and give ample opportunity for further connection. If a visitor comes to site and reads the first paragraph of the blog and clicks the back button to go to where he or she came from, I am ok with that because I connected with that person for at least 30 seconds on a deeper level than "I am a web provider to small farms" which means nothing to most people. I hope they will remember the name and come back the next time they see a link somewhere.
This is a very important aspect of modern web and navigation design, in my opinion, and it takes a paradigm shift and trust. Just remember as you are going along in your web design process: the users of your website are smart - they will learn about you as long as you make it easy to get that information. Your first job as a web designer is to get the interest of the visitors - you have about 15 seconds to do this before they click the back button. There is much more to learn about web design and specifically farm web design so I will continue to cover these topics in the next few weeks.
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Next Week: Design (Advanced): what does my customer want?