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Small Luthiers, an open letter to you all.


zeronyne

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Hello gents (if there are ANY female bass luthiers on the 'net, my most sincere apologies and greetings),

 

I am currently on a vacation from my non-freelance job...day job, if you will...but I was called upon to speak at a conference today in front of a bunch of people who hate me, so please excuse any critical or negative tone that may creep into my writing voice...it is not directed at you.

 

In fact, it is because I love bass luthiers so much that I am internally pushed to write this to all of you artisans and small shops out there. I have some unsolicited advice for you, and this advice comes from over a decade in the trenches of what consultants and ad execs like to call "user experience engineering". I call it "good interface design", but putting "Interface Designer" or "Web Designer" on a business card rather than "Human Factors Engineer" would immediately halve my salary.

Suffice it to say that I spend a majority of my work day designing web pages and "user experiences" for Fortune 100 companies, major religious groups and the US Government.

 

From this bit of experience and the above-mentioned love for the industry, my I offer several simple bits of advice about your web presences?

 

1. Hire a designer to design your site's graphic assets, or keep it simple and buy/use a template. Of course, there are some notable exceptions to the rule, but most boutique luthier sites look like complete disorganized elementary school projects. Low resolution graphic elements blown up to reveal jaggies, all kinds of design clashes, poorly cropped/composed/lighted photos, 20 fonts on a page, frames for no reason, etc. At least have a professional graphic designer give you an opinion. Or go the other way: Find a template you think looks great and buy it. Predesigned templates range from free to thousands of dollars, but if you are not using an online shopping cart system, there's no reason why you can't get a nicely designed, reusable template for a couple hundred dollars. Content may be king, but you'd be surprised at the deep impressions that a well-designed site will leave in a visitor.

 

2. If your site is hit by the same people (ip addresses) repeatedly, take advantage of this and provide new content frequently. Do you know how many sites would kill for the kind of repeat visitor numbers that a Nordstrand or a Sadowsky gets, especially considering the relatively miniscule market? Please take advantage of and accomodate your rabid fan base by updating your site's content on a regular basis. It's the 16 year old that hits your site 5 times a day that will be your customer in 5 years. You don't need to do a site redesign every time you want to talk about something...a luthier's personal blog or project blog(what video game designers call a".plan" file)or even just a news section is fine...just keep adding to it.

 

3. Do a bona fide usability test. Please. Get your spouses sister's neighbor kid over and sit him at your site with a small list of tasks: "Find out what kind of woods you can get for the neck of the basses made on this site", "Try to find a way to contact me via fax", "Spec out a bass by info you find on the site" etc. Don't say a word and just observe and time it. This is a much bigger deal than anyone outside of web design knows...usability is EVERYTHING. Identify, through testing, the roadblocks that stop your potential customers dead in their tracks.

 

We all know that you aren't building basses with such painstaking care just for the money, but why squander potential customers and loyal users when you can fix it nearly overnight?

 

Good luck to all of you, and Happy Holidays.

"For instance" is not proof.

 

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Very very sound advice. I'm amazed how poor some sites are. Alembic spring to mind as one of the greatest offenders. It's not just the luthier business though. This is true of a lot of markets.

 

Davo

"We will make you bob your head whether you want to or not". - David Sisk
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Very well said, 09! I hate to see the work of talented luthiers go to waste due to them shooting themselves to the foot by having poor web-presence, *cough* Roscoe *cough*. Luckily there are some companies/luthiers who understand how the game works and offer lots of great content for us to rest our eyes upon.

 

-P

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What zeronyne explains applies to all small and medium size business´. There are a lot of crappy homapages for good companies online.

 

Why is this? Since I have worked as a graphic desinger and a web designer I got some personal insight and reflections to summarize.

 

When personal computers became more or less "every mans property", some company owners thought that they will now save huge amounts of money since now they can design their own advertising material.

 

If you give a small child crayons and paper, he will draw something and be proud of what he accheived. That´s just the way these fresh computer ownrs felt when they managed to throw together something with the computer. "-Look what I did!" What the results looked like, you can imagine.

 

You can´t possibly become a professional lumberjack just because you bought a chainsaw!

 

Soon they were back, knocking at the door of the edvertising bureau. Well, most of them anyway.

 

Then the Internet boomed and some people started writing html code to make their own homepages. It was mostly schoolboys, besides the real professionals, who had the time to fool around with the code. Thes boys managed to write code so that an actual page with backgroundimages, photos and all kinds of animated gif images would impress their parents and houseguests. Many of these boys had father or fathers friends who owned small businesses. Some company owners thought that they will now save huge amounts of money since now they can get a homapage for a little pocket money with the help of this young boy who is so talented with computers. Recognize the pattern?

 

Then came YUSIWYG interface and JAVA and things got just worse. "Your browser doesn´t support...", software crashes, irritating waiting with dial-up connection on heavy pages, annoying scrolling, "fantastic colors", crazy fonts, etc.

 

Fortunately the trend has been changing and now the companies have, in a larger scale, began to understand that their homepage is just as important as that expensive color catalog they have printed. Today even more important! it´s a onetime investment to get a solid and attractive homepage up and running, just like when the company decides to hire someone to design them a new logo or create a new profile for them.

 

That´s it.

What ever...
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I didn't really mean for this thread to be used to bash bad sites. Instead, why don't we call out great luthier sites? I'll start. Please keep in mind that I'm not trying to impart any sophisticated graphic design opinions that are more than just my personal comments...eye of the beholder and all that.

 

Dingwall

This site is very informative, and although it's very slow at the moment, Sheldon has set up a forum, so current news can be quickly disseminated. My only criticism of this site is the tiny size of the gallery images. They are so small that one would think that they were links to bigger pics.

 

Conklin

A little too much compression in the header, but a very nice site. The bottom line is that it looks like a professional designer did the site.

 

There are dozens more, but as I said above, most aren't so hot. Please point me to other kickass luthier sites that are easy to navigate!

"For instance" is not proof.

 

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Point taken loud and clear.

I can only plead the fifth and tell you folks that this sort of constructive praise is unbelievable valuable to us builders. I put up my first pages in 1995 and am working on my fourth complete rewrite of my site.

I would love nothing better than to hire a designer but the cash just isn't there in this business. I did a trade of woodwork for my neighbor's photographic services once. He charges $1800 a day, that's more than I can clear in 4 months of bass building. I got 4 usable photos from that shoot and figured out it was cheaper to buy a camera and try to learn how to use it. Lighting is always my nightmare and I've never been able to get good results without using natural light.

Well you can see where this is going.. We have modest means, we can't keep up with the coding on our own and everyone likes to get paid for services rendered.

I for one would happily trade a bass for a great website that I can edit myself and update easily but none of the offers I've gotten have panned out, there are a lot of "web designers" out there who haven't a clue about design but love to talk.

 

Meanwhile I'm open to any advice given under any guise. My site's easy enough to find and i check my email.

Thanks guys!

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I see two types of sites that are crappy: one is what 09 mentioned with poor design and clumsy unprofessional graphics and heirarchy; the other is expensive and overly complex, burdened with way too much games-like interface and content browsing. Both are poor ways to go.

 

Small companies get taken to the cleaners by web designers. Too many of them get talked into mouse-overs, flash, javascript, pop-up windows, etc. All is needed is the same good level of design that can be had in static media - aka, print. I'd prefer to find logical navigation without added slow-loading gimmickry, with all the pages containing well-ordered and attractive graphic and text data.

 

Instead they often get a lot of the aforementioned eye candy - poor use of tables and poor display on local machines that are not set for the same screen size/resolution, fixed-size fonts where relational sizes would be preferable - such sites could be more graceful and informative without all the show-off stuff. And then the poor saps get a big bill, which dissuades them from updating regularly, and working with dynamic content. As David said, one has to weigh the costs against the result.

.
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What would be nice would be services that provide intelligent templating, domain names and redirects, and shopping cart resources for luthiers and small companies that make music gear - making sure that sites are w3c compliant. If help could be extended to the businesses by doing this intelligently and steering clear of needless complexities, the cost could come down and the people at such companies could probably become literate enough at html and the use of CMS - content management software such as tiki, etc, to maintain their sites themselves without much time expended.
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09, I'm in the same position as you, and I couldn't agree more.

 

I think a lot of people (small business owners especially) think that it doesn't take more than an hour with FrontPage to create an informative and engaging Web presence.

 

On the other end of the spectrum, I think that a lot of other people are intimidated or otherwise turned off of hiring a designer because of the assumed cost (and don't get me wrong, there are waaaay too many amateur "designers/developers" that charge premium rates).

 

Then there are those that think a few hundred bucks for a full site is highway robbery (strangely, these are usually real estate related companies that deal with multi-million dollar properties :confused: )

 

What a lot of small business owners need to realize is that their Web site is usually the first impression a potential customer has of the company, and it directly reflects on the quality of the product; ie. crappy site = crappy product.

 

 

I've taken to designing sites in trade for an equal (or usually less than equal) amount in product.

 

 

-DC Ross

It's not simple to be simple.

-H. Matisse

 

Ross Precision Guitars

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As someone who works in user interfaces (applications level, not so much web interface level, though I've done it), few things chap my hide quicker than a poorly-designed interface.

 

Just this morning I gassed up at a station whose pump interface utterly confounded me for a good while. The screen with the pertinent information was placed waist-high (I'm 6' tall) and between two of the three pumps, far away from the card scanner, which was also far away from the LCD display for the fuel amounts and prices. The buttons for the fuel type were indistinguishable from their respective octane stickers, and located far from the pump or from the price display for the fuel.

 

In short, the time between pulling my card out of my wallet and getting the fuel flowing took two or three times as long as it normally does, and worse yet, I felt kind of silly and stupid looking all around the machine to get the information I needed, then poking and prodding it all over to make it work like some ape banging on an obelisk with a thighbone.

 

09's third bit of advice, the usability test, is one of the quickest and easiest ways to see what can be improved on a website (or any product). Put yourself in the consumer's shoes, and if you can't do that, you should give the reins over to someone who can.

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This is great. Let's talk hierarchy here since you folks are all regular browsers.

 

What do you want to see first on a site? What information is useful to you.

 

Are you shopping for shapes or are you more interested in what's on the inside?

 

If you pick up a bass in a store -where do you focus your attention first to determine what level of quality the bass fits in? I.e. what close up photos do you want?

 

Are sound files useful? What do you want to hear?

 

Do you need to know prices right away?

 

Sorry, I could go on and on...

Help us!!

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David,

 

I think the heirarchy (perhaps we should refer to priorities instead since heirarchy implies good organization rather than emphasis) should reflect the site owner's views. But finding anything should be easy and make sense, without a bunch of different-sized windows, clumsy overly busy layouts, and non-resizable views.

 

So what would you like your site to show, and how would data and graphics be used to reflect that?

.
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Greenboy that's an excellent point. It's also a chicken and egg question. We are trying to show the customer what we think will make them buy a bass. The corollary to that is that we want to answer as many of their questions as possible on the website so that they don't keep hounding us for answers.

 

Unfortunately more information inevitably raises more questions. I get the impression that most of the visitors to my site get overwhelmed with the info and run off screaming at all the informed choices they'd have to make. I'd need three websites at least to solve that dilemma.

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Yeah, any market that is basically custom oriented makes one-on-one customer handling inevitable. There's definitely a threshold of information that makes best use of one's time and still encourages sales. Some sites don't have enough there to encourage a potential buyer into investigating further, which is a great sin too. Got to find the balance .... involving the web designer for that part of the process costs more than doing some thinking and mockups on one's own, perhaps even scribbled with outmoded tools on a funky old-style invention called paper.

 

The more I think of it, the more a good content management system in the backend makes sense for at least some small shops.

.
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a good content management system in the backend
Yikes! If I knew what y'all were talking about here I wouldn't find that the least bit offensive...

 

I keep track of all orders using Filemaker Pro. It would be very cool to allow customers to go through the files via the website and see what's possible and then work out their order on their own time until they are ready to commit. When I looked into adding that part of the website 6 years ago I got a quote of $10k. That's more than my annual income. I'm sure it'd be cheaper now. It would be nice for some folks certainly. Obviously for others they just want a bass. Generally each potential customer requires 2-4 hours of my time, only one in 10 ever sends me money. That's probably inevitable but it costs a lot.

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Hey, David,

 

A CMS in this case would quickly allow you to add and remove pictures and descriptions of basses, make changes in lists of options, add news items, etc - basically editing all your site content - all without actually having to touch the basic HTML of the site youself.

 

It'd also allow you to use a forum section to answer whatever questions you choose that are asked there, so that you didn't have to repeat yourself so often ; }

.
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