Your architecture firm website is one of the first ways a prospective client interacts with you.
Their experience with your site creates expectations about what it will be like to work with you and what your role in the project will be.
Your website has the power to attract the right clients with the right projects. It also has the power to send the wrong message and create monster clients.
Read on to learn how this happens and what you can do to prevent it.
Your Website Is a Guidebook
When a prospect comes to your website, they likely know very little about you. Your firm is, in essence, a foreign country they’ve never visited before. Your website is the guidebook they use to learn about your firm and decide if they want to spend more time with you.
As prospects use your website, they form assumptions and conclusions about the type of work you do, the kind of people you are, and what it would be like to work with you. Some of the information they’re taking in comes from the text and images on your site: practice description, bios, headshots, “culture,” and project photos.
However, they’re also taking on information more subconsciously. For example, small type sizes or fonts that are hard to read can cause people to assume you’ll be difficult to understand. They perceive you as not caring if they can read your website and assume you won’t care about conveying project details in a way that makes sense to them.
Website Structure and Navigation Send an Important Message
The structure and navigation of your website tell people more than you think it does about what it would be like to work with you.
When your site uses a very clear informational structure and easy-to-understand navigation, you’re telling prospects that you are in control. You’ve purposefully created a system that allows them to explore the site but also guides them along a path to learn what you want them to learn.
Unfortunately, this approach is often abandoned in favor of chaos. No one calls it chaos; instead, they use terms like “creative“ and “experimental.” These terms suggest that there is a method behind the madness – and usually there isn’t. The navigation and structure are guided by voices, informed solely by thoughts someone had over dinner, an unrealized project design, or (and this has really happened) in a dream.
This results in a website that is not intuitive to the person using it. It’s not clear where the person is supposed to go, the order in which it most makes sense to visit pages, or how to get to your contact information. The prospect is left to fend for themselves.
Contrast this with a site that has, for example, clear paths to help the prospect navigate from one section to the next, building upon what they’ve learned at each stage.
The danger with the chaos model is that you have created a situation in which the prospect is the decider and there is no “best approach.” Your site tells the client that any choice is a good choice and you’re staying out of it.
The Prospect Assumes They Know as Much – or More – Than You Do
A “free for all” website structure puts the prospect in the driver’s seat of the website and tells them all of their choices are equally valid. It’s not surprising, then, when the prospect assumes that this will also be the case for projects.
What does this look like in practice? All design options, including ones the client comes up with, must be equally valid. Even if the client has no design training, their decisions should carry as much weight as the architect’s – more, even, because they don’t recognize you as a decision-maker.
The old adage “the client is always right” cannot be literally true in architecture. If it were, buildings would fall down. Clients should be listened to, and clients have goals. It’s the architect’s job to find the best way to achieve the client’s goal. When the client takes over that role, it reduces the architect to merely rubber-stamping the client’s designs. This results in bad projects, miserable architects, and clients who will ultimately blame the architect when the long-term impacts of those poor decisions start to be felt.
When the client has been trained by your website to believe that they are in charge, they come into a project believing that you all agree to this. After all, you created the website that sent that message. Finding out that you don’t agree and that instead, there are right answers and wrong answers to design challenges can cause all kinds of problems, from project delays to badly done projects to firings.
How to Use Website Structure to Create the Right Expectations
The good news is that you can use your website to set the stage for the role you need a client to play if a project is to be successful.
It’s vital to have your prospect understand that your role is to create the best options and guide clients toward the best decisions. This can be reflected in your website by:
- Incorporating common website sections, even if it seems basic. This includes a Contact page and an About page. You can call them something else as long as it’s clear what someone would find on that page (e.g., don’t call the Contact page something like “Human Interaction”).
- Organizing information in a way that makes sense to a lay person. For example, organizing projects by type (healthcare, education, manufacturing) is a good choice; organizing them by design philosophy is not.
- Including buttons and links throughout the site to help prospects navigate to the information they need to decide whether to engage with you further. This will depend on the kind of work you do and who your target clients are. It involves putting yourself in the shoes of the prospect. It also means deciding what content is “need to know” vs. “nice to know.” The prospect doesn’t need to see every one of your projects from the past 40 years; they need to see two or three that are recent and relevant to the kind of project they’re looking to do.
Setting the Right Expectations Makes Clients and Architects Happier
When your prospects see the way you work as an asset and not a change-up of what they were originally told, everyone benefits. It takes effort to map out a website structure that supports your firm’s approach, but your return on investment is happier clients, more referrals, easier employee retention, and more successful projects.