Can websites be both award-winning and useful?

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I receive emails all the time touting award-winning website designs. Most of them I ignore because the featured sites are usually design portfolios for solopreneur or boutique agencies, or specialty entertainment sites that are meant to provide an "experience."

However, a recent email featured some product and service marketing sites. According to the article, these innovative sites have won awards and buck design trends. Ok, I'll bite. But there are some requirements that these sites will need to meet before I consider them useful as marketing tools:

  • Are they clear in their positioning? 
  • Do they inform the viewer about their product or service in a compelling way?
  • Do they provide a conspicuous call-to-action in order to convert browsers into buyers?

Letters, Inc. 

A Japanese design firm (which has since closed its doors). letters-inc.jp

Are they clear in their positioning? 

No. The home page that greets you says nothing about what Letters does. There's a nav at the top that provides two options for possibly discovering their unique value proposition (UVP): Message and About Us. If you scroll down the home page you eventually see both of these but neither one really addresses any possible client pain points. The overall takeaway is that Letters makes cool websites. But for whom and why?

Do they inform the viewer about their product or service in a compelling way?

Sort of. While the Work section is clean with good screenshots of the sites Letters has built, there is very little information about how they solved each client's problems. Also, the portfolio images are very slow to load. When I inspected them I discovered they were uploaded at 2-3x the size necessary for displaying them on the site.  

What's missing are client testimonials or case studies. There's no way for me to determine anything about Letter's process or what it's like to work with them.

Do they provide a conspicuous call-to-action in order to convert browsers into buyers?

Yes. There is a simple contact form at the bottom of each page but, beyond that, there are no other calls-to-action. 

Active Theory

A California-based design firm. activetheory.net

Are they clear in their positioning? 

No. The home page is a looping video with a barely-there button that links you to their work section. If I hadn't read the site's synopsis from the feature article I would have no clue what kind of site I just landed on. 

Do they inform the viewer about their product or service in a compelling way?

No. So many things get in the way of digesting content on this site: animations, slow-loading pages, and very little content when you do finally arrive on a portfolio detail page. Their case studies are hosted on a completely different site (Medium.com) and I'm not sure why. There's almost no indexable content on Active Theory's site, which means it's practically invisible to Google.

The small amount of text that does exist on the detail pages fades to almost transparent against a full-frame video loop 30 seconds after the page loads. If this is meant to provide an "experience" then my experience is annoyance because I have to keep moving the cursor to maintain text legibility.

Do they provide a conspicuous call-to-action in order to convert browsers into buyers?

No. It took me several minutes to find a contact form. The link to it was tucked away in the bottom left corner of the site. Active Theory must be doing very well through word-of-mouth referrals because there is nothing about their website that would compel me to contact them.

Paradise Pad

Producer of recreational foam water pads and inflatables. www.paradisepad.com

Are they clear in their positioning?

Yes. The pictures of the product and to-the-point text instantly tell you the what (large floating pads) and why (fun, safe).

Do they inform the viewer about their product or service in a compelling way?

Yes. The headline "The kids are fine" is a compelling story that needs no further explanation. Paradise Pad's testimonies are the smiling, happy, real people in the photos. Very scannable text on the home page provides basic product info.

Do they provide a conspicuous call-to-action in order to convert browsers into buyers?

In addition to the newsletter sign-up in the site footer, each page has some sort of call to action (meet the inventors, find a store, become a distributor) to move visitors through the site without having to return to the main navigation.

Conclusion

Although Letters and Active Theory failed my "is it useful?" test, Paradise Pad proves that a website can be both award-winning and a successful digital marketing tool.