Web designing is not only about creating a clean code-base and sharp graphics, or having bug free functionality, or even fulfilling the owner’s strategic objectives. These are essential requirements in a web design, but even the most sophisticated technology or the best-written content won’t hit the nail on the head, if the user experience is not consistent, cohesive and stress-free.
Creating such a user experience is not a trivial job, and involves addressing many issues such as usability, brand identity, information architecture and interaction design. Web user experience development, from strategy and requirements through information architecture and visual design is a process that needs input from the client, creative designers, end-users and software developers. These stakeholders might have different perspectives and expectations about the website.
Client expectations when designing and implementing a website is usually more about delivering the message to the maximum possible number of users. To be more specific, the website would:
- Show as much information as possible
- Attract users
- Look great aesthetically (not just another website, but be THE website)
The users’ perspective when visiting a website may be drastically different when compared to the site owners, such as:
- Grab some data (easy scanning through the pages)
- Pleasant (good contrast and no harsh distractions)
- Easy navigation
The challenge for designers is to come up with a website that addresses both these perspectives. This is why the concept of website direction – Whiteboarding the concept and making adjustments to address the concerns of all stakeholders, including sample end users – is a key part of the web development process. The Whiteboarding process must be kicked off immediately after a clear set of written goals for the website are provided by the client.
A given functionality or content could possibly be presented to users in a hundred ways, and be accepted by them as a “good” experience. However it is possible to abstract atleast a few general principles for website design, based on numerous “usability testing” exercises conducted within the industry. Here are ten such important principles:
- Speed. The Website or page must appear to the user within a maximum of five seconds through reasonable Internet access (ideally less). There is nothing worse that a user could experience, than waiting for a website to load. Since loading speed is related to page-size, pages must be as lightweight as possible. We must avoid that 2 MB home page at all costs, even with today’s high-speed Internet connections.
- Simplicity. Present the core idea in a manner that the users could grasp it in the least possible time. Most usability experts say that if a given Web Page’s idea or functional purpose doesn’t register after five seconds, its poorly designed. It doesn’t mean the details could be read in five seconds, nor does it mean that any fields or user actions to be taken must be completed in five seconds. It just means we must “get it” in five seconds or less; for e.g. “this Website is about a social media marketing tool” or”this page is where I unsubscribe from my services, I have to give the service provider a reason for it” etc.
- Focus. Present the idea or functionality in an uncluttered way, with a focus on the core message or function. Lots of white space is fine, especially when we are dealing with functionality. Google pioneered this concept with their legendary home page. Even when we want to provide the user with a multimedia experience, we must keep it clean. For example, having two or more scrolling images within the same screen-view, or littering the website with advertisements that are not demarcated as such, can be most confusing to the user.
- Readability. Whenever we present textual information, we must keep it as succinct as possible. There is a whole school of advice on how to write for websites. In addition to the simple writing style they all advocate, we must make the paragraph width smaller for lengthy texts (so the eye doesn’t tire when scanning). Contrast must be good (beware of those fancy background colors and textures). Paragraph spacing must be adequate so the text doesn’t look clumped. Over the years, typography – the presentation and arrangement of text – has been considered a critical success factor in web design.
- Resolution-robust layout. There are a host of screen resolutions out there, and one must ensure that the web pages appear readable and pleasantly laid out to all these users. This does not mean that we design separate style sheets to cater to a dozen resolutions. It just means we should pick a minimum resolution (say 1024 X 768 pixels) and make sure that the site looks good in this resolution, and in any other resolution reasonably higher than this. Layouts must not be broken or look minute because of a higher resolution. One customary way of ensuring the latter is to have liquid layouts. In any case, all critical content should be above the fold – an imaginary line at the bottom of a screen with the minimum supported resolution. The purpose that the website represents, for example, should be apparent above the fold, within a few seconds.
- Coherence. This simply means that the collection of styles applied throughout the website must be the same, and each style applied for similar purposes. If there are two types of paragraphs, then all page content must use these paragraph templates. The color scheme, font scheme, input field and labeling scheme etc must be consistent throughout. Also, the way we perform different functions must be consistent. If field validation messages are displayed just below the field, then it should be so in every field in the website.
- Accessibility. Depending on the website’s business goals, it must be made accessible to as many users as possible. Cross platform testing, cross-browser testing and loading custom style sheets for targeted mobile devices are the commonest measures that one can take to ensure accessibility.
- Navigability. This means that we must have a uniform way to navigate throughout the website, without functional complexity (e.g. “tree views”) or the presence of multiple navigation areas. The ideal website would have a simple link-based navigation, perhaps within a common header. Complex dynamic navigation (cascading menus and flash pop-ups) should be avoided, unless for very particular reasons.
- Searchability. This simply means that your site is properly tagged and ready for search engines and for textual search. Page headers, meta-tags, resource links and paragraph headings must reflect the search criteria of the target users. For example, the heading for this article is “web designing for a good user experience”. It is likely that the article would show up if the words “web designing” and “user experience” was to be searched on Google. If the title were “good design tips” , it is unlikely that someone searching for user experience or website design would end up seeing it.
- Interactive. The concept of promoting interactive websites was a key component of the “Web 2.0 revolution” some years ago. Technologies like Ajax frameworks emerged to handle the problem of posting little bits of server-side content to th
e browser screen based on user actions, without refreshing the entire page and thus distracting the user. Anything ranging from enabling your website’s content to be posted on social media, to implementing an online chat function to support your business goals, would be advocated.
A concluding remark; people visit a Website to gain information or to perform a task (a function). Making sure we provide just this, and nothing more thatwould confuse the user, is the goal of user experience design. We could display our artistic skills in moderation, as we don’t make website designs today to merely showcase the artistic prowess of the designer, unless art has some special value to the core purpose of the website itself. What we do (or aught to do) is to capture the target audience by giving them exactly what they seek. A good website design is one that has as little design as possible, where the UI is clean, simple and unobtrusive.