This article first appeared in issue 237 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
Within the design profession it’s common to witness a sense of being too clever for our own good. This needs to stop. We’re fooling no one but ourselves.
With each new technology, framework or advancement in browser capability, our attention is focused on the horizon of possibility instead of on the function of purpose. Yet every aspect of design that makes it into the final product needs to have a business objective. If it doesn’t, it’s there solely for our own self-gratification.
What we do is not art. We’re paid to fulfil a business need and ensure our client makes a return on their investment. We help others succeed, grow and gain respect. We are service providers in a commercial industry: a very chaotic, misunderstood, and undervalued industry.
History is repeating itself
Each generation of designers goes through these growing pains before finding a solid footing – separating design need from design want.
A decade ago we toyed with Flash. We had the power of animation at our fingertips. Everything that moved was suddenly impressive. Multimedia was easier than ever to implement and we capitalised on that by adding auto-play background music and sound effects when hovering over links.
Creating highly engaging experiences for users was right there, but only a handful of companies understood the restraint required to build experiences that were truly remarkable. For every forerunner like Hi-ReS (www.hi-res.net) there were thousands of imitators that missed the point.
Today we are living in the same feature-loving bubble, with Flash replaced by HTML5 and CSS3.
Design for the user. Use the objectives of a project as the blueprint. Architect a design to fulfil those objectives in the easiest way possible for users. Remember, easy is good.
Ask yourself why
As designers, we have it etched into our meaty brains that we need to follow traditional structure. A header with logo and navigation, the main content area that commonly gets divided into a large column for copy, a sidebar for secondary information, and the footer. The important question is, why? Is there a benefit to doing this?
The core of web design structure came from print, and still does.
Structuring the web like print, or more specifically like a newspaper, allows anyone to visit a website and be comfortable with what they’re seeing. They know the top of the digital page provides branding information and easy access to information about what is located below. Much like a newspaper’s branding and headline stories, it doesn’t require active thought. Your brain is on auto-pilot. The longer the brain is on auto-pilot, the longer it focuses on the content.
When you make a change to the traditional structure – the expected experience – the brain comes out of passive thought mode and begins to analyse and categorise the experience. That’s how we learn. That’s what makes an experience intuitive or confusing.
This is the primary reason we see such a common structure to websites, especially with blogs and corporate websites. Auto-pilot equals longer exposure, lowered hesitation towards marketing, and heightened satisfaction. Which typically means more revenue and brand trust.
Seduced by Dribbble
While galleries like Dribbble and Awwwards serve a great purpose and are wonderful resources to stay abreast of what the industry is doing, they’re a very myopic look at what makes something quality. It doesn’t help us answer the most important design question: why? Why was this design decision made? If it supports the objectives of the project, why was this the best method?
We need to move away from the superficial. Like in dating, sexy can only get you so far. Design for the user. The rest will come naturally.
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