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5 rules for visual direction in interaction design

We don't want to undercut the significance of words, but we don't want to downplay visuals, either. Both are equally important elements of interaction design. Words are interactions, but the visuals (like icons, menus, graphics, etc.) are what users actually interact with. While some usability experts might cite Craigslist or even Amazon as examples of ugly but usable (and popular) sites, there's no doubt that aesthetics serve a function.

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Emotion is key to the user experience: websites with nice visuals relax users and improve credibility and usability. Considering the short attention span of most users, perception is oftentimes reality: if the visuals are terrible, users won't bother diving deeper into your interaction design.

We'll examine the importance of vision as it relates to interactions and how to ensure clear orientation, navigation, and consistency.

01. Respect the dominance of vision

Let's start with a demonstration. Take a look at the word below:

Clearly, we all know which colour the word "yellow" represents. But when most people read the above, they likely comprehend only red. The look of the typeface supersedes the actual meaning of word.

David McCandless at TED

Most of our brainpower goes into sight, argues infographic expert David McCandless

As humans, vision is our dominant sense. While other animals rely more on hearing and smell, we are sight-driven creatures. As David McCandless, data journalist and infographic expert, explains in a compelling TED Talk (opens in new tab), we use all of our senses, but most of our brainpower goes into sight — though we may be hardly aware of it. He describes it with a computer analogy...

"Your sense of sight is the fastest. It has the same bandwidth as a computer network. Then you have touch, which is about the speed of a USB key. And then you have hearing and smell, which has the throughput of a hard disk.

"And then you have poor old taste, which is like barely the throughput of a pocket calculator. And that little square in the corner, a naught .7 percent, that's the amount we're actually aware of. So a lot of your vision — the bulk of it is visual, and it's pouring in — it's unconscious."

Stephen P. Anderson

Visuals affect behaviour as well as experience, says Stephen P. Anderson

But what does that mean for you with regards to interaction design? It means that every visual decision you make for your product will have an enormous impact on the interaction, even if only subconscious.

Stephen P. Anderson (opens in new tab), product design consultant, points out that visuals will affect more than the experience, they'll also affect the user's behaviour.

This means that a good visual design can improve sales, increase signups and conversions, and encourage certain user behaviors. Take a look at the two checkout forms below:

Checkout Form A

Checkout form

Checkout Form B

Checkout form

Keeping in mind that one of the goals of interaction design is to make the user think as little as possible, which would you guess is more conducive to a sale? Which is more visually pleasing?

The top sample seems to repulse users with its claustrophobic spacing and overload of text, while the bottom sample is colourful, aesthetic, and seems simple (even though the user is more-or-less entering the same data).

Because interaction design is all about creating things that people actually want to use, attractive things are more desirable and therefore work better.

Spice shop homepage

The images and navigation work in harmony in this online Spice shop

But more than just inviting interaction, smart aesthetic design also provides an extra layer of understanding. If you look at the Old Town Spice Shop (opens in new tab) example above, you can see how the cabinet layout of the site immediately suggests the company's purpose and spice products.

While you can debate whether users would see the cabinet first or the words like "Spices" and "Extracts" first, there's no doubt that the two work in harmony.

02. Provide clear orientation and navigation

Users browsing the web are not unlike nomads. People have a general sense of where they want to go, but still need some direction and cues. The way they do it is by creating mental maps, and since we just established that humans are visual creatures, we're going to need a few visual markers to find our way.

In a way, your navigation needs to act like a GPS. Users need to know their current location, what routes are possible, and what the next steps should be.

Breadcrumbs are the most explicit way of satisfying all three requirements. A common UI pattern like this one from Newegg (opens in new tab) below, this treatment leaves a clear visual trail for users to track their visit.

But breadcrumbs must be treated as a backup option for users, because they're not a visually intuitive method of clicking between pages. They're mostly used in sites with complex hierarchies, such as e-commerce sites, and aren't required for simpler sites. When in doubt, refer back to your site map and see if adding breadcrumbs would improve usability or just add clutter.

Signifying words, breadcrumbs, links — in addition to menus, search fields, and clickable icons — are all sight-based tools in your design toolbox that help you create a sense of orientation and navigation. When it comes to the primary navigation, you need to make a strong visual impression.

If you'd like to learn more about navigation best practices, check out our free ebook Web UI Design Best Practices (opens in new tab), and this 5-part series (opens in new tab) on simplifying navigation for interaction design.

Next page: three more rules for visual direction in interaction design

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