The Importance of User-Motivated Web Design
“I design for real people. I think of our customers all the time. There is no virtue whatsoever in creating clothing or accessories that are not practical.”
We’ve all suffered the frustration of visiting a bad website. Inconsistent navigation menus, broken links, and slow loading times, among other things, can make for a truly confusing and unpleasant web experience. Contrast this with one of your favorite websites, where accessing the information you need is simple and maybe even fun. What is it that sets great websites apart from awful ones? The answer, in short, is user-motivated web design.
What is User-Motivated Web Design?
People have a tendency to come up with many different names for the same thing. The concept I’ll be talking about here has several names: user experience (UX) design (the term I’ll use in this article), interaction design, human factors and ergonomics, user-motivated design; the list goes on. And while true design geeks will argue subtle distinctions between these various disciplines, they all revolve around the same basic principle: design your product with its actual users in mind. While this notion seems obvious on paper, you might be surprised by how rarely and inconsistently it gets applied.
The goal of this article is not to get into the gory details of web usability, but rather to offer a high-level description of how user-motivated design works and why it matters. It’s also worth noting that while I’ll be talking about UX design from the perspective of designing websites, the very same concepts can be easily applied to designing just about any product, from office chairs to smartphones.
The Pillars of UX Design
To get a better lay of the UX landscape, let’s familiarize ourselves with some of the core vocabulary of UX design:
This is a huge term in UX, and is meant to characterize, as its name suggest, how easy to use a product is. As one expects, easy-to-use websites will generally evoke positive user experiences, while difficult-to-use websites will evoke negative ones. Ease-of-use is thus one of the most important touchstones for the UX designer.
This term is related to usability, but only applies to a user’s early interactions with a product. Learning curves are inevitable with sufficiently complex products, but the goal in UX design is to make the curve as gentle and short as possible, allowing the user to acquire proficiency with the product quickly. This is particularly important with most websites, where expecting the user to spend time learning how to use your site is simply impractical. Sticking to tried-and-true conventions that any competent web user will recognize (for example, a homepage with a top navigation menu) is one of many ways to boost the learnability of your website.
When designing a website, it’s critically important to make sure that you aren’t unwittingly marginalizing potential users. One common accessibility consideration for web design is color-blindness, which affects 1 out of 12 men and 1 out of 200 women globally.1 For this reason, designing an accessible webpage often means avoiding reliance on color-coding. While this is only one of many accessibility considerations, the basic idea is clear: make your site user-friendly for everyone, not just some.
Measuring User Experience
One of the largest obstacles in UX design is actually quantifying the usability of a website or product. There are myriad ways that UX designers and researchers go about doing this: A/B testing, user stories, surveys, etc. While all of these techniques have particular advantages and use cases, they all share a common feature: they involve actual users. Empathizing with your users and anticipating their needs is only the first step in designing a good website; it should always be followed up by testing the site with real people and seeing how they respond.
Common Design Pitfalls, and How UX Design Helps
Hopefully, it should be clear that optimizing user experience is good for business, because as anyone knows, a happy customer means a happy business. However, there are some very common pitfalls that companies and design teams tend to fall into, and almost always because they stray too far from the user-motivated approach. Familiarizing yourself with these mistakes not only helps you spot them “in the wild”, but also goes a long way towards understanding just how important UX design can be.
Pitfall 1: Thinking you’re a good tester
You probably know your own website better than anyone else. This means knowing how it works, and how it’s supposed to work. This makes you probably the worst person to test the usability of your site; it would be like testing the difficulty of a math quiz by giving it to the professor who wrote it. Because of your familiarity with your own site, you’re liable to miss all sorts of bugs, inconveniences, and design problems that would be apparent to a naive user.
Pitfall 2: Thinking that the product is for you
When designing the look and feel of a website, many people make the mistake of forcing their own creative preferences and ideas. Say, for example, that you really dislike the color purple for some vague reason. If purple is a color that would resonate excellently with your target audience, then forcing the issue of using green instead might be doing a huge disservice to your website’s overall user experience. Anyone can “art direct”, but it takes a truly wise business owner or designer to see where their creative hunches do and don’t apply. The bottom line is simple: you are not your target audience, so don’t build your website for you. Build it for your users.
The Internet is replete with excellent resources on UX design and related topics. Probably one of the best educational resources that I’m aware of is the Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting firm and industry leader that specializes in UX and design fundamentals. Their site has loads of helpful articles and guides for the novice UX designer. Another great resource is UX Magazine, a publication with regular articles on UX topics.
Take the First Step
Interested in improving your site through user-motivated design? We can help!