Designing user interfaces isn't about sexy graphics, shiny buttons or slick navigation (alone).
It's about taking care of the influential factors that make or break the success of a web application or website.
It's a delicate balance of user needs and business requirements, deeply understood and carefully melted into a design that is loved by all stakeholders (the end-user included 😉 )
The sum of all the design influencers are the constraints that will box your design decisions. That's not a limitation, it's liberation!
The Design Influencers are:
Whatever it is that you are planning to build, it needs to be useful to somebody and has to solve a real-world problem. This end-user need is the reason of existence, it's the meaning life.
In which context will your users access the site? Is it through mobile devices on the road? Then a shopping cart will be less important than driving directions or store hours and screen elements need to be more prominent.
Do users typically enter your site through search? Then your landing pages need to convey who you are and what you do because users won't have seen your fancy homepage (and probably never will).
Even though cultural difference across the globe become really important if you build an international site, I rather mean business or sociological culture, i.e. if you plan on building an intranet site but the company's culture doesn't encourage to report failure or spending time helping other employees, then a forum probably isn't the right choice to offer.
While your client is ideally well informed about their end-user's needs, they also have to run a business, satisfy stakeholders, fulfill legal mandates etc. And that's when compromising your perfect usability is sometimes necessary and important.
What's the available technology? Very often the vendor or client platform of choice dictates the choice of technology, e.g. a Microsoft shop will prefer .NET and Silverlight (oh, long time I haven't mentioned Silverlight so I mention it again) or Flex.
If something isn't viable or possible today that doesn't mean it won't be in a year. So think ahead and design your site accordingly, i.e. extensible, modular, maintainable.
What I've found is that sometimes it's worth including an "upsale" item into your mockups, something that the client hasn't explicitly asked for but may open their eyes and hopefully wallets 😉 Mostly you may defer these items to a later phase but it gives everybody a long-term vision and as a side-effect supports designs that are extensible.
It's been said that anything can be done if you only have enough time and money, but the real world doesn't spin like that. Your design is constrained by a budget - and that's a good thing because it forces you to stay realistic finding the right balance between innovation and familiarity.
If the main sponsor is Esri (my current employer) I better make sure that there is a map on the interface. What sounds like a designer's nightmare is the name of the game.
How long will your design need to stand the test of time? Is it 1 year or 10? A demo doesn't need to be as polished or thought-out as a content-management system that will take over the client's communication platform. It is the classical "let's get it done" versus "let's think about this a last time". I've written a more detailed article about Lifespan as an important Design Decision.
Accessibility is a law and therefore cannot be removed from the equation. Your fancy design elements might just not be (or too expensive to be) compliant with the law. Acquire knowledge about accessibility laws (e.g. section 508 in the US), their implementation specifics and know how that translates into your design.
In my daily work I'm constantly confronted with developments for government sites. Often I hear confusion in what needs to be achieved, who needs to be served and especially why it should matter.
Listening into a Webcast by Human Factors International (download white paper on Designing the e-government experience through citizen-centered usability, March 2008) gave me additional insights that I want to summarize and present here:
Goals of eGovernment
The web offers governmental sites the potential for increased operational efficiency and cost reductions while improving access to information and services for their citizens.
Levels of interaction between these two actors (government & citizens) include:
- Connect citizens with legislative offices
- Communicate faster and more targeted
- Leverage access to public services (enhanced productivity with reduced effort)
Steps to improve eGovernment
Traditionally the government has three main functions:
What can be done to improve these functions/processes?
Get it out there
- What information is interesting?
- What is already available?
Make it useful & usable
- Pre-digest the information (e.g. into charts, comparisons, …)
- Understand the citizen’s needs (e.g. Spanish language, search, text size, …)
- Assist citizen’s in finding the information (sometimes they don’t know it exists)
- Avoid: limited business focus, internal focus, lack of shared resource
- Assist citizens to walk through business logic (avoid unnecessary pages, forms, fields, …)
- Establish a baseline (best practices review, scorecard, usability testing success rates, web analytics, call center volume, server logs, …)
- Validate improvements (success rate, task time) & seek for support within your organization for doing this
- Continuously track usage
- Why? Avoid falling back in national ranking, reduce costs for service calls, …
Make it engaging
- “Will? Can?” Will citizens use the service? Can they find it?
- Make it exciting
- Use experiences or technologies that are current and up to date (videos, gadgets, …)
Embrace the future
- Become creative to engage citizens in governmental issues (using the citizen’s language), e.g. upload a photo of the damaged street (http://www.fixmystreet.com/)
- Encourage citizens to interact through social tools
- Integration of “Report”, “Transact” and “Interact” means to remove the disparity between organizational structures of governments and the mental models of the citizens
- Understand and channel the motivation of citizens to use online services
- Integrate offers from multiple agencies into one comprehensible user experience
Start a movement
- Create a community by involving State & Agency Leadership, Agency CIO’s and Webmasters
- Recognition and adoption are key aspects
- Embrace the chaos
- Provide useful & usable tools
- Reward contributions & demonstrate progress
- View webmasters as a partner, not as recipient
- The user’s perspective of the organization and the actual organizational structures are mostly very different. Citizens should not need to know how an agency is organized or be familiar with its terminology.
- Focus on the citizen means to understand how they look for information!
- Integrate internal processes into one intelligent solution (iGov = integrated Government)
- Understanding the level of literacy is key to success. Easy language assists citizens in filling out bureaucratic forms.
Government must view itself as a business
- Attract and satisfy citizens. Beware of competition and consider concepts like ‘brand loyalty’. Effective interaction adds benefits to citizens.
- Convert visitors into customers meaning that citizens become active online users of the services.
- Broaden the focus onto international audience which is important to attract entrepreneurship and investment capital and is a good indicator of a strong technology market and research and development environment.
Assistance through technology, tools and continuous improvement
- Support CIO’s and webmasters through tools like design templates, standards, guidelines and an effective means of governance.
- Adjust technology to changing market conditions, population demographics and the user’s level of expectations.
- Create a culture and long-term commitment (=institutionalization) of usability within the agency!
- Establish a baseline of improvement and continuously validate and improve through benchmarks.
I'd like to hear your feedback and if you have applied one or many of above techniques in your agency and what your experiences were.
- Straub, K., Gerrol, S.; Designing the e-government experience through citizen-centered usability; Human Factors International, Inc.; White paper; March 6, 2008