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.
Keep this picture in mind
After years of research looking for the typical end user I was finally successful. Hidden behind server log statistics, persona definitions, target audience screenings, user testing sessions and best effort anticipations on how the target customer will look like I was able to capture the Santa Claus of web design, the Deep Throat of e-commerce, the Mr. X of usability.
Regardless on how your marketing department defines the target customer or how your user research crafts the persona(s), you should always keep this picture in mind!
Your Users (customers) are:
Users hate to wait. Long loading times, flash intros, videos or audios that start dangling away automatically will drive them nuts. Blinking advertisements and popup windows will only add to their hatred.
Give them a nice and clean interface that outline important customer care words with high information scent. Speed matters!
I dare to imagine how users talk when something goes wrong not to mention the absence of adequate error messages or hints and help to recover.
Avoid sources of error and offer useful hints on how to recover in the case of problems.
Users don't read, they scan. Users don't want to wade through the bun to get to the meat. They are not willing to spend time and effort to sign up for something before they know what it is. They are not willing to pay for something that is free somewhere else.
Give users what they want in a reasonable way.
In a hurry
Users are specialists in judging a site within seconds of arriving there. Is it relevant to their goal? Is there anything else they might find interesting? Last call...
Translate the first impressions into meaningful interactions.
Your users will never tell you that your page sucks and they will never complain that they couldn't find what they were looking for. They will simply leave and never come back!
You better get your top task right 😉
Remember the Grinch
Don't be fooled by the nice users during your user testing sessions, they would hate to hurt your feelings by cussing away about your useless system. They'd rather blame themselves, try to cope and manage the pain and save their mental outbreak for the pub at night.
What are your experiences with the Grinch of web design?
I just came back from an extended trip to Las Vegas, a fascinating city for a multitude of reasons. Not only is it the fastest-growing city in the US, it is also constantly transforming and reinventing itself, a Disneyland for grown-ups, gambling capital of the world, vacation spot for one and Sin City for others. It became evident to me that this city offers more than just pleasure, it teaches us how to attract, entertain and keep us happy despite the fact that we are loosing our money, which means they must be doing something right. Here are my 10 Webpage Design Lessons learned from a trip to Las Vegas... seriously:
1.) Don't Listen to Users
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas", the motto of Las Vegas is a true #1 (who ever came up with that slogan is a genius in my eyes)! When asking your fiance/fiancee about his/her bachelor party ... pardon ... when designing an easy-to-use interface, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Jacob Nielsen states that self-reported data is typically three steps removed from the truth:
- People bend the truth to be closer to what they think you want to hear or what's socially acceptable.
- In telling you what they do, people are really telling you what they remember doing.
- In reporting what they do remember, people rationalize their behavior.
Lesson: Perform user tests as early as possible (e.g. design phase).
2.) Optimize your Top Task
Marriage is wonderful and so is the wedding day, at least mine was. Of course I blacked out the six months of preparation and swet that lead to that event. Now, Vegas wasn't Vegas without finding a way to optimize the wedding experience: A 24-hour drive-thru wedding chapel called A Little White Chapel Tunnel of Love. "Ahem, yes, Combo 2 with two wedding rings, a bouquet and the Elvis... can you make it 'Love me tender' please?" - "120 Dollars at the first window please."
Lesson: Identify and optimize your top task.
3.) Direct your Users
Once inside a Casino it is incredibly difficult to find your way out - I'm not certain but I would take any bet that exactly this is the purpose of a Casino designer. More than once I found myself in a maze of slot machines surrounded by their ringing noise and flashing lights. Whatever I was looking for (except ATM's) seemed always to be at the other end of the Casino.
Design your page in a way that helps users find their way around but at the same time support your business model, e.g. Amazon has perfected the process of returning articles and submitting online or email support request but made it really difficult to find a phone support number which would seriously compromise their business income.
Lesson: Create a logical Information Architecture; add links to related items; cross-reference articles.
4.) Make it Easy to Learn
Casino games are mostly very easy to learn, don't you agree? It can't get any easier than inserting your bills, hitting the main button on the front panel or operating the lever to the side, wait until the reels have stopped spinning, compare the pattern of symbols on the reels with the possible winning combinations stated to the top of the machine and cash in the jackpot.
The actual difficult part is to get the people to play or use the machines. That's when the Casino offers free lessons and sections with machines that pay well, everything to get you started.
Lesson: Help novice users to learn and avoid frustration by offering easy entry tasks.
5.) Provide relevant and attractive Content
Vegas has realized very early that sex-appeal and show makes a great combination, but it was limited to mostly the male population and that's when the city started to transform itself into a family-friendly, theme-park like vacation destination with Castles, Musicals, Rollercoasters in and around the Casinos, 3D rides and more. Free drinks, cheap buffets, Day-Spa's and a variety of other promotions added to the perfect experience. Attractive entertainment options could still be found at any corner in the form of bars, clubs and shows but lately I recognize a shift back to more go-go style entertainment in newly created bars in between the slot machines and tables. I guess the family-style hasn't really worked out.
Lesson: Create attractive content that is relevant to your target audience; test and adjust if necessary.
6.) Make it Easy to Enter
Casinos do everything to get you into their building. Almost free (two dollar tip is ok) valet parking allows you to drop off your car quickly and one-directional moving walkways (obviously you need to walk back) shovel you inside, that's where the music plays... Get the people where they want to be as quickly and easy as possible, show me the money!
Lesson: Avoid splash screens and flash intros; keep page sizes small.
7.) Avoid Windows and Clocks
There are two things you will never find in a Casino: windows and clocks. Right, nothing should distract your focus on the slot machines to the other wonderful Casinos outside and nobody wants to encourage you to make time-sensitive decisions (leaving the Casino early) by realizing how much time (and money) you have already spent during your visit.
Lesson: Avoid popup windows and time-sensitive triggers or forwarders.
8.) Make Sign-up Easy
Even though 100% of players think they can win only 1% will win. The only safe way to win in Las Vegas is to sign up for a Players Club. Handing over your name and address to the Casino will in many cases give you an immediate bonus of 5 or 10 bucks in free slot play, discount coupons for drinks and shows as well as little Thank you presents (wink-wink, Tropicana gives you a free T-Shirt and a deck of playing cards). Gambling itself is then rewarded through comps like more gifts, free buffets, free hotel rooms, free show tickets and more. I'm 11 cards richer now 😉
Well, the sign-up process was easy enough, the only interaction with the clerk was handing over my drivers license and entering a PIN twice. Guess what, sure enough I always hit the Enter key after entering the PIN which wasn't very well received by the system and the clerk. I don't even know why I ended up apologizing. Why in the world can't the system take care of that? Another day, another Casino, another Keypad, yes, another keypad, it was an actual computer keypad which is reverse to an ATM keypad and thus reverse to ALL the other keypads. Try your ATM PIN on your keyboard right now ... exactly!
Lesson: Anticipate input errors and handle them gracefully; use common and widely accepted interfaces.
9.) Monitor User Behavior
There is no way one could walk into a Casino and cheat undetected. The famous 'Eye in the Sky' is omni-present. 24/7 'Surround'-Surveillance captures every movement, every face and every deal. That doesn't really worry me as long as they keep on bringing the free beer. It is clear that this kind of monitoring helps the Casinos to optimize their winnings not only by preventing cheats but also by detecting patterns in playing behavior and machine pay-out/malfunctions. I don't see a threat in it as long as my face isn't connected with the data collected.
Lesson: Use Server Traffic Log Analysis and Search Log Analysis to optimize your website.
10.) Make it Sexy
Sexy is probably the attribute I hear most often lately, it's not 'slick' or 'beautiful' anymore, it's 'sexy' now. That's fine with me if only I knew what that means. Any ideas? Send them to me...
Anyway, what would be a blog about Vegas without mentioning sexy at least twice, huh?
Cheers and good luck!