Jack Barber Design & Technology

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Why Website Design is Far More Than Skin Deep

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of website design as purely visual. After all, unlike other things which are designed (just about everything on the planet) you can't touch or feel a website.

However, good design is not purely about how something looks - or even how it feels. Good design is about how something works.

Design is not just what something looks and feels like. Design is how something works. - Steve Jobs

With website design there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. There are design constraints and design choices which are made which affect how we relate to, use and experience the finished site.

And these design choices span far more than just how the website looks.

Speed is a Design Choice

Given that design is how something works, how well something works it's almost always first on a user's agenda when it comes to experiencing a design. Sometimes we're forced to use something because it's the only option. But given the choice, we'd always prefer to use something which works well.

You know what it's like, trying to use a website which is really slow. It's painful. Aggravating. It makes you want to throw your computer out the window.

Speed is a design choice. It is a designer's choice. We, as web designers, have the capacity to determine how quick (or slow) a page will load. We can choose to limit the use of large images, plugins or scripts which add to the latency of a page. All of this is encompassed within the design of the site.

Given that so much traffic is now generated by mobile devices, speed and optimisation for slower networks is just as important now as it was when everyone was using dial-up internet.

It is my opinion that speed should be more or less a designer's first priority when creating a website. If a user clicks 'back' or 'close' before the page has loaded, then the visual design is of no consequence.

Let's determine to build sites which are quick - to appreciate speed is a design choice and to create websites which both look great and more importantly get the user to the information they require as quickly as possible.

And if you need any more persuasion - Google is now experimenting with 'Slow to load' warning signs on heavy-weight websites.

Search Engine Optimisation is a Design Choice

Likewise, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has become a design choice. It used to be that you could stick a few META tags on a page and get a fairly good ranking without too much difficulty.

But search engines have become smart, just as users have become discerning.

They can tell the difference between a well-structured & responsive page containing good content and that of a poorly designed page. Search engines are looking for good use of headings, lists, well-structure navigation and proper use of markup elements.

All of this is part of the 'design' of a site. Web pages are all constructed out the same basic building blocks. But how these are used can make a big difference to both end users and search engines, and their perceptions of the finished site.

It is possible to style elements to look like something else (like standard body text to look like headings for instance) - and this may satisfy a user who is working purely on visual cues. However, it will not satisfy a search engine, and the underlying design floors will adversely affect search engine performance.

Good web design is more than skin deep - let's commit to designing sites which play well with search engines right out of the box.

Accessibility is a Design Choice

Accessibility is also an important design choice. Accessibility is the term used to describe how users with disabilities access the web. But it goes further than that really - it's about making sites really easy to use, for anyone.

Any product that needs a manual to work is broken - Elon Musk

You wouldn't expect to have to read a manual in order to understand how to use a website. But sometimes functionality is so complex or unintuitive that this is how it appears. And we lose users in the process.

A user with a visual impairment may use a screen reader to access website content. A screen reader will audibly read out the content of the page, looking for appropriate headings, links and navigation structure to help a user make sense of the content and navigate with as little difficulty as possible.

All of this is a design choice - our website markup is all designed. Certainly this is somewhere I've been lacking - but I'm determined to consider accessibility as a design choice for both sighted and visually impaired users to ensure everyone can make use of the websites I create.

Usability is a Design Choice

Similarly, usability is a design choice which can greatly affect how a user interacts with a website. I've become far more aware of this over recent years - watching users navigate their way around a website is an interesting and useful exercise, highlighting things like:

  • What do users expect to be able to click on? Images, text, the coloured area around a link (for instance)?
  • Do users recognise hover states or active states? Do they understand the visual cues the browser (or our designs) give - should they be more obvious?
  • What about scrolling - do users know they can scroll to see more content, or scroll within a box?
  • Does a user understand how to navigate the site - is it obvious where they are and how to move between pages?
  • Does the page structure allow the content to flow in such as way as it is obvious to the user what order they should consume or interact with the content on the page?

It is possible for a website to look great, but be so lacking in usability. Recent trends have only increased this issue - I'm thinking mostly of parallax sites and sites which make use of 'scroll-jacking' techniques.

Scroll-jacking is really annoying! A user is tuned in to how many scrolls of their mouse wheel, or swipes of their trackpad they need to perform to get down a page. When a site uses scroll-jacking the 'feeling' of scrolling is totally skewed and users end up at least frustrated and at worst totally annoyed and resolving never to visit your site again.

Websites need to work as well as they look - if not better. We need to design them to be intuitive and easy to use.

Website Content is a Design Choice

Content can also be considered a design choice.

Art is about questions. Design is about answers. - Brendan Dawes

Are we answering users' questions?

Designing a website without an understanding of the content which is to be included is a near impossible task which results in a site that shoehorns content where it was not expected.

Many web designers are now taking a content-first approach - something which although important does appear to have been lost over the years. The content of a site is there to provide all the information the visitor requires.

If design is about how well something works, it cannot be said to work well if the content does not provide the answers.

Designers should not be restricting content - or forcing content-creators to fill a larger space with more content - just to suit the 'needs' of a particular layout or design. The design of the site exists to support the content and provide some visual context and continuity.

It is not design for design's sake - design always has a purpose and in the case of website design, it's purpose is the clear communication of information (content).

Website Design is Far More Than Visual Design

I hope we are agreed that website design is far more than purely visual design. It encompasses a whole set of design (and technical) skills.

While an end user may only 'see' the visual design, they will 'feel' the affects of all the other facets of the site's design and construction.

They will experience how well the site works, not just how nice it looks.