Recently I got involved in an online debate about web design. Many of the designers on the forum felt that websites always need to push the boundaries, create new trends and break new ground for the sake of it. I seemed to be the only one who did not agree wholeheartedly with that. In my opinion, designers need to be as daring as possible but never just for the sake of being different. The design must always be tailored to the target audience.
When creating a site, the first item on the agenda should be structure. Many sites grow organically over time so it is crucial to get this right at conception or visitors will get lost in the sea of content. Another major consideration is the target audience. Universal access is a hugely important factor when designing, especially when designing for something like the public sector. Cross browser compatibilities and ease of use are a must.
Many common features have become standard in web design. This should be embraced rather than fought! Changing things for the sake of being different throws people off and interrupts their natural flow around the site. Common traits such as use of underlines for links, highlighted active states and roll-over states may seem very boring but these small details add greatly to the usability of a site. If you want everyone to be able to use your site easily, you’ll have to design it with the least experienced users in mind.
A great example of this is Google. They use many default attributes of website design to their advantage to aid the user into a more intuitive and cohesive experience.It uses common visual cues such as the default blue with underline to show links and purple if the link has been visited. The rest of the site has been pared back to its most basic to aid the user as much as possible. Google has a clear idea of its target audience (i.e. everyone should be able to use it) and the site is a true reflection of this; the usability, universal accessibility and load speed of the site are all major considerations and clean white simplicity of the site addresses these points. Some may say that Google’s site lacks brand personality, but it has intrinsically tied its brand to the functionality of its product.
Clients may not ever provide Google as reference as the aspiration look of their website, but in regards to it being appropriate style, navigation and usability to their target audience, it is a wonderful example.
Using trusted old methods to guide visitors around your site does not have to mean you can not be creative at all. Take a look at the sites for Apple and the BBC for example.The Apple site
has a clear statement of intent. The website is an exercise in branding
all of its own; each element is carefully considered and tailored to
fit the site and mirror the Apple style. Apple is very aware that its
products are regarded as sleek and stylish, aspirational products. The
site is built to accommodate this by allowing for large format imagery
to best display the products. The content is then designed to fit the
Apple’s audience is considered slightly more au-fait
with technology and therefore the site can be slightly less
conventional with navigation and functionality such as the slide
navigation through the range of products in their store. This is a
nice, intuitive feature to add improve the user experience without
presenting an obstacle to the novice user. This approach is also used
very successfully in its use of icons to help the user work their way
around the site.
The BBC website is often presented as an aspirational example of a portal site. It is a very well organised attractive website with many impressive features to enhance the user experience. Allowing visitors to personalise the homepage means it can give a widely diverse audience a website that suits their individual tastes, knowledge and web requirements but still with a cohesive and a logic hierarchy of easily accessible content. The use of gradients and colours also acts as a functional tool, aiding the user. This site is very much planned to accommodate the vast amounts of content with minimum upkeep required.
Although the Apple and BBC sites have many common features which make them successful, such as strong navigation and a well organised site map, there is also a fundamental difference. The BBC site is designed to display rapidly changing content from various sources into a single cohesive website. The Apple site, with all the content being produced internally to fit the site, is designed much more like a you would design a brochure or static print product. Both sites have managed to accommodate their target audience, push the boundaries of web design whilst retaining common features to help less experienced users to find their way around the information.
Evolution of website design
As user expectations evolve, designers need to push the boundaries to stay up-to-date and meet the expectations of an audience that gets more and more web-savvy. Additional features and trends which have become more common across the web are things such as breadcrumbs, intelligent and dynamic content and the use of tab systems to visually subdivide content. Design trends come and go but primary navigation techniques tend to evolve slower, with only the occasional breakthroughs which have a ripple effect across the rest of the web if successful. It seems that no matter how nice your design is, people want to be able to navigate it right away without having to look for a way around.
But there are a few exceptions to this. For some sites, the target audience actively expects to be challenged both in design and in navigation. For example sites in the design business would not be judged well if they stuck to the old conventions. Their aim is to actually break away from established habits. The best approaches then slowly find their way into the mainstream. They can do this because their target audience is prepared to work harder to get to the information they need.
Here are two sites that don’t use traditional navigation techniques, but do come up with some unique and novel alternatives.OwnyourC.com basically wants to ask you Yes/No questions. So that’s the navigation they are pushing. If you want more, you’ll have to look for it. The navigation serves to push the user towards the important parts of the content.MSNBC’s Spectra
aims to presents the news in a colourful, new way. There are some
innovative navigational features such as colour coding news segments
but it is clear it was not designed to be a One Stop News Shop of a
regular news portal. This was designed to look pretty. And it does.
break with convention to provide a uniquely tailored navigation of the
content within the site. The sites look and function in completely
different ways to conventional websites and are likely to confuse
rather than inform many users. However, some of the innovations may
ultimately make their way into more ‘mainstream’ sites.
your website needs an explanation of how it works and how to navigate,
it needs addressing. After building a site it is easy to take for
granted all the details we have painstakingly worked over and assume
they will be as obvious to a third party as they are to you. As a
result, the navigation of a site is vitally important, this can serve
as a great tool in aiding the user experience when used appropriately
for the specific target audience. The key is defining this at an early
stage and designing accordingly.