content posted in web design  on 14 May 2009
by Andrew Lang 
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Optimal Web Design

Probably the most contentious issue I face with web development is aesthetics : the "look and feel" of a website. Ask 10 people what's a good colour scheme, layout, font etc and you'll get back 11 opinions.

I can hear the response already : "so what - design is subjective isn't it? Of course you will get differences of opinion!".

Except web design isn't really as subjective as people think it is. Web design is much more a science than it is an art. There are many hard-and-fast rules to follow, quite a few of them not exactly visible to the layman, yet vitally important to ensure your site maximises visibility in search engines, is accessible to all, and is also easy-to-use.

But enough of web design, let's look at cars.....

"Modern cars look boring"

Modern cars all look the same, don't they? Have car makers lost their imagination? Not really. What's actually going on is the incremental journey toward an optimal design.

Cars are primarily sold on engine performance, fuel economy, durability, storage capacity, safety etc. And guess what? All car makers are slowly converging on the same path toward that optimal design, because optimal design is NOT subjective. It is an objective reality. It is manifested in measurable improvements. Hence cars are looking more and more similar. Car makers create a template (a car model) that maximises performance, economy, durability, storage and safety, give it a name, make it available in a handful of colours, and then sell it.

And so it goes with website development. A website also has an "optimal design" to try to live up to in 2009 : to attain the state of being as easy to use as possible, to adapt to the internet landscape of 2009 (take into account social bookmarking sites, Twitter, Facebook etc), be as visible to search engines as possible, to be accessible to 100% of people (most sites aren't), to be as safe as possible for both website visitor and website owner (take into account threats to websites in 2009), and to be as powerful as possible in terms of backoffice facilities made available to the site owner.

With an optimal design created, next up is optimal content : content that compels the maximum number of visitors to buy something, sign up to a subscription, to make them do what you want them to do.

Anything that gets in the way of your journey to optimal design and optimal content is undesirable.

Key point: you never really "arrive" at a 100% optimal design - it's a journey. Even if you "arrive", things change. What's optimal in 2009, may not be optimal in 2010. Look at cars : today's hybrid car is made obsolete by tomorrow's electric car. And so this is why we have taken the template route with web design - we continually patch websites using our template to ensure they stay on the "optimal path". An example: your site that was built in 2004 knows nothing about social bookmarking sites or Twitter. So if your site hasn't changed in this time, there will be no opportunity to add quick links to social bookmarking sites at the bottom of your articles, or even have "tweets" sent to Twitter immediately after writing an article (alerting your Twitter followers of your latest article). In 2012, the internet landscape will have changed even further, so your site needs to adapt to its surroundings. This is just one example of working to an optimal design.

What you want is not always what you need

And so back to the original point of this blog entry. Here's a conversation I've had a few times:-

Enquirer : "We need our site to look like {insert big brand name website}. We need decent rankings in the search engine, and we have no budget for advertising the site. We want the site to be easy to use."

Me {visits website} : "There is an issue in that the site is entirely developed in Flash. This means your site will be difficult to use for a good number of your visitors (those with particular disabilities, those using an iPhone and some other mobile devices, etc), Flash is not REALLY very visible to search engines, and it breaks your browser's navigation to name but some of the issues"

Enquirer : "well, the brand is obviously famous, they're doing well, they chose this type of site, so it's something I want to aspire to for my own site."

Me : "I guess they can afford to not care about the issues I've mentioned. However, you need to care about these issues because you're a start-up and you will need every advantage you can get over your competitors to succeed."

Enquirer : "I understand what you're saying, BUT I need it to look like this site"

And so we reach an impasse. The enquirer's business goals were being jeopardised by the enquirer himself putting obstacles in the way.

Optimal design is uncompromising

While you can "sort of" make a Flash site visible to search engines through a technique called cloaking, it's still not the most OPTIMAL solution. And of course you're stuck with accessibility and usability problems.

It's not just Flash though. Some people want conceptual designs that are unconventional (and therefore awkward to use for your average user), graphical icon navigation (without text) - so you have to guess what each icon represents, heavy-loading dynamic HTML "tricks" that aren't cross-browser compatible or don't work if people's security settings aren't set to "low"(!), dropdown menus that only appear on rollover (yes, there's a way to tab through these without using a mouse, but it's still not OPTIMAL), audio/video that autoplays when a page loads, popup windows etc.

While I can develop such sites, the purpose of is to work like a car maker does and work toward an optimal design.

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