content posted in web design  on 21 November 2011
by Andrew Lang 
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Web Design Is Dictated By How People Actually Use a Site

I've used this cliché more than once, but it's worth repeating - ask 10 people their opinion on a particular website - in terms of design - and you'll get back 11 opinions.

First off, people often confuse the word "design" to only mean aesthetics - the look and feel. That's why you get such divided opinions on design - because aesthetics are judged very subjectively.

Web design is so much more than the surface though. In fact, good web design is about not letting the surface get in the way of what your website visitor wants to do. Good web design is about getting the hell out of the visitor's way - to make them do things quickly and with ease. Of course, there are exceptions to such a rule - sites where the look and feel IS the point (e.g. conceptual, art-related sites), but when it comes to your average e-commerce site, you just want to make your shop easy to browse and easy to buy from. It doesn't mean visual design is somehow an opposing force to this - in fact, good visual design aids usability. However, when visual design is the ONLY consideration, then it's a pure fluke if you get usability right (without even considering it!).

Now, here's an even more camouflaged trap when it comes to web development: using your own judgement when it comes to usability, and not basing usability on hard data. Being a developer, I have often confused my subjective opinion with fact, and built facilities I believed to be easy to use. I mean, if I think it's easy, and I've designed it to make it easy, then it MUST be easy to use. Right? Then I get negative feedback from users who say the opposite - it's NOT easy to use, and along comes the cognitive dissonance and stubbornness in my head: "why can't they see how easy it is to use?!". Of course, they are right and I am wrong, and after the confusion, I realise I need to re-think the design of this facility. Here's a typical case where design is dictated exclusively by user feedback. No matter how good something looks to you, and no matter how easy it is to use for you, that's completely irrelevant if a lot of website visitors are struggling with your design. Actual human behaviour (when measured in large enough numbers) dictates usability and design over time. Everything else is personal taste and preference - rarely are these reliable yardsticks no matter how compelling a case they make in your head!

Over the years, I've found web design to be almost exclusively a science, with just a little bit of art thrown in.

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