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July 25, 2007

Stay Invisible With Good Site Design

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I’m still digging through all my notes from this weekend’s WordCamp so I can share all the nuggets of information I collected. I’ll admit, I’m a tad behind schedule but after being stranded at the SFO airport for 20+ hours, having my flight delayed 4 times, then cancelled, then rebooked for the following day and then delayed again, it’s not completely my fault, right?

Anyway, one of the sessions I was able to attend during WordCamp was Liz Danzico’s discussion on the Usability Analysis of WordPress. Thankfully Liz was wise enough to re-title her session How Not to Get Noticed because that other title was definitely not user-friendly. While Liz’s talk was focused mainly on blog design in WordPress, a lot of the great information she shared can just as easily be applied to every day Web site design.

The title of Liz’s presentation was a nice play on the theory that it’s only bad design that gets noticed. Good site design is invisible to users because it’s seamless and just "works". Bad design is noticeable because it’s clunky, makes people squint and is altogether frustrating to users. If you’re new to Internet marketing, annoying users is generally considered bad.

When you’re thinking about how to design your site, you want to make sure that the content will be easy to find, that the layout is consistent and that it’s designed in a way that’s intuitive to users. All of the elements of your site should just "make sense". In a perfect world your site would feel like home.

Not surprisingly, Liz talked about coming up with persona types in order to understand the users visiting your Web site so that you can design with them in mind. What was surprising to me was the lengths to which Liz was willing to go to accomplish this. When conducting a study about how users interacted with WordPress blogs, Liz decided the best way to get accurate information was to sit down with individual users and watch them in their natural habitat. She observed users blog at coffee houses, at home, at work, etc. What she found was that (a) what people do and what they say they do are usually two very different things and (b) smoking and coffee drinking are to blogging what the cream filling is to the Oreo cookie – it’s what makes it delicious.

If you’re not able to enter a users’ natural habit there are still ways to see how users really interact with a site, what they’re interested in and what’s most important. Take a look at the most visited pages on your site. Which pages do users go to first? How about the most often?
Liz’s blog study also revealed an interesting trend in using nouns in user interfaces. If you’re a site selling women’s clothing, use verbs to name your silos in order to present a clear call to action. Use "Shop" instead of "Store", "Buy" instead of "Place in Cart", "Manage" instead of "Account Information". It’s a subtle change that can make a big difference.

For me, effective site design is really about making it easy for users to find the content they’re looking for. Users came to your site on a mission. Your job as a designer is to get out of their way and let them find it.

Web sites are getting a whole lot fancier these days. There are elaborate navigation set ups, logos, graphics, Flash, and a whole lot of text that is sometimes helpful and sometimes not. If you want to make your sites accessible and easier to digest for users (and to the search engines), figure out what’s essential to the page and what’s not. Ditching the clutter makes your page both more focused and easier to use.

Once you know what’s important, surface those elements. Get the right stuff in front of users and tuck the rest of the stuff under the bed. You want to make it easy for a user to find things by just glancing at the page. Don’t make them hunt.

What I’d really like to see is Web designers start utilizing all the dead space on their Web sites. I’ll share an embarrassing secret with you that may help to demonstrate this point. Please don’t use it against me later.

I like American Eagle jeans. I know, it’s disgustingly trendy but I like they way they fit. So while I was in San Francisco I noticed there was an AE not too far from my hotel. I thought, hey, I’m on a semi-vacation (my WordCamp trip wasn’t work sanctioned), I can treat myself, right? So I headed over and found the store (which was actually quite impressive since I have a total girl’s sense of direction), and I walk in. Only I have to walk through a couple feet of "dead space" before I actually get into the store. It’s that couple of feet where you don’t feel comfortable enough yet to commit to anything and the management knows that so they’ve stuffed it with mannequins or promotional displays. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the part of the store that’s more entry way than store?

Yeah, well site designers do the same thing to their Web site. Take the American Eagle Web site, for example, look at all the dead space on that home page. Why is that not being utilized? I’m not saying your site should be filled to the brim with information for users, but never sacrifice clarity for brevity or fashion for substance. Get rid of the dead space on your site and encourage users to jump right in. Oh, and get rid of those totally hip enter here pages too. No one likes those either.

Site design is important. You can have the greatest content in the world, but if no one can find it, it’s not going to do you any good. You want users to be talking about your content, not your site design.

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One response to “Stay Invisible With Good Site Design”

  1. Steven Bradley writes:

    It’s a really good point about good design being invisible. Too many people equate design with aesthetics only, when in truth the best designs are the ones you don’t notice. The best designs simply work well and help foster a positive user experience.



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