For a good graphic designer, usability and site speed must be part of their process, not just buzz words. Usability should be the highest priority when designing a website.
Reading Nielsen Alertbox articles and exercising common sense is a good first step in learning usability and applying it in your work. I often see website designs that at a first glance seem creative, glossy, and trendy, having been produced by expensive designers for high-end firms. However, at a closer look some of these websites turn out to be very unusable. Often it’s the client who demands a “beautiful” design, or it’s the designer who wants to turn the project into their fancy portfolio piece or to prove that they are on top of the ‘trends.’
The problem is, trends come and go. If you follow the mainstream trends, chances are many others do, as well, so your website may be not much different from numerous other websites out there.
A worse problem is, a beautiful design is not always usable. Often, it’s the opposite. Usability tends to dictate design that is too conservative, too predictable, too simple, too organized. Its focus is ease of use, not artistic expression. However, usable websites don’t have to be ugly. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s the skill of a designer to combine the two, to make the interface as nice-looking as possible while keeping usability principles in mind as a priority.
What is usability
Usability is a general term for the way to design and build a user interface that is clear, uncluttered, well organized, self-explanatory, and intuitive. It all comes down to one thing: making it easy for visitors to find information and to use the features on your site. It should be easy to use for average users, not for technically savvy designers who have built the interface and are already familiar with it.
There’s a lot of interesting reading material on usability, some of it is quite fun to read and applies not only to websites and apps, but also to physical objects and commercial products, such as the all-time favorite “The Design of Everyday Things”. I started being aware of usability back in college, after I enjoyed reading another great book, “Don’t Make Me Think”. Nowadays I regularly read usability articles from Nielsen Norman Group. I use their advice as a guidance when I design my prototypes and websites and when I consult clients on their designs and on features they want to implement.
Let’s say you are designing a website, and you want it to look according to the latest trend. You want to build a single long scrolling page (or, maybe, a Metro-style horizontal scroll, why not?), add a beautiful large cover image, big icons, minimalistic navigation, short catchy captions, and throw in some sleek animation.
But then, what if your icons aren’t clear enough, not easy to understand? That means these cute icons everyone admires have to be replaced with text labels (alternatively, text labels can be put next to the icons, but that defeats the purpose of the icons). What if your users can’t see the minimized menu? That means you have to make room for a navigation bar. Also, maybe horizontal scrolling is not such a wise choice? Or, what if that beautiful large image loads too slow on some older machines? Or these catchy short captions don’t mean much to the average user (as Nielsen puts it, they have “little information scent). Now you have to make room for explanatory text or longer captions. As for the big slideshows and carousels that many designers like to put on their homepages, well, turns out these are often ignored by visitors.
All in all, asking yourself these questions may result in revisiting your entire design concept, but these questions are necessary to ask, because usability comes first.
Ideally, clients should put aside some money for at least basic usability review and testing. This doesn’t happen as often as it should, because usually all the budget goes into design and development, with usability as an afterthought or as a secondary concern. Usability is not rocket science though. Most of it, without much research and user testing, is simply common sense and ability to put yourself in your users’ shoes. Do you really think these icons are self-explanatory to everyone else but yourself? Do you really think users have the time to spend on your site and poke around to discover those rollover labels? Would they stay long enough to read your wordy pages or to wait until your beautiful slideshow loads? Would you do the same if you were on some other site?
It’s amazing how many sites look like their designers never asked themselves these basic questions. Even if you don’t have extra budget for an in-depth usability study, looking at your designs through the eyes of the average user and using your common sense to set basic usability objectives would be a good start.
And to the clients who think all that matters is a beautiful design, I’d say, it’s conversions that count. If your site is slow to load or if your information is hidden behind minimalistic menus or ambiguous icons, then it doesn’t matter how beautiful your cover slideshow is. Users may appreciate the visual look of your site, but if they are confused about your features or where to find the information they are looking for, they may not engage with your site long enough and will simply leave and go to another site. You want to maximize your chances for conversions, and usability definitely helps you achieve that.