June 18, 2011

Ian Houghton lays out the present and future of web and device design.

Why does design on the internet matter?

Design is intimately connected with the success of websites and web applications, as it influences every aspect of the way users interact with the medium. It’s true that many poorly designed websites and applications are successful: they’ve got great content, or have been constructed around a killer concept. That many sites succeed in spite of their poor design shouldn’t, however, imply that there’s no space for well-designed experiences online. Poor presentation of content obfuscates and complicates the user experience, causing frustration and discouraging users.

A content-rich website with a well-designed interface and a pleasing visual design offers a far superior user experience than a content-rich website lacking these qualities.  Design can be essential in enabling the user experience in the case of a complicated interface, but also shines in easing and consequently improving the user experience when digesting simpler content.
Great web design is a combination of three factors. Visual design is one piece, layout is another, and usability is a third. Visual design is a luxury; layout and usability are closer to necessities. From a strong layout, almost any competent and relevant visual design can be successful. Usability is a necessity if a site or application is to have longevity; a product or service should just work.

Visual design

Here’s where things get tricky: an interesting visual design is not a prerequisite for a technically sound and functional website. In fact, many successful website layouts do not hold much artistic merit; form is eschewed for function. Neither Craigslist nor Wikipedia have won any beauty pageants. Still, these websites provide a service which many find indispensable.

That’s not to say that we should forget about making the web more beautiful. Visual design serves one primary purpose and a number of secondary purposes on the web. Its primary purpose is to convince us that the website or web application we’re viewing is worth the investment of our time. Assuming no prior knowledge, an attractive visual design is more likely to ensnare our attention than an unattractive one. An attractive visual design breaks the ice for the user and enhances their engagement with the product or service offered. The reverse is also true, as anyone who has visited a website with a yellow-on-purple colour scheme can testify. A great visual design can be a competitive advantage; given the choice between two equivalent services, it is natural to assume that most people will choose to use the one which they find most superficially attractive.

Visual design also contributes to usability; the use of images or colour placement in a design can assist in directing the attention of users and enhancing calls-to-action. Visual design is especially important for tablet devices like the iPad and PlayBook; the tactility of an interface, despite its two-dimensional form, directly affects the user experience. Websites designed with touch-enabled devices in mind cannot rely on techniques like rollovers as a crutch to inform the user of the existence or nature of a link or button.

The tablet effect

The introduction of touch-enabled devices to the web is simultaneously a great opportunity and minor inconvenience for web designers. Inconvenient because of the limitations of the systems – rollovers are eliminated, new content orientations are introduced and technological limitations are thrown into the playing field. However, the challenge to simplify and adapt web interfaces to a more tactile environment leads to an opportunity to create better interfaces which can carry over their usability and accessibility benefits to non-touch devices. This is not a new phenomenon; PDAs and phones have been able to access the internet for years. Nevertheless, growth in the non-desktop sector has exploded over the past several years.

In the case of the iPad, its limitations are also opening doors for web design; the elimination of Flash from the equation encourages the use of more accessible, progressive and standards-driven technologies such as the jQuery library and HTML 5. The use of Flash in website design is a crutch, driven largely by a perceived need for flamboyant presentation which has never really existed. It’s less search engine-friendly, more crash-prone and slower than technologies which are capable of replacing many of the ways it is employed. However, the growing competition from Flash-capable tablets running Android is likely to ensure that Flash won’t disappear any time soon.

The other encouraging influence of devices which broaden the environments designers can expect their websites to be viewed in is the incentive they provide for the development of more flexible and intelligent layouts and consequently, websites which are more versatile and robust in diverse viewing environments. This broadening environment also offers a strong argument for the support of robust and non-proprietary standards for producing web content.

Web designers should not rely on their ability to create an attractive visual design to make a living; we have a shared responsibility to maintain a standards-driven internet. This is an opportunity rather than a restriction; websites which adhere to standards are more accessible in a variety of mediums, increasing the reach of a well-designed site, service or application. The relentless spread of web technologies to devices which bear little resemblance to a traditional desktop computer will ensure that websites which have little regard for standards will have their accessibility massively hindered.

The introduction of the iPhone, iPad and other mobile devices, together with the associated popularisation of applications to interact with basic web services has created alternate ways for people to interact with the web. Instead of browsing the web traditionally (although mobile devices are perfectly capable of doing this), their interaction within the online environment is frequently restricted to the functionality of a single website through downloadable applications. This can do great things for the usability of a website; applications can provide more effective ways to control the interaction of users with websites in ways that traditional website design does not. In situations like this, the role of the internet becomes more like an operating system; a required component to run an application.

The role of design in these emerging systems leans more towards interface design than what has traditionally been considered web design.  The traditional elements of web design, many of which carry over from print design, remain essential; they are also joined, however, by a growing need to consider the way users interact with these online systems.

If we take into account that many applications are, in fact, moving onto the internet through various ‘cloud’ providers (iCloud, Microsoft Cloud, Google Apps et al), the method by which tablet applications provide web services seems less anomalous. It is for this reason that technologies which provide more robust and consistent tools for website production should be encouraged.  Users expect a measure of compatibility, consistency and usability from the applications which run on their own computers, an attitude which is likely to become more prevalent in the online environment. As online systems become more unified and the services they offer more complex, the role of design in simplifying and translating the way people interact with and react to material on the internet is more important than ever. The internet is maturing, and the approach chosen when designing for it should take this into account.

Ian Houghton is a graphic designer/illustrator/climber/runner/skier/traveller currently based in Revelstoke, BC, Canada.
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