Going From “Cool” to Useful
Mar 4, 2014
At Centerline, when we see a website that has a design or interactive element we deem as innovative, or just plain cool, we share with our team, discuss, and file it in various shelves in both the right and left side of our brains. We do this to inspire, promote innovation, and to constantly keep the team at the forefront of all things digital. Working at a company that creates content which balances strategy and creativity for each project we deliver, I think it’s vital that everyone — no matter what job you’re in — is constantly aware of innovations and perspectives in your field (or even related field).
One thing that comes to mind when seeing innovative websites and digital experiences that my co-workers share is: Does a website with a cool or unique design become a hassle or an asset in transmitting and helping users digest content? When is interactivity on a website or web app a perfect approach, and when does it hinder?
To understand how web designs and interactivity effect the end user, I’ve been reading up on website design, modular layouts, adaptive hypermedia (web content that adjusts to the specific user – mostly seen in educational settings but could also be interpreted as suggested links or products), and spatial hypermedia (where the web user can move and adjust the website – adjust the layout or other elements of the webpage). Sounds kind of nerdy (and it is!), but doing the research taught me a few key points that I think should be considered for every digital project.
There Is No Design Catch-All
There is not one lesson or catch-all insight when it comes to merging great design or interactivity and research into user behavior and retention. Specific websites serve specific needs. More importantly, specific web users have specific needs and expect different experiences depending on the site. A modular layout is a wonderful layout for presenting different types of content on one page and making it easily digestible and scan friendly. Modular layouts are typically used for news and retail sites. However, this isn’t always the best approach. The design and end user experience needs to be tailored to the purpose of each digital experience. If your site is news, you would want to take into mind that most users scan and “frame up” an entire website before actually reading. That insight would change how text is presented. NBC News recently launched a new website and that falls right in line with this way of thinking.
Usability > Cool Functionality
This can mean a lot of different things. I am in a part-time graduate program at UNC, studying technology and communications. As part of an assignment we watched a video by Jackob Nielsen that discusses usability. While I wish Centerline had been brought in to make this video look a lot better than it does, the content is pertinent to anyone doing work in the digital space. There are several points that Nielsen makes regarding usability – one in particular is that “recognition trumps recall”.
This means that each user should be helped by the site or application recognizing what they want instead of the user having to remember or recall what they want. An example that Nielsen gives is when you do a simple Google search – the moment you begin typing Google begins giving suggestions as to what you’re searching for. The user never has to recall entirely what the search term is as Google recognizes trends in search terms and serves that to the user. Prioritizing recognition over recall eases the learning curve for all users. This takes the focus away from how to use the site or app and puts it on the purpose of why that user is on the site or app. This eases the overall experience for the user.
Don’t fear a little bit of usability conformity
I’m certainly not suggesting to conform design and website function – but, I do think general functionality should be similar across multiple platforms and designs. Usability guru Steve Krug discussed an interesting issue with mobile and tablet applications: all apps do the same thing, differently. Meaning, to do one action (like share a link) it is different in one application versus another. This creates user confusion and frustration. Krug makes a point that Windows and Mac OS desktop applications don’t really have this issue as the toolbar (file, edit, viewer) at the top make the general usability and functionality the same across the board.
Think about how much Mac OS and iOS have begun to merge usability functions in recent years. Mac OS is actually mimicking a lot of iOS features. Developers and designers should take this into consideration when creating websites and applications. No matter how unique and different a design might be, everyone can benefit from a user immediately understanding the basics of a digital experience without coaching and having to read instructions.
Overall, Krug and Nielsen make wonderful points about how to design and create digital experiences that are user friendly. In the last several years we’ve been rounding a corner in which new media sayings and icons are international symbols (think about how the “Like” button on Facebook has transformed across multiple platforms and applications). These are all points that are great to keep in mind for mobile, tablet, and web experience designs. I am not one for putting rules around creativity or abiding to a strict set of terms, however, if you take these as a start or general foundation to build on, I believe it will ultimately be a more positive experience for every end user.
Steve Jobs was responsible for adding the red, yellow, and green buttons at the top of window toolbars on Mac OS – making it so users immediately understood the buttons as it was related to something they see everyday, a stoplight. In looking at the future of design and digital interaction, I believe we will see a continuing movement of digital experiences mimicking real life – taking Krug’s ideas and combining virtual and real world functionality into websites and applications. We might then begin to face the question that the art world has for decades: does technology mimic life or does life mimic technology?
In thinking about this topic it makes me wonder: is the understanding of digital functionality more intuitive now than ever? Is the digital learning curve greater or less today than in the past? I’d love to hear thoughts and other examples of these ideas.