Ways to use the elements of navigation

When users look for information, they have a goal and are on a mission. Even before you started to read this article, chances are you did because you either had the implicit goal of checking what’s new on Smashing Magazine, or had the explicit goal of finding information about “Navigation Design”.

After a couple of seconds of scanning this article, and maybe reading parts of the introduction, you may have started to ask yourself whether the information that you’re consuming at the moment is actually relevant to you—the user. Unfortunately (and as certain as death and taxes), if users cannot find the information they are looking for, chances are they will abandon their track, never to return.

Being the compassionate human being that I am, I’ll try to explain to you what this article is about, so you can make your choice either to continue reading, or not. This article is not about where you should place the menu of your website or mobile application, or about the number of options a menu should contain. It is also not about how you visually enforce the perceived affordance of a user-interface element, and why that is so important.

This article is about the tiniest of details that goes into creating the main centerpiece of your digital product—the construction of the elements of your navigation. This is the most important aid you can possibly give to your users as they are constantly seeking a reason to walk out on you.

Words, Words, Words

The first thing I do when I start to sketch out the information architecture of a digital product based on the requirements at hand is to blatantly label stuff. This is nothing unique—I simply need to formulate a label (most of the time accompanied by a short description) of all the possible information entities I discover to be able to reveal taxonomy and relationships between them. You might have a similar approach, using tools like post-its, whiteboards or even some digital application created for this purpose. This can be the inception of small problems that will constantly grow over time if we do not assess them correctly and in a timely manner: the labels are yours, and yours alone.

“Locate store” is your label of something that enables the users to find physical stores in a mobile application. “Commodities” is your label of a view that enlists all the goods your client wants to retail on an e-commerce site. “Start” is your label on the landing-page of a website. From a linguistic point-of-view, you can analyze the meaning of sentences, words and letters in different context for hours on end.

You can look at the structure in terms of morphology, syntax and phonology, or why not look at the meaning in terms of semantics and pragmatics. Fortunately, in most cases you do not have reach as far as asking a linguistic researcher about your labeling—people in your target audience will do just fine.

Navigation - Start
“This might be a good start!”

User-Testing Labels

So what is the easiest way of doing a sanity check of the way you express the information space? A really cheap and well-proven technique is Card Sorting. By using card sorting, you can transform your early taxonomy prognoses into folksonomy. Card sorting not only helps you to create an informed information architecture, it also enables you to get an insight to what keywords users relate to different activities in your product.

Another test is a Word Association game. Take all potential labelings of your navigation design and try them out on users asking them to “say the first thing that comes to mind” (in regard of what they believe to be found beneath such a navigation option—call it Think-Aloud Protocol with a twist. For example, you could say “Products” and the participant might respond with “Price, description, information, stock”. Market researchers have used this technique for decades to ensure that the right message is conveyed by their target audience when promoting products.

Two important questions that you need to find to an answer to at this stage are:

  1. Can the users relate the labels in the navigation design to their explicit goals of exploring your digital product?
  2. Are the meaning of the words metaphorically and visually separated enough not to be confused with each other?

Navigation - Change
“Ok, so lets change ‘Commodities’ to ‘Our Products’ and ‘Locate store’ to ‘Our Stores’.”

Removing Redundancy and Lowering the Reaction Time

In his masterpiece “Don’t make me think”, Steve Krug writes, “When I look at most Web pages, I’m struck by the fact that most of the words I see are just taking up space, because no one is ever going to read them.” The more information we cram into our navigation, the harder it becomes for the users to quickly grasp the different options.

In 1935, the American psychologist John Ridley Stroop published “Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions” along with the now renowned “Stroop effect”. Stroop had found that given the task of naming the color a word was written in, took longer and was more prone to error if the word itself was the name of a different color (e.g. the word “Blue” written in the color red).

What we can learn from Stroops discovery is that we have a hard time not reading words—even though we are given a task explicitly instructing us not to. Have a quick look at the navigation in your design and ask yourself what can be removed without losing its meaning.

Navigation - Contact
“It seems I really donʼt need the word ‘Our’ in front of ‘Products’ and ‘Stores’.”

What Did Product ‘A’ Do In Situation ‘B’?

If you still have not managed to convince your employer that early user testing will pay off in the long run, you should at least have the courtesy to look at the benchmark. In what way have others solved their navigation design? Just spending some time looking at what others have done will help you reach valuable conclusions. This can be really time efficient and a good way to increase product usability, since users will be able to use previously acquired knowledge by simply recognizing similar terminology used in other products.

Navigation - Contact
“It does seem like all other websites in our business area have their contact information beneath an option labeled ‘Contact’. I better change ‘Reach us’.”

Symbols, Pictograms & Icons

Symbols, pictograms and icons in digital user interfaces are long gone from luxury to necessity. They contribute to signature, personality, recognition, and abstraction in our visual language. Furthermore, studies have given evidence suggesting that user interfaces have less favorable perceptions of usability and usefulness when only relying on textual expressions.

Why did I willfully write “Symbols, pictograms and icons” and not just “Icons” as we all love to call them? Before I start to use only the word “Icon”, I want to make sure we are all on board as to the differences (without digging too deep into the perilous depths of semiotic science).

What Is What

A symbol is typically defined as an abstract representation that requires conventional knowledge amongst the users for them to fully understand their meaning. People in some cultures have learnt that the meaning of an octagon shaped sign in a tone of red communicates “Stop.” So a symbol earns meaning over time through conventional use.

A pictogram on the other hand is usually defined as simplified pictorial representation. Pictograms—or pictographs—are, as far as possible, self-explanatory and most often do not require any deep previous learnings to make any sense. You often see pictograms (and ideograms) on signposts and in environmental design since they are least contingent to produce cultural misunderstandings. For example, a sign with an arrow indicating a direction.

The definition of the word “Icon” can be a bit vague depending on the context of use, but I like to say that an icon can be a sign, symbol, picture or image that stands for or represents an object in its resemblance as an analogy for it.

Whether you should use a symbol, a pictogram, an icon or a combination of all three to help you communicate information, all depends on the situation you find yourself in. Disregarding what we use, there is some common knowledge and analysis we can use to make sure that the receivers (i.e. our users) actually understand what we are trying to convey with our design.

User-testing Icons

There is an abundance of ways to perform user testing and peer reviews of iconography. My two absolute favorites are what I have come to call “tag-that-icon” and “connect-the-dots” mainly because they are quick to perform and they give great insights into users’ spontaneous opinions (plus, they are actually quite fun to prepare and execute).

You can perform tag-that-icon in one of two ways:

  • Method 1:
    Give several icon suggestions to the participants and ask them to tag them with whatever comes to mind within three minutes.
  • Method 2:
    Randomly show the participants one icon at a time during a day and ask them to come up with tags for each icon during 20-30 seconds.

The latter has most probably proven itself to be really good and better for testing different metaphors for one specific icon when the number of participants are low.

When you have a set of icons and labels that are closing in on finalization, you can then do connect-the-dots testing. All you need to for the test are printouts with one section of all your suggested icons (in a random order) and one section with all your labels (in a different random order). Then, give the printouts to the participants and ask them to draw a line between an icon and the label they think it is coupled with.

Navigation - Test
“At least I can be certain that all my suggested icons works for the ‘Directions’ menu option.”

Removing Redundancy Re-Visited

Just as with labels, avoiding redundant information in the icons is just as important. This is of course quite a bold statement from a designer, but there are many cases out there in the wild that simply add so many details to an icon that it starts to disrupt the users’ ability to interpret and differentiate them. This becomes most evident when you have common shapes in the icons that affects their intergroup saliency (i.e. the quality by which an object stands out relative to its neighbors).

Navigation - Circles
“Do I really need the circles? If I look at them briefly or squint, they all look the same—I better change that!”

Picture/Word Interference

Given a set of lined drawings of simple objects coupled with distractor words, humans show a clear effect of increased response time in naming the drawn object. This is also known as Picture Word Interference (PWI). What PWI can be interpreted to mean is that when an icon is paired with a label in a way that the user does not connect together, it becomes much harder for them to work out the intended meaning.

For humans, a label with “Banana” coupled with a cucumber icon would be unclear as to what it is. What makes matters even worse for users in a navigation context is; “What should I really follow—your icons or your labels?” Avoid creating distracting stimulus through semantic interference between your icons and labels.

Looking at contextual consistency and standards in regards to iconography can really help you. There are some really great resources out there for finding inspiration, but you can also use them as a source of knowledge in finding trends and standards in iconography. If 9 out of 10 result with the term “Favorites” on Iconfinder.net that contain a star or a heart-shaped icon, then that may probably be a good starting point for your “Favorites” icon as well.

Navigation - Icons
“I have no idea what I was thinking. I think I have to throw away all of these, restart all over again and do some more user testing.”

Six Navigation Design Guidelines

After reading all of the above, you should have a good foundation to take your navigation design to the next level and place it in its intended environment along with the rest of the design and perform controlled user testing and see how they interplay. Here are 6 navigation design guidelines for you to consider as you embark the journey of designing the navigation of your upcoming project:

  • Clarity:
    Make sure that your navigation has a linguistic and semantic clarity that communicates to your users in an direct, efficient and adequate way.
  • Simplicity:
    Avoid using technical labels and icons that no one recognizes. Speak the language of the user rather than using complex terms and form factors unfamiliar to your users.
  • Saliency:
    Avoid having redundant and repetitive terms and shapes in your labels and icons that affects their intergroup saliency. This can easily influence your users ability to differentiate and interpret them as a whole.
  • Context:
    Look at the consistency and standards for labels and iconography used in the context that you are designing for. It is more efficient for your users to recognize rather than needing to interpret information that is unfamiliar to them.
  • Correlation:
    Avoid creating distracting stimulus through semantic interference between labels and icons. Reduce uncertainty and make sure that they clearly communicates one message as they are put together.
  • Tonality:
    Ensure that the tonality of the message is still consistent at the end of the design work. Colors, typography and form heavily affect the way your audience conceive and interprets the information.

Of course, not all types of navigation design contain both labels and icons. Some just use icons and some just use labels. you have roughly three cues for guiding your users: One factual (the label), one helpful (the icon) and then—the sometimes subliminal—character (color, typography and form). They do not always need to co-exist since different context requires different solutions. But your message can easily become blurred the fewer of them you use.

So ask yourself this: Can I afford to be vague in the way I communicate and help my users to reach their goal? (Hint: No!)

How to design engaging and enjoyable reading experiences

Finally, some good news from the media industry: digital subscriptions are growing. We’re seeing positive reports from newspapers such as the New York Times and magazine publishers such as Conde Nast: announcements about increases in their digital content sales and paywall members.

When you have fantastic and original content, ensuring the best possible reading experience is critical to keeping and building your audience. The following practices will help you design your content in a way that improves the experience for readers.

Navigation Methods

We often think that having many methods for finding things is easier for users. Unfortunately, the result can be mess of unhelpful and unrelated links, menus, widgets and ads. Many news websites place lists of “most-read articles” or “articles that your Facebook friends are reading” on their websites because they can. Analytics will tell you whether these methods are useful for your particular website. If no one is clicking on them, why are they taking up valuable space?

One way to quickly see the effect of slimmed-down navigation is to use Ochs, a Chrome browser extension specifically for the New York Times, written by Michael Donohoe. Open the New York Times in a different browser, then install Ochs and look at the website in Chrome. Ochs provides the massive benefit of a cleaner layout and clutter-free navigation. Things like reading tools and extra modules are removed from articles. The increased white space and removal of the New York Times’ dense navigation bars are a breath of fresh air.

New York Times with Ochs experience
The Ochs extension cleans up the UI of the New York Times.

There is a difference between having a reasonable way to navigate a website versus having one-click access to all of the website’s content. How do your users typically find what they want? Do they use the navigation links or jump straight to the search box?

Changing the navigation methods may be as straightforward as removing redundant menu bars or as involved as conducting user research to see which methods people use and don’t use.

Another thing to consider when looking at navigation usage patterns is that people rarely click on things that appear hard to read or cluttered. If that’s the case with your website, perhaps it’s time to look at your typography and spacing.

Experimenting With Type And Spacing

Not every typeface was designed to be read on a digital screen. Typefaces can have a huge effect on both the appeal of content and its readability. The typefaces for headlines may be beautiful and attention-grabbing, but if the ones for the copy are difficult to read, you could be turning away readers.

Not everyone will read your content exactly as it was designed. Some people set their own default font size, while others change their screen’s resolution. Still others use assistive technology, such as screen readers, to peruse content. During the course of a day, I read blogs on my iPad, pan and zoom through news on my mobile phone, edit documents on
an enormous desktop monitor and browse the Web from my television screen (at low resolution). For this same reason, tools such as Instapaper, Readability and Evernote are growing massively. The ability to control the format of what you read — and where you read it — is becoming increasingly useful.

The Boston Globe’s recent overhaul of its website received a lot of well-deserved praise, and two of the nicest things about it are the use of white space and the typography. The fonts chosen are central to the Boston Globe’s Web style, and they feel relevant to its almost 240-year-old print identity. Compare the new design to the original one, and the contrast is staggering. The Boston Globe’s new look is a great case study for news websites and readability in general. Definitely have a look if you haven’t yet.

The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe’s new interface has carefully chosen fonts plus more white space.

While some fonts were created specifically for digital reading, there is no magical formula for selecting type. To find out what works, do some testing. User testing, A/B testing and even testing within your own team can yield insights. Have everyone on your team read through a handful of long-form content on various devices. If people can’t make it through more than a few paragraphs, try different fonts, sizes or spacing. Or maybe rethink some of those distracting ads.

Respectful Advertising

How often do you see people rush to turn the page of a magazine just to skip an ad? Probably rarely. But people do it on websites all the time, panicking to find the small “Close” icon on a pop-up ad, or flummoxed as to which browser tab is playing an audio ad. I hope the people who create these creepy auto-play ads will one day experience the terror of being alone at the office late at night as a rogue audio clip begins speaking to them.

As an avid reader of both print and digital magazines, I’m overwhelmed by the stark difference in advertisements between them. Print magazine ads regularly hold my interest and engage me — I do not tear out pages of magazines, nor do I cover the ads. Magazines select advertisements that are relevant to their audience and that are attractive and well designed. Advertisers usually do not spend big money on print ads only to create unattractive content for them.

For some reason, all of this goes out the window when it comes to online ads. Companies are told that no one notices ads unless they grab attention, and so they create loud, garish ads — ads that do nothing for the product and that most likely diminish the viewer’s interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The advertising network The Deck prides itself on tasteful, targeted ads for an influential audience of creative professionals. Its ads are uniform in size and amount of text. The Deck does not pay for or run ads unless it has used the products themselves, so it vouches for all of its advertisers. The emphasis on small graphics forces advertisers to be creative, and advertisers get a return of 3% of all page views in The Deck’s current network.

Ads from the Deck
The Deck’s ads are tasteful and subtle.

Both advertisers and audiences have something to gain when ads are relevant and attractive. The growing shift towards responsive and respectful advertising has been written about at length by people such as Mark Boulton and Roger Black (see the related links at the bottom of this article). It’s worth reading their takes on these new Web ads, and you might even want to have an internal discussion at your company about how the advertising on your website could be made more valuable for everyone.

Moreover, if the ads on your website are respectful and relevant, people might check out the advertisers’ products, increasing both visited metrics and click-through rates, thus allowing you to charge more for advertising. So, do dive into your website’s analytics.

Check Your Analytics

We want to do the right thing: build websites that are responsive and that adapt to devices. But we have to be reasonable, too. What is achievable given your budget and time frame? Analytics are one of the best ways to hone in on what to prioritize. Even a simple free tool like Google Analytics can yield important insight into who is viewing your website and how. Google Analytics can also track readers’ paths through the website, showing you what content and sections are being avoided or ignored.

The Financial Times keeps a close eye on its visitor analytics. It has over 1 million registered users. In November, it announced that its Web app (which launched in June 2011) was replacing its native mobile app. The Financial Times also released data indicating the types of devices that are being used to access its website and the times of day. And it recently launched a native Android app — perhaps because the number of people accessing its website on Android devices is growing.

The Financial Times
The Financial Times ditched the App Store for its own Web apps.

If you notice that most of your traffic is coming from people on tablets, you can optimize for that experience first. Management at your company may be pushing hard for a native app, but you should determine a couple of things before writing the design specifications for a native app:

  1. Does the audience for such an app exist, or is one growing?
  2. Is that audience not getting a good enough experience from your website.

If your current audience barely has any iOS users but has a significant chunk of Android users, why not start there instead? Additionally, what are those Android users doing on your website? Are they sticking around and enjoying your mobile experience, or do they bounce quickly? The latter could indicate that the experience on your website isn’t ideal.

But if you want to know for sure, ask them.

Has Anyone Asked Your Users?

It saddens me how often content and experience decisions are made without consulting the people who those decisions will affect. Facebook users are familiar with the pandemonium that occurs every time a new interface goes live — people often struggle to find what was once familiar and obvious.

The Sunday Times’ iPad app was updated in August based on user feedback. Users requested to be able to download all sections with the click of a button. The Sunday Times added the ability to download all or individual sections, improved the functionality for deleting sections and editions, and bundled sections more usefully. These changes were the result of direct comments and feedback from users.

The Sunday Times iPad app
The Sunday Times listened to users and changed its downloading options.

Short in-person interviews or widespread surveys are fast and easy ways to get feedback directly from readers about what they like and don’t like about your content. Find out about their reading habits. Learn when and where they read articles — the answers may surprise you. Perhaps the section you were considering cutting has a growing audience. Maybe a feature that gets very good engagement in print doesn’t translate so well online and needs to be rethought.

And if users tell you they’re frustrated by trying to read anything on your website, consider offering them a quiet room.

“A Quiet Room”

Walking from the cacophony of New York’s Times Square into a tiny, quiet office can bring a feeling of relief. All of a sudden, no one is in your face trying to get you to buy something or take a tour or give them money. You can just relax and focus.

Finding a website or app that lets you read and enjoy its content is just like this. The experience is not stressful, and you can take your time and enjoy the writing, which seems to have been created just for you. As a designer, you can create this “quiet room” for readers, a place where they can fully absorb the content without having to close pop-ups or be confronted by an animation that screams that they are the 1,238,901st visitor that day. A quiet room is why applications like Instapaper and Readability get effusive praise.

A List Apart does a good job of avoiding clutter and letting the reader focus. Articles have minimal sidebar navigation and only a couple of small, tasteful advertisements. The majority of the page has a simple format: easy-to-read text (peppered with images), a conclusion that points you to related material, and a chance to discuss the article.

A List Apart
A List Apart creates room for readers to enjoy the content.

When Doesn’t This Work?

These approaches will not work for every group of content or every website. Some content is meant to be skimmed for quick comprehension. Other websites contain no narrative content. And many websites rely too much on advertising revenue to be able to change their ad strategy.

If your content changes rapidly, is short and to the point, contains little analysis or has any combination of these, then it’s likely not a good fit for this approach. But if you have done your research and you have content that is well written and that your audience likes to get lost in, then perhaps some of the ideas mentioned above are worth a try.

Regardless of the length and type of your content, here’s a useful exercise: go through each of the issues covered above and think of one thing you could change to make your content more readable. Some of the revisions might be long term and big picture, but you might be surprised by the easy opportunities to make a big impact. Give your readers a reason to enjoy your website as it is, instead of a reason to reformat the content and turn the page as fast as possible.

Resources

7 points how to build responsive website

While it may be exciting to work at a quickly expanding ecommerce company such as Lot18, our fervour was tempered a few months ago when the development team was faced with a choice: keep building on top of the site’s engine, which was never intended to be used for more than a few months after launch; or build an entire new platform from the ground up, one that could last us for years. We opted for the latter, cramming a year’s worth of work into three and a half months.

We also knew our visitors were accessing Lot18 in increasingly diverse ways, and that this trend would continue. Rather than anticipate our users’ preferences, we developed a responsive site that adapts and feels natural on a wide range of web-connected devices. Responsive web design was central to our development strategy, but it forced us to think differently than we ever had in development work.

Here are seven things we learned in building a responsive site in a short amount of time.

1. Really, how many sites can you build?

The good thing about being a developer is there’s always another device, browser or operating system to adapt to – no shortage of work. But building one version or app after another isn’t a sustainable strategy at a small company. Developing, testing and deploying a single code base streamlines almost every step in the process. When it’s crunch time and your eyes are tired, you can focus on one critical path – without distraction.

Responsive web site

2. The business comes first

The holiday shopping season is the busiest for ecommerce – and it’s completely mental for sites specialising in food and wine, as Lot18 does. With thousands of shoppers planning parties and buying gifts, we couldn’t assume every purchaser would be sitting at a desk or, alternatively, would take the time to search for an app, download it and use it.

It was an equally unsafe assumption that any particular user would employ the same type of device for each and every visit to the site, or that any of a user’s friends invited to join Lot18 would have similar devices. Taking a responsive approach prioritises the business and reorients our thinking as a development team. We’re closer to customer experience and not solely focused on our own schedules and timetables.

3. Stop chasing platforms and build features

Freed up from targeting platforms, we could dedicate more time to building features for the new site. For example, as we overhauled our checkout system, we could focus on one UI/UX strategy without worrying about device-specific builds. Moving forward, the development team will be more feature-focused and efficient.

Responsive web site

4. Everyone is QA

At a small company, everyone is busy and may not have time to walk through the new version of the site to help find bugs or unintended complications. But we encountered a nice consequence with our new responsive design: everyone could test the site on their own time.

If someone wanted to test or just check out the site in progress, they could use their phones during their commutes, or their tablets – or their TVs at home. Even better, this type of testing is likely closer to how our members use the site.

5. Be consistent across native apps and the mobile web

Lot18 will release a native iPhone app soon. Like most native apps, it is designed for iPhone and feels natural.

However, even the most dedicated app users will run into the mobile site via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. The responsive site provides a consistency across the native and mobile web experiences, and reinforces the overall brand experience.

Responsive web site

6. Explore new interactions

Leading up to the launch, we observed a new behaviour in people previewing the site. Once they figured out that the site responded to them, they started playing with it. Responsiveness adds dimension to the experience and provides a fresh look as users move from one device to another – or one device mode to another.

What I saw was an emotional reaction that translated as, “This is fun.” This is always a good thing.

7. You’ll get reliable analytics

Finally, when comparing stats, it’s nice to know that users are hitting the same code and interacting with the same content. We’ve also gained new perspectives on how users behave, and have already seen positive changes reflected in our metrics.

The best thing about our recent launch is that, for us, there’s no longer a ‘real’ Lot18.com. Instead there’s a Lot18 experience, with any visitor – regardless of the device used – capturing a particular facet. As a result, our development group is closer to the business and can act almost like an extension of the customer-service department, providing a better online-shopping experience – which can’t be bad in the highly competitive ecommerce space.

What Bach has to do with modern Web challenges

As technology evolves, so does the art and craft of Web design. New technology creates new challenges, which require new solutions. Often we’re working in uncharted territory, where the solutions demanded really are new. Other times, we’re faced with problems of a more universal nature, problems that have a history.

Given the limited history of Web design, we have to look beyond our immediate domain for answers to the more challenging questions. We do this all the time when we draw on the rich history of graphic design and visual arts. But we’re not limited to sibling disciplines. If we can identify the abstractions and patterns that constitute our challenges, we can look to any source for guidance. We can look to a seemingly unrelated field, such as psychology or music. We can even look to an episode from the early 18th century about Johann Sebastian Bach.

In this article we’ll look at what Bach has to do with modern Web challenges — Particularly the challenge of designing for devices with diverse attributes and capabilities.

Bach And “The Well-Tempered Clavier”

In 1722, Bach put together a book of solo keyboard works intended as a collection of educational pieces for young musicians. The book contained 48 pieces — a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. Now a staple of the Western canon, it’s regarded as one of the most important works in the history of Western music. He named the book The Well-Tempered Clavier.

To appreciate the historical significance of the work, you have to understand that in Bach’s day the notion that one might play keyboard music in all keys was unorthodox. It was a matter not of philosophy, but of physics: a fixed-pitch keyboard instrument could be in tune only with a selection of keys at a time. In the tuning systems of the era, playing in tune in all 12 major keys was simply not possible.

While the laws of physics can be tough to bend, human perception moves fairly easily. The solution was to redefine what it meant to be “in tune.” By adjusting certain intervals so that they deviated just slightly from perfect intonation, a tuning system was produced that allowed one to play reasonably in tune in all keys. This practice of compromising granular qualities for the greater good of the system is called temperament.

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Prelude I
Opening measures of the first Prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The name of the alternative tuning system made famous by Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier is, unsurprisingly, “well temperament.” Today, most intonation in Western music is based on “equal temperament.” The methods are different, but the goal is the same: to make each of the keys slightly imperfect so that all of the keys can be used. It’s like utilitarianism for acoustics.

What This Has To Do With UI Design

Probably the most exciting development in Web design in the last few years has been the shift to designing for multiple devices. It’s no longer just about how a website functions in two different browsers, but about how it functions on various devices with completely different characteristics: different screen sizes, different capabilities, different use contexts, different interfaces.

Although responsive design and device-specific websites enable us to tailor designs for diverse experiences, there will still be times when we have to make universal decisions — and when we do, the metaphor of well temperament can be helpful.

The application of this concept to UI design is straightforward: in order to deliver a good experience for a range of devices, we have to allow for occasional imperfections in individual interfaces. We have to make little compromises here and there to make sure that our design travels well to other environments.

Touch-First Design

A common example of well temperament in action is the effect that touch interfaces have had on recent desktop website designs.

As a pointing device, a finger, being much larger than a mouse, requires a larger touch target than what’s required by a mouse cursor. So, to ensure usability, interactive elements need to be bigger. As interactive elements increase in size, other things need to increase in size to maintain balance. This leads to an aesthetic characterized by generous margins and padding.

New Gmail design
The new Gmail design has a lot of white space and extra padding on buttons and is very touch-friendly, even though it’s a desktop design.

The rise in popularity of the iPad, which bridged the gap between touch interfaces and desktop screen sizes, is what accelerated the influence of touchscreens on desktop interface design. If you look at recent redesigns of major products such as Gmail and Twitter or browse CSS galleries, you’ll see that design on the Web is starting to look a little different. Things look more… plumpish. There’s more white space, buttons have more padding, things in general feel bigger. Of course, other factors are at play, such as the steady increase in desktop screen sizes.

What we end up with is a design that might afford too much space for a mouse but an appropriate amount of space for a finger. We allow for a slight deviation from the norm in one experience in order to better support all possible experiences.

It’s important to note that making a UI touch-friendly in this way also results in a UI that might be more useable for mouse-and-desktop users. A button that’s easier to touch is often easier to click. By erring in the direction of usability, we get the bonus of improved performance of the design in its original desktop context.

Microsoft Metro design in Windows 8
Microsoft’s Metro design language is inspired by a touch-first approach to interaction design.

Universal Design via Responsive Design

Although much of the discussion on responsive design tends to focus on techniques of responsiveness, responsiveness itself is never the goal. It’s a means to an end. The design responds in order to do something else. That something else might be to supply different content, to serve low-bandwidth images, or to adapt the layout for better presentation on smaller screens. That something else might also be a goal of providing a universal experience to a large number of different devices.

Riding the responsive design train to arrive at universal experience design, we’re likely to pass through some form of well temperament. A great example of this — and an excellent example of responsive design in general — is the Boston Globe’s website.

Boston Globe homepage
The Boston Globe is a shining example of responsive design on a large-scale website.

This responsive strategy enabled a single design to adapt to any device that a reader might use to read The Boston Globe (even the Apple Newton!). But this wasn’t just a feat of front-end engineering. Accompanying the media queries and JavaScript wizardry was a simple malleable design that lent itself to adaptation.

This is a tempered design. While the minimalism might be purely stylistic, I suspect that if it had been a desktop-only design, we’d have seen more gloss and embellishment. There would have been a longer runway on which to perfect the experience for a single-use context. But instead, the designers made little trade-offs to produce something that could be transposed to all possible environments — something that could play in all 12 keys.

Mobile-First Design

The preceding examples were concerned more with graphic design, but the concept of temperament can be applied to product design, user experience, information architecture — almost any other area of design. Let’s look at product design and the idea of designing for mobile first.

If you’re designing for mobile first, then you’re already working with tempered design. By starting the design process with mobile and building a product around the demanding constraints of the mobile environment, you’re obligated to focus on the most essential elements of the product. As Luke Wroblewski writes:

So, when a team designs mobile first, the end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish, without the extraneous detours and general interface debris that litter today’s desktop-accessed websites. That’s good [for the] user experience and good for business.

When these design decisions extend beyond the mobile experience to define the overall product, then the design takes on a form of temperament. The latest redesign of Twitter (i.e. “New Twitter” or “New new Twitter”) demonstrates some of these principles.

New Twitter design
New Twitter has a simplified design and a consistent experience across devices.

One of the objectives of the Twitter redesign was to give users a consistent experience across computers and mobile phones. Achieving a consistent look and feel is a UI challenge, but achieving a consistent overall product experience is a deeper challenge. In both cases, designing for mobile first puts us on the right path.

Something I found interesting about the Twitter redesign was the influence that the mobile experience had on the product’s overall design. For example, aside from the tweet button, all of the actions have been organized under four tabs: “Home,” “Connect,” “Discover” and “Me.” It’s a simplification that plays wonderfully on a small screen. Four items fit perfectly in the tab bar.

On the desktop website, other features have been added, but the simplicity established in the mobile version carries over. Although the desktop version has plenty of room — both pixel-wise and figuratively — for more complexity, the design is restrained, tempered, to ensure a universal multi-device experience.

Beware Of Wolves

In the natural tuning systems that predated the standardization of well and equal temperament, notes of the out-of-tune intervals that were played simultaneously produced a harsh and howling sound. Musicians had a great name for this: they called it a “wolf.”

Applying this idea to interface design, we can think of a wolf as a visual or interactive element designed for one experience that breaks down to some degree when transposed to another. Think of the times you’ve struggled to finger-tap a small link that was made for a mouse cursor, or had to read tiny text on a mobile screen, or, on a touch device, used an interface that relied on hover states. Wolves in the UI.

New York Times mobile touch targets
These article present links that are designed for interaction with a mouse. When viewing on a touchscreen mobile device, their usability is greatly impaired.

New York Magazine dropdown menus
New York Magazine provides useful and well-designed drop-down navigation menus — but only if you’re using a mouse.

Closing Thoughts And Practical Tips

Again, it’s true that responsive design and device-specific experiences can offer us a way around many of these problems. If we can tune the size of a button to a particular environment, then we don’t have to accept blunt, across-the-board treatment. But the number of devices we have to support will only increase, and customizing for every possible scenario could quickly become unreasonable.

Even if we are able to provide perfectly tailored design at the execution level, there is still value in thinking about tempered, universally accessible design at the conceptual level.

Additionally, just because we can tailor design to particular experiences doesn’t mean that users will not carry expectations over from one experience to another. The boundaries might blur whether we like it or not.

Tips and Things to Keep in Mind

  • Think responsively.
    Even if you’re not implementing a full responsive design, simply thinking in responsive terms goes a long way to achieving usable universal design.
  • Think touch-first.
    A button sized for a fingertip will always work for a mouse cursor. But a button sized for a mouse cursor will often be too small for a fingertip. Designing for touch first ensures that your website or application translates well to other contexts.
  • Think universally.
    “Test early, test often” the saying goes. In your design process, think early and often about how your design will function on various devices.
  • Think mobile-first.
    Starting your design with mobile focuses you on what really matters to your users. By maintaining focus on the essential features, achieving a consistent experience across devices will be much easier.
  • Be careful with interaction behavior that is not supported universally across interfaces. Hover states don’t function the same on touch devices. Touch gestures can’t be performed with a mouse. It doesn’t mean we can’t use these things, but we have to be aware of their limitations.

In The End…

Bach believed that people should be able to write and play in any key they wish. He argued for it by writing beautiful music that compelled the world to agree. He designed for the system he wanted.

We want our users to have great experiences with our websites and applications on any device they choose. We want our work to be as usable and accessible as possible.

How to design User Interfaces for Business Web Applications

Business Web application design is too often neglected. I see a lot of applications that don’t meet the needs of either businesses or users and thus contribute to a loss of profit and poor user experience. It even happens that designers are not involved in the process of creating applications at all, putting all of the responsibility on the shoulders of developers.

This is a tough task for developers, who may have plenty of back-end and front-end development experience but limited knowledge of design. This results in unsatisfied customers, frustrated users and failed projects.

So, we will cover the basics of user interface design for business Web applications. While one could apply many approaches, techniques and principles to UI design in general, our focus here will be on business Web applications.

Websites vs. Web Applications

Confusing Web applications and websites is easy, as is confusing user interface design and website design. But they are different both in essence and in so many other ways, which we’ll explore in this article.

A website is a collection of pages consisting mostly of static content, images and video, with limited interactive functionality (i.e. except for the contact form and search functionality). The primary role of a website is to inform. Some websites use content management systems to render dynamic content, but their nature is still informational.

Website vs. web application
CampaignMonitor is powerful email marketing software, while Jeff Sarimento’s website is intended to inform readers about his life and work.

Web applications, on the other hand, are dynamic, interactive systems that help businesses perform business critical tasks and that increase and measure their productivity. Thus, the primary role of a Web application is to perform a function that serves the user’s tasks and according to defined business rules.

Web applications require a higher level of involvement and knowledge of the system on the part of the user. They don’t just stumble upon the application, do their work and bounce off. They use it as a tool to perform critical business tasks in their daily work. In the end, they cannot easily discontinue using the application and switch to another if they don’t like how it’s working, as is the case with websites.

Different Types of Web Applications

Business applications range in type from invoicing for freelancers to content management systems to document management systems to banking and financial systems.

We can distinguish between open and closed applications. Open systems are online applications that are easily accessible to anyone who opens an account. Users can access such applications via the Web and can open an account for free or by paying a fee. Closed systems (or line-of-business applications) are usually not accessible outside the company that uses it, and they can be considered “offline” applications (though many systems expose their functionality to business partners via either services or specialized interfaces). Such systems usually run on the company’s local network and are available only to employees.

I don’t know who coined it, but one term I like especially is weblication, which describes what a Web application is in general. This doesn’t mean, though that a Web application is a half-website half-application hybrid. It is far more complex that that.

First, Know Your Users

You’ve probably heard this a thousand times, and for good reason. A successful user interface focuses on users and their tasks. This is key, and too many developers have failed to create a good user experience. As Steve Krug said, “Developers like complexity; they enjoy discovering how something works.”

Users

When identifying your users, keep in mind that clients are not users, and you are not a user. Although a client’s management team will usually be interested in the project and try to influence decisions, remember that they won’t be sitting in front of the computer several hours a day (unless the application is specifically for them).

How to Identify Users?

Identifying users can be done using several techniques, such as user interviews, business stakeholder interviews and the “shadowing” method of observation. Interviews can give you answers to questions about the users’ knowledge of the system and computers in general, while shadowing can yield more detailed information about how users perform tasks and what errors they make. The method is called shadowing because the observer is like a shadow, watching and noting the steps a user takes.

If you don’t have access to real users—either because you don’t have permission or are designing for open application—you can use personas, a tool to help identify users. Personas are a representation of real users, including their habits, goals and motivation. Because certain information about users is often identified through business analysis, you can make use of it to create personas. If you are not familiar with the tool, a comic by Brad Colbow will help.

Personas

Task analysis helps identify what tasks users perform in their jobs, how they do them, how long they take and what errors they make. Sometimes clients will be using an old version of the application that you are designing to replace. Make use of that old system and watch how users use it. Understanding their tasks and challenges will be easier that way.

Regardless of who your users are, one thing is certain: in most cases, you will have to consider both novices and experts. Novice users should be enabled to learn as fast as possible, while expert users should be enabled to perform their tasks extremely efficiently. This may mean creating separate interfaces. But in many cases you will be able to accommodate both types of users in the same interface through various techniques, such as progressive disclosure.

Such research is usually done by business analysts. But if no one else is responsible for it, you should do it. Once you have the necessary information, you can begin with design.

Design Process

You can follow one of any number of processes in designing the user interface. You might already have one. However, I would suggest that you consider the Agile approach. Why, you ask? Well, because for users (and clients), the user interface is the product. The bottom line is that they don’t care about your sketches or about fantastic back ends or powerful servers. All they want to see is the user interface.

So, how does Agile help? It helps through its key principle: the iterative approach. Each iteration consists of all of the phases defined by your process. This means that at the end of the first iteration, you will have a product that can be tested, a prototype.

UI work process

Sketching

Sketching is a powerful way to explore ideas. The goal is to arrive at the solution by sketching out different concepts. Most sketches will be thrown out, but that is okay. As Bill Buxton says in his “Sketching User Experience” book, sketches are fast to create and easy to dispose of, which is why they are so powerful.

Are sketches the same as wireframes? Well, the differences can be blurry, but I would say no. Wireframes don’t capture rough ideas but rather develop them. Read a fantastic discussion on IxDA: Sketching Before the Wireframes.

Once you get the “right” sketches, or at least the ones that you think are right, you can create more detailed wireframes or go straight to creating interactive prototypes.

Creating a sketch
Sketch by Jason Robb.

Interesting reading on sketching and wireframing:

Prototyping

The next step in the process is to create prototypes that will simulate the real application. A prototype can contain one or more features (or all of them), but it actually does nothing. It merely simulates the behavior of a real application, and users will feel that they are actually doing something. Prototypes may contain some functionality if needed (such as complex calculations).

Because the nature of a prototype done in HTML is temporary—its purpose, after all, is to test ideas—don’t bother with the code; just make it work with minimal bugs. You will throw it away anyway. You can also use specialized prototyping software such as Axure. Some people even prototype in PowerPoint.

Creating a prototype
An Axure interactive prototype for an e-commerce website, by e-maujean.

Further reading and tools for prototyping:

Testing

Prototypes are useless unless you test them. This is not rocket science. People like Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug support so-called “discount usability testing,” which is cheap and fast and yields valuable insight into your design decisions. You will use this information as the basis of another iteration of sketching, prototyping and testing. Do this at least until major issues have been fixed. We all know that software projects are tight on time and budget, so to be more efficient, test early and test often.

One of the best resources for discount usability testing is a new book by Steve Krug, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy.” Pick up a copy and read it.

Usability testing
Snapshot of usability testing for Delicious, by (nz)dave.

Further reading:

Design Principles

There are many design principles, but there doesn’t seem to be a general consensus on definitive ones. So, we’ll go through design principles more informally, leaving out strict definitions.

No One Likes Surprises

Probably the key factors in a good UI are consistency and familiarity. A user interface should be consistent across all parts of the application, from navigation to color to terminology. This is known as internal consistency. But a user interface should also be consistent within its context, such as the operating system or other applications in its group or family. A typical example is the applications in the Microsoft Office family. This is called external consistency.

A good approach to consistency is to define user interface guidelines for each project or for a group of projects. These should guide the decisions you make for all of the details. This will not only maintain consistency but also serve as documentation to help team members better understand your decisions.

Sprinkle Penny
Although a simple example, SprinklePenny achieves consistency and familiarity across the application.

Consistent user interfaces have a shorter learning curve, because users will recognize parts of the system and be able to fall back on prior experience. But familiarity is sometimes confused with consistency. Familiar user interfaces draw on concepts from the users’ previous experiences and use appropriate metaphors. Folders, for example, are a well-known metaphor for file organization, and they have replaced “directories,” which were used previously in command-line operating systems. In short, speak the language of your users.

A common belief among business owners is that a great user interface should look like a Microsoft Office product, especially Outlook. I won’t go into explaining how pointless this is. Rather, I will offer alternative advice: defend the user-centric approach, and explain why creating an application for employees, clients and partners (i.e. their users) is so important.

All the same, most businesses are unique, as are their work processes. For example, two businesses from the same branch could have significantly different processes, forcing you to go beyond what is familiar and start to innovate. This part of the design process can be very interesting, although you have to be careful in how far you go with innovation.

Further reading:

Users Should Be Able to Be Efficient

Without a doubt, users should be able to be efficient when using business applications. This is what they are paid for, and this is what managers expects from the application. User interfaces should allow users to be efficient and should focus them on completing tasks in the easiest and fastest way. But this is not always the case. There is an opinion, or at least practice, among developers that says the user interface should be as complex as the back end system. No matter how ridiculous this sounds, the problem is real and might give you a headache. This is one reason why good communication and collaboration between developers is a must.

Users are efficient when they focus on a particular task. As mentioned, task analysis can help you identify tasks and determine how users perform them. If tasks are long, accelerate them by breaking them up into smaller units. You can also increase efficiency by providing keyboard support and shortcuts. Think how inefficient it is for a user to have to switch back and forth between mouse and keyboard. In some cases, you will be designing for users who are accustomed to working on command-line operating systems and the applications made for them. They will be keen to have keyboard support. One suggestion: when defining keyboard shortcuts, keep them consistent with those of common applications. For example, Ctrl + S should always be save, and so on.

Google Docs
Google Docs Spreadsheet enables users to be efficient by providing keyboard shortcuts and context menus, as well as by taking advantage of users’ familiarity with common desktop applications.

Efficiency can also be enhanced through personalization. Users who can personalize an environment will learn it faster and, more importantly, will be more confident using it. Personalization can be done in many ways: choosing widgets for the dashboard; defining shortcut options and favorites; changing the order of elements; etc.

Pay attention to accessibility. Although many assume that accessibility doesn’t matter in Web applications, it certainly does. Treat the application as if it were a public website.

A Web application also has to be efficient in the speed with which it processes information. So, consider heavy interactions that result from partial renderings and AJAX requests.

Help!

An interface should provide meaningful feedback that describes the state of the system to users. If an error occurs, users should be notified and informed of ways to recover. If an operation is in progress, users should be notified about the progress.

We can go even further and declare that user interfaces should prevent users from making errors. This principle, called forgiveness, can be followed with confirmation dialogs, undo options, forgiving formats and more. Forgiveness makes it safe to explore the interface, decreases the learning curve and increases overall satisfaction.

Because of the complexity of business Web applications, you would also need to provide a comprehensive help system. This can be done with inline help, a support database, a knowledge base and guided tours (which mix video, images and text).

Further reading:

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Satisfaction is a subjective term that refers to how pleasant an interface is to use. Every design principle we have described here affects  satisfaction. And a few more principles are worth mentioning here.

Simplicity is a basic principle of UI design. The simpler a user interface, the easier it is to use. But keeping user interfaces for business applications simple is a challenge because the apps often have a lot of functionality. The key is to balance functionality and simplicity. Restraint is one of the most efficient ways to achieve this balance: i.e. finding the simplest way to solve a problem.

Buildwith.me
BuildWith.me has a simple and effective user interface, without sacrificing aesthetics.

Aesthetics, though subjective and somewhat arbitrary, play an important role in overall satisfaction. Users respond positively to pleasing user interfaces, sometimes even overlooking missing functionality. But you’re not creating a work of art. One of the best articles that explains aesthetics is In Defense of Eye Candy.

In the end, users will be spending a lot of time in front of a business application, and no matter how usable, consistent or forgiving the interface is, satisfaction will be critical in determining how good the user interface is.

Further reading:

Other resources related to UI design:

Essential Components Of Web Applications

Every Web application is unique, but many of them contain common features. Although the implementation of any one of these features will vary, let’s look at the basic concept of the three most common ones.

Web Forms

Forms in general are important to Web applications. But as Luke Wroblewski says in his Web Form Design book, “No one likes filing in forms.” That includes sign-up forms, including business applications with dozens of fields.

Minimize the frustration of filling in forms. Provide inline validation and good feedback. Use defaults when possible. Don’t forget about novice users. Use wizards to help them complete tasks faster, or use progressive disclosure to hide advanced (or infrequently used) features.

Master-Detail Views

This is the technique of showing data in two separate but related views. One view shows a list of items, while the other shows details of the selected item. Master-detail views can be implemented across multiple pages or on individual ones.

Dashboards

Many Web applications have dashboards. A dashboard is a view of the most important information needed to take action and make decisions. It is confined to a single page and is usually the starting point of an application. Dashboards are important because they enable users to access information and take action without having to dig through the application.

Xero
Xero shows a user’s most important financial information (e.g. bank accounts and credit cards) in its dashboard, making it easy for users to quickly see the status of their financial data.

Heavy Use of Tables

Because Web applications typically deal with large quantities of data that are easily accessible and sortable, tables are unavoidable. But this is not a bad thing. In fact, tables were made for this purpose. Don’t confuse this with table-less layouts. Effective tables are easily readable. So, in most cases you will need a meaningful header, an optimal number of columns, pagination, alternating row colors, proper column alignment, sorting and filtering capabilities and much more.

Tables can also be interactive, meaning they can generate additional info and even modify the data they contain.

Pulseapp


PulseApp is a good example of how tables can be used to efficiently present and manipulate complex data.

Reports

Most businesses work with some kind of reports. Printed reports are usually required, so pay attention to the design of reports. Printed (or exported) reports are usually simplified versions of online reports, optimized for monochrome printers.

Fresh books
FreshBooks has printing, PDF exporting and “Send to email” features. It also shows a print preview.

Don’t Forget UI Design Patterns

We’re so used to hearing and talking about UI design patterns that we sometimes forget about them! UI design patterns are helpful for designing user interfaces. The important thing is to consider them early on in the design process, ideally at the sketching stage. Because patterns often solve common problems, the right pattern can facilitate the user’s familiarity with an interface and increase the speed at which they learn it.

Standard Screen Patterns
This screenshot is from the article 12 Standard Screen Patterns, which goes over the most common screen patterns.

Further reading:

Case Study: Online Banking Application

To take an example from the real world, I will briefly explain the process of designing the user interface for one small bank’s online banking system. The team I worked with was hired to improve the system. The main reason for the redesign was that, according to management, “users complained and many stopped using it.”

After only a couple of hours spent with actual users, the main problems were uncovered. Information about accounts and credit cards was buried in poor navigation. Understanding how much money users were spending and the state of their accounts and credit cards was also hard. The application, however, was obvious to bank employees; they were familiar with the terminology and could interpreted the numbers in the application perfectly well.

Give the tight deadlines, we followed the process I have described, and we partially succeeded. Despite the short time, the major problems were so obvious that we clearly understood our main task and how to go about it. We created a dashboard that provided clear information on the state of all accounts and credit cards. With this new navigation, finding information became easier. Reports were easier to understand, and several new features were implemented.

Although we made only a few changes, the changes affected critical user tasks and resulted in significant improvements to the overall experience.

Final Thoughts

Designing user interfaces for business Web applications is a challenging job that is full of compromises. You have to make compromises between client and user needs; business requirements and users; novice and expert users; functionality and simplicity. It requires a solid understanding of users and their tasks, as well as of UI design principles and patterns. Despite the difficulties, the job is interesting, and you learn many new things on each project that influence the way you design websites.

While this article reflects some well-known concepts and things I have learned from designing business applications over the years, I look forward to hearing your experiences and stories.