Posts

Tune your site instead of redesigning it all the time

Companies often flush away millions upon millions on worthless, pointless, “fix it once and for all” website redesigns. All types of organizations are guilty: large government agencies, Fortune 500s, not-for-profits and (especially) institutions of higher education.

Worst of all, these offending organizations are prone to repeating the redesign process every few years like spendthrift amnesiacs. Remember what Einstein said about insanity? (It’s this, if you don’t know.) It’s as if they enjoy the sensation of failing spectacularly, publicly and expensively. Sadly, redesigns rarely solve actual problems faced by end users.

I’m frustrated because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why redesigns happen, and some straightforward and inexpensive ways we might avoid them.

The Diagnostic Void

Your users complain about your website’s confounding navigation, stale content, poor usability and other user experience failures. You bring up their gripes with the website’s owners. They listen and decide to take action. Their hearts are in the right place. But the wheels quickly come off.

Site owner

Most website owners don’t know how to diagnose the problems of a large complex website. It’s just not something they were ever taught to do. So, they’re put in the unfortunate, uncomfortable position of operating like country doctors who’ve suddenly been tasked to save their patients from a virulent new pandemic. It is their responsibility, but they’re simply unprepared.

Vendor

Sadly, many website owners fill this diagnostic void — or, more typically, allow it to be filled — with whatever solution sounds best. Naturally, many less-than-ethical vendors are glad to dress up their offerings as solutions to anyone with a problem — and a budget. The tools themselves (search engines, CMS’, social apps) are wonderful, but they’re still just tools — very expensive ones, at that — and not solutions to the very specific problems that an organization faces. Without proper diagnostics to guide the configuration of tools, any resulting improvements to the user experience will be almost accidental.

Design agency

Sometimes design agencies are brought in to fill the diagnostic void. And while not all agencies are evil, a great many follow a business model that depends on getting their teams to bill as many hours as they can and as soon as possible. Diagnostics can slow the work down (which is why clients rarely include a diagnostic phase in their RFPs). So, many agencies move to make a quick, tangible impression (and make their clients happy) by delivering redesigns that are mostly cosmetic.

A pretty face can last only a few years, but by then the agency is long gone. Invariably, the new owner wishes to make their mark by freshening or updating the website’s look. And another agency will be more than happy to oblige. Repeat ad nauseam, and then some.

Oh, and sometimes these redesigns can be pricey. Like $18 million pricey.

See why I’m so grouchy?

Forget the Long Tail: The Short Head Is Where It’s At

Whether you’re a designer, researcher or website owner, I’ve got some good news for you: diagnostics aren’t necessarily difficult or expensive. Better yet, you’ll often find that addressing the problems you’ve diagnosed isn’t that hard.

And the best news? Small simple fixes can accomplish far more than expensive redesigns. The reason? People just care about some stuff more than they care about other stuff. A lot more. Check this out and you’ll see:

Monster Graph

This hockey-stick-shaped curve is called a Zipf curve. (It comes from linguistics: Zipf was a linguist who liked to count words… but don’t worry about that.) Here it is in dragon form, displaying the frequency of search queries on a website. The most frequently searched queries (starting on the left) are very, very frequent. They make up the “short head.” As you move to the right (to the esoteric one-off queries in the “long tail”), query frequency drops off. A lot. And it’s a really long tail.

This is absolutely the most important thing in the universe. So, to make sure it’s absolutely clear, let’s make the same point using text:

Query’s rank Cumulative % Query’s frequency Query
1 1.40% 7,218 campus map
14 10.53% 2,464 housing
42 20.18% 1,351 web enroll
98 30.01% 650 computer center
221 40.05% 295 msu union
500 50.02% 124 hotels
7,877 80.00% 7 department of surgery

In this case, tens of thousands of unique queries are being searched for on this university website, but the first one accounts for 1.4% of all search traffic. That’s massive, considering that it’s just one query out of tens of thousands. How many short-head queries would it take to get to 10% of all search traffic? Only 14 — out of tens of thousands. The 42 most frequent queries cover over 20% of the website’s entire search traffic. About a hundred gets us to 30%. And so on.

It’s Zipf’s World; We Just Live in It

This is very good news.

Want to improve your website’s search performance? Don’t rip out the search engine and buy a new one! Start by testing and improving the performance of the 100 most frequent queries. Or, if you don’t have the time, just the top 50. Or 10. Or 1 — test out “campus map” by actually searching for it. Does something useful and relevant come up? No? Why not? Is the content missing or mistitled or mistagged or jargony or broken? Is there some other problem? That, folks, is diagnostics. And when you do that with your website’s short head, your diagnostic efforts will go a very long way.

The news gets better: Zipf is a rule. The search queries for all websites follow a Zipf distribution.

And the news gets even jump-up-and-down-and-scream-your-head-off better: Zipf is true not only for your website’s search queries. Your content works the same way! A small subset of your website’s content does the heavy lifting. Much of the rest has little or no practical value at all. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that 90% of Microsoft.com’s content has never, ever been accessed. Not once. But it’s a just a rumor. And you didn’t hear it here.) Bottom line: don’t redesign all of your content — focus on the stuff that people actually need.

You’ll also see a short head when it comes to your website’s features. People need just a few of them; the rest are gravy.

And there’s more. Of all the audience types that your website serves, one or two matter far more than the others. What tasks do those audience types wish to accomplish on your website? A few are short-head tasks; the rest just aren’t that important.

As you can see, the Zipf curve is everywhere. And fortunately, the phenomenon is helpful: you can use it to prioritize your efforts to tweak and tune your website’s content, functionality, searchability, navigation and overall performance.

Your Website Is Not A Democracy

When you examine the short head — of your documents, your users’ tasks, their search behavior and so forth — you’ll know where to find the most important problems to solve. In effect, you can stop boiling the ocean…

Sailing the ocean

… and start prioritizing your efforts to diagnose and truly solve your website’s problems.

Now, let’s put these short-head ideas together. Below is a report card for an academic website that starts with the short head of its audience:

Diagram

In other words, of all the audience types this university website has, the three most important are people who might pay money to the university (applicants,) people who are paying money now (students) and people who will hopefully pay money for the rest of their lives (alumni). How do we know they’re the most important audiences? We could go by user research; for example, the analytics might suggest that these audiences generate more traffic than anyone else. Or perhaps the university’s stakeholders believe that these are the most important ones in their influence and revenue. Or some combination of both. Whatever the case, these three audiences likely swamp all other segments in importance.

Then, we would want to know the short-head tasks and information needs of each audience type. We might interview stakeholders to see what they think (column 2). And we might perform research — user interviews and search analytics, for example — to find out what users say is most important to them (column 3).

Of course, as the good folks at xkcd demonstrate, stakeholders and users don’t always see things the same way:

Universal site

That’s why talking to both stakeholders and users is important. And once you’ve figured out the short head for each, you’ll need to earn your salary and, through some careful negotiation, combine your takes on each audience type’s needs. That’s what we’ve done in column 4.

Finally, in column 5, we’ve tested each task or need and evaluated how well it works. (Because it’s a university-related example, letter grades seemed appropriate.) You can do this evaluation in an expensive, statistically significant way; but really, enough research is out there to suggest that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money on such testing. More importantly, these needs and tasks are often fairly narrow and, therefore, easy to test.

So, after testing, we can see what’s not going well. Finding information on “mentoring” is hard for applicants. And current students have a devil of a time when they “look up grades.”

Now we’re done diagnosing the problems and can begin making fixes. We can change the title of the “Paired Guidance Program” page to “Mentoring.” We can create a better landing page for the transcript application. The hard part, diagnostics, is out of the way, and we can now fix and tune our website’s performance as much as our resources allow.

From Project To Process To Payoff

These fixes are typically and wonderfully small and concrete, but because they live in the short head, they make a huge and lovely impact on the user experience — at a fraction of the cost of a typical redesign.

The tuning process itself is quite simple. It’s what we used to arrive at the report card below:

Chart

If you repeat this simple process on a regular basis — say, every month or quarter — then you can head off the entropy that causes fresh designs and fresher content to go rotten. Thus, the redesign that your organization has scheduled for two years from now can officially be canceled.

Your website’s owners ought to be happy about all this. And you should be, too: rather than tackling the project of getting your website “right” — which is impossible — you can now focus on tweaking and tuning it from here on out. So, forget redesigns, and start owning and benefiting from a process of continual improvement.

Special Thanks – Illustrations

Eva-Lotta is a UX Designer and Illustrator based in London, UK where she currently works as an interaction designer at Google. Besides her daytime mission of making the web a more understandable, usable and delightful place, she regularly takes sketchnotes at all sorts of talks and conferences and recently self-published her second book. Eva-Lotta also teaches sketching workshops and is interested in (something she calls) visual improvisation. Exploring the parallels between sketching and improvisation, she experiments with the principles from her theater improvisation practice to inspire visual work.

Destroy the Web 2.0 look: Web design trends 2012

Have witnessed a de-shinification of the Web, with fewer glass buttons, beveled edges, reflections, special-offer badges, vulgar gradients with vibrant colors and diagonal background patterns. The transformation has been welcomed with relief by all but the most hardened gloss-enthusiasts. However, design and aesthetics work in mysterious ways, and no sooner does one Web design trend leave us before another appears.

The Symptoms

So, exactly what is this new epidemic? Well, let’s start by looking at some of the most common symptoms, many of which you have probably noticed. They are easy to spot, and as with many other conditions, they often appear in conjunction with each other. (This is why the contagion spreads so effectively — seemingly independent symptoms grow more infectious when combined with others.)

Please note: The following list appears in no particular order and does not indicate the level of infectiousness or severity, which seem to be stable across the board. Note also that the instances given often exhibit more than one symptom, making classification more difficult.

Stitching

Stitching appears gradually, often as a result of the designer playing too long with borders and lines, particularly of the dotted variety. A full-blown stitch is evidenced by the subtle shift from dots to dashes, augmented by drop shadows and other effects to give the impression of 3-D. The purpose of the stitch is somewhat elusive, but it seems to thrive in environments where certain textures are applied, most notably fabric and leather, but also generic graininess.

While determining the exact cause of stitching is difficult, scientists are certain that it belongs to a larger strain of the infection known as “Skeuomorphism.”

Collage of interfaces with stiches
Clockwise from top: The Journal of Min Tran; Dribbble shot by Mason Yarnell; Dribbble shot by Liam McCabe.

Zigzag Borders

Borders are common elements of Web design, and as such, they are difficult to avoid; luckily, they are usually harmless and often have a positive effect on the layout. However, for some reason, a particular type of border — the zigzag — has grown exponentially in the last few years and is now threatening the natural habitat of more benign border specimens. Exactly why this is happening is unknown, although some researchers claim that the pattern created by the repeating opposing diagonals has such an alluring effect on designers and clients alike that straight borders have somewhat lost their appeal.

Collage of interfaces with zigzag borders
Clockwise from top: You Know Who; Dribbble shot by Christopher Paul; Dribbble shot by Meagan Fisher.

Forked Ribbons

Like borders, ribbons have long existed in various forms. What we’re seeing now, though, is the near dominance of a particular style of ribbon, easily identified by a fork at one or both ends. Some ribbons are also folded over twice, creating a faux effect of depth and reinforcing the diagonal lines in the fork. Whether the fork is related to the zigzag effect is unknown, but it seems that diagonal lines are the key to the ribbon’s survival, along with its ability to evoke memories of times past.

The danger of the ribbon lies mainly in its ability to exist independent of other symptoms (although it thrives in the company of vintage typography), meaning that it could date your design long after the epidemic ends, even if the symptom itself appears dormant. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the “special offers” badge of the Web 2.0 look.

Forked ribbons
Clockwise from top: Ryan O’Rourke; Cabedge; Jake Przespo

Textures

In the age of all things digital, it’s a conundrum that textures should dominate our illustrations and backgrounds, and yet they are indeed one of the most common symptoms on our list. Manifested by subtle grain, dirt and scratches, paper-esque surfaces and fold marks, they seem to embrace the spirit of the handmade. But ironically, they’re often the complete opposite: computer-generated effects or Photoshop brushes.

Possible explanations for the widespread use of textures include a yearning for tactile media (especially considering the emergence of touchscreens) or envy towards print designers, who have a much richer palette of materials and surfaces to play with.

Textures
Clockwise from top: Gerren Lamson; Zero; Amazee Labs.

Letterpress

The simple effect has gone from strength to strength and is now a household technique for sprucing up typography online. A relatively harmless symptom, letterpress might also have infected designers through other digital interfaces, such as operating systems and games, as early as the turn of the millennium, indicating a very long incubation period.

Scientists disagree over whether the incubation period is due to the infection needing a critical mass before emerging from dormancy or whether the infection simply needed the right conditions — CSS3 text shadows, to be specific — for symptoms to appear.

Letterpress
Clockwise from top: Billy Tamplin; Dribbble shot by Phillip Marriot; Remix.

19th-Century Illustration

After being released from copyright quarantine, this symptom, favoured by fashionable ladies and gentlemen, was nearly eliminated during the last epidemic due to its inability to cope well with gloss and shine. But in this new vintage-friendly environment, it has found its way back into our visual repertoire. For better or worse, the 19th-century illustration will most likely hang around for a while, emerging stronger from time to time like a flu virus.

19th Century Illustration
Clockwise from top: Killian Muster; Dribbble shot by Trent Walton; Simon Collison.

Muted Tones

After a long period of vibrancy, the average online color scheme seems to have been somewhat desaturated across the board. We’re seeing widespread use of browns, earthy greens and mustards and a general leaning towards “impure” colors, although this is generally thought to be a minor symptom of the epidemic. Some scientists will even argue that muted tones are, in fact, not a symptom themselves but rather a side effect of other symptoms, in the way that sweating is a natural response to a fever.

Muted colours
Clockwise from top: Dribble shot by Dave Ruiz; Cognition; Web Standards Sherpa.

Justified or Centered Typography (JCT)

This symptom is nothing new; in fact, it was pretty much the standard for the first 500 years of typography, until Tschichold and the New Typography showed up and quarantined it on the grounds that it was old fashioned, difficult to read and inefficient. Although we’re not sure at this point, this link with history might be what has made JCT reappear so vigorously under the umbrella of vintage symptoms. We do know that overall reading habits among humans have not changed in recent years (most Westerners still read left to right), and there is no plausible argument that JCT improves legibility; so, whatever the cause of the outbreak, we know it’s rooted in subjective emotion rather than rational thought.

Justified or centered typography
Clockwise from top: Grip Limited; Tommy; Visual Republic.

Circular Script Logotypes (SCL)

A circle is a basic shape and, in isolation, is no more a symptom of an epidemic than a triangle. However, if you repeat enough triangles in a line, you get a zigzag. Similarly, if you include a circle in your logotype, you end up with a circular logotype. And if that logotype happens to be set in a script font, you’ll get — that’s right! — a Circular Script Logotype (SCL). Not that SCL is lethal or anything, but it is relatively contagious and can be highly detrimental when enough hosts have been infected.

Circular script logos
Clockwise from top: Trent Walton; Mercy; Dribbble shot by James Seymor-Lock.

Skeuomorphic Features

Skeuomorphic features — i.e. ornamentation or design features on an object that are copied from the object’s form in another medium — are rife, particularly in mobile applications, and this symptom is one of the defining indicators of the epidemic. Possibly a mutant cancerous strain of mildly skeuomorphic features such as stitches and letterpress, it can sometimes grow to overtake an entire interface, bloating it with redundant visual references to physical objects and materials. However, due to the labor involved in preparing the graphics and the heavy reliance on image resources, some researchers argue that we’re unlikely to see full-blown skeuomorphism dominate our desktop browsers any time soon.

In fact, most scientists regard the phenomenon as a curiosity and predict that some virtual metaphors for physical attributes will prove useful (as tabs have) and some won’t. Interestingly, while Apple has embraced and continues to pioneer the technique, Google seems to some degree to resist the urge to mimic physical reality in its interfaces. Perhaps it has developed a vaccine?

Skeuopmorphic
Clockwise from top: iBooks; Dribbble shot by skorky; Dribbble shot by Igor Shkarin.

How Did It Start?

Pinpointing the epicentre of a design epidemic (read: trend) is always hard, especially given the myriad of symptoms and the contagious nature of the Internet. Identifying Patient Zero is virtually impossible, and, to be pragmatic, doing so would serve no purpose. What we can say is that we’re most likely experiencing a reaction to the Web 2.0 aesthetic — a craving for textured surfaces and retro imagery, something tactile and natural-looking, as an antidote to the shiny impersonality of the past — and that this is both healthy and necessary for pushing the design industry forward. Whatever the sources of trends, they often start with applying smart design to solve a particular problem or, indeed, to counter another trend.

Let’s say that everyone used sans-serif fonts, strong contrasting colors and crisp white backgrounds as a rule. Imagine, in this environment, if a designer went against the grain by using Clarendon or some other warm serif to infuse some personality into their website (which happens to be selling “Grandma’s homemade jam”), and then complemented the personality of their font selection with earthy colors and some brown paper textures. The result would inevitably stand out from the crowd: beautiful, emotional, different.

Incidentally, this aesthetic inspires another designer who happens to be working on a website with a global audience, exposing the new approach to a whole generation of designers who, in turn, apply it at will (often without considering the context). A trend is born. And yet, paradoxically, the potency of the epidemic is under constant threat. The more people get infected, the less differentiated the symptoms appear; and once the infection reaches a critical mass, the symptoms begin to work against themselves. Infusing personality into your visuals is meaningless if everything looks the same.

Is It Dangerous?

In today’s open collaborative world, avoiding an epidemic of this scale is difficult; so, in a sense, everyone is affected to some degree. The symptoms listed above are not restricted to small-scale up-and-coming designers, but affect even the elite of the design community. This means that even though some symptoms are harmless — like a light fever or a runny nose from a flu infection — the viral onslaught of trendy features puts constant pressure on our immune system to protect our creativity, and staying vigilant is important to maintaining a healthy dose of original thought.

If you’re displaying a handful of symptoms, it’s really nothing to worry about — catching a cold that’s going around is not hard, but recovering from it is also easy. If, on the other hand, you display most or all of these symptoms, then there’s reason to be extra cautious in your next project. Using all of a trend’s identifiers as cornerstones of your work might make your portfolio look oh so contemporary, but in a way this practice is no different than passing off the work of your favorite designer, artist or musician as your own. Granted, symptoms with no identifiable origin are not protected by copyright, but that’s beside the point — you should be worried not about legal implications, but rather about the creative integrity of your output. The danger is not only that your work will be seen as a passing fad, a popular aesthetic that will look dated in a couple of years’ time, but that you will lose the respect of your peers when they catch on to you.

While nothing is original, we all need to respect the difference between inspiration and imitation. As Jean Luc Goddard said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” And if you don’t take them anywhere, what’s the point?

Worse perhaps than the loss of respect and integrity is the effect that epidemics have on clients and, in turn, the design community as a whole. The more designers are infected and the more symptoms they show of the same disease, the less your clients will believe that you’re capable of solving real business problems. Eventually they’ll exclude you from the early stages (where all the real design thinking takes place) and employ your services merely to skin their wireframes, in the process reducing the whole profession to an army of decorators.

What Can You Do About It?

Now that we’ve seen how detrimental trends can be, how does one avoid them? Is this even possible? Trends, by definition, are popular, and arguably nothing is wrong with tapping into that popularity to increase the exposure of your product. Convincing a client to accept a design that is off-trend can be difficult, and you run the risk of alienating the audience by going completely against the trend just for the sake of it. On the other hand, blindly following others is never a good idea, and you could severely stifle your creativity, integrity and client base by accepting what’s “in” as a given and copying it without purpose.

So, what’s the right thing to do? Trends are intrinsic to our society, whether in politics, culture, design or even religion, and as the consensus sways in one direction or another, so will your opinion (or “taste”) — to some degree, at least. Alas, avoiding trends altogether seems an impossible and pointless undertaking, but that doesn’t leave you powerless. In fact, you can do a host of things to combat the lemming syndrome.

Ask Why

Always question your design decisions (and make sure they are your own), and keep asking the magic question, Why am I doing this? Am I doing this simply because it looks cool or because it suits the message I’m trying to communicate? Why am I using this ribbon? Does the zigzag border add to or detract from the personality of the website? What does this leather texture have to do with the finance app I’m designing? The moment you stop asking questions, you fall prey to the epidemic.

Put Some Effort In

In his article “The Dying Art of Design” Francisco Inchauste asserts, among other things, that inspiration requires perspiration, and I couldn’t agree more. I was lucky enough to attend a college where no computers were allowed in the first year, which meant we had to use physical tools to express ourselves — tracing letters by hand, drawing our photography, stocking up on Pantone pens (remember those?), abusing the copier. Not only did our creativity grow, but we learned an important lesson: good design is not effortless, and the best results come from your own experimentation.

Try Something Different

Remember that being distinctive is, for the most part, a good thing. Most great artists in history, regardless of their field, stood out enough for the world to take notice. Who painted melting clocks before Dali? Who would have thought to build a huge wall on stage before Pink Floyd? While mimicking what’s popular might be comfortable and might secure short-term victories, long-term success requires a unique, memorable approach.

Diversify Your Inspiration

In order to remain creative, staying curious and looking for inspiration all around you is crucial, not just in the latest showcase of fashionable WordPress themes. Read a book, perform a scientific experiment, listen to music you haven’t heard before, walk through a new neighborhood, or experience a foreign culture. Widening your horizons beyond your favorite websites and finding more than one source of inspiration is critical to making original, lasting designs.

Focus on the Basics

Finally and most importantly, study the underlying principles of design in order to understand what is and isn’t defined by style. Grid systems, contrast, legibility, juxtaposing imagery, well-written copy — these are the key components of successful design, yet they are entirely independent of fads and styles.

At the end of the day, design is not so much about style as it is about communication, and all style, imagery and typography should be inspired by the content, functionality and personality of the product, not by what simply looks cool at the moment.

No matter how cool something looks, it too shall pass.

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.

Ideas how to create fluid content and design

The words and pictures depend on each other for completeness. Web designers can employ the same complementary dependence of graphic and text in their own work. It encourages a sense of belonging and can create strong first impressions, which are often essential to effective Web design. Because Web design is not confined to page-by-page display as storybooks are, we’ve got no excuse for neglecting Curt Cloninger’s assertions that a design “has to somehow be relevant to the content, accurately representing its purposes in the medium,” and that “the content has to be useful to the site’s audience.”

This post explains four strategies for improving fluidity of content and design, and we’ll gauge the effectiveness with which several websites use these strategies, taking special note of what we can learn from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

With Graphics As Your Witness

When editing critical papers during my undergrad, I was constantly mindful of backing up every claim I made in writing. Describing a protagonist as “yearning for a return to childhood” wasn’t enough to convince a professor unless I could refer to a passage where this was suggested.

Though published way back in 1997, Jakob Nielsen’s analysis in “How Users Read the Web” still offers a storehouse of relevant advice about how users gauge legitimacy online. He suggests that when businesses use promotional language online, they create “cognitive burdens” on their users, slowing down their experience with the website, triggering a filter by which they weigh fact against fiction.

Instead, use design to complement or convey self-promotion, easing user skepticism from the get-go.

Makr Carry Goods effectively “backs up” its content with graphics to convince users of the “news”-worthiness of its work. In the example below, the visual promotion of the products complements the text: without having to scroll over the images, we see the products themselves as being the news.

Mark Home

Scrolling over the images on top reveals the textual “news”:

Mark hover

From there, users can carry on their visual journey through the Mark Carry catalogue, enticed to read on by the persistent connection between the product and the news section, a connection that compels users to explore further.

Key to this graphic-textual connection is the visual quality of the products themselves. Without the clean white presentation and professional style, the visuals here might fail to suggest a connection with the news. But the products have been presented to impress.

Without engaging visual confirmation, content will often fail to persuade.

Take Mark Hobbs’ professional website:

Mark Hobbs

He claims that he’s “not normal.” He’s “extraordinary… adaptable, loyal, ambitious and an Eagle Scout,” and he’s “like a sponge” (among other things). If he were getting points for descriptiveness, Hobbs would take first place. But he’s got no visual evidence of any of these claims. No hint at this lack of normalcy.

Besides, as Nielsen’s studies suggest, users generally dislike “marketese”: writing that is boastful, self-promotional and full of subjective claims. Then again, should claiming not to be normal be considered a boast?

Mark’s claims could have been justified by an impressive and immediate visual display of his past work. Engaging users with the strict facts of his expertise could have reinforced his textual claims.

Consider the home page of Rally Interactive:

Let's Go Rally

It is “here to help you build digital things.” We know this because of the two immediate examples of its work, presented in triangles that recall other projects that required exceptional skill: the pyramids.

Rally’s folio effectively demonstrates a strategy of fluid content and design. The firm backs up its claim and provides users with an immediately useful and positive association. The visual and verbal prompts coalesce to convince users of Rally’s expertise.

Going back to Where the Wild Things Are, if Sendak hadn’t included visuals of Max’s misdoings, what sympathy could we gain for him as his mother sends him up to bed? We can interpret his “mischief” any way we choose, but Sendak’s visual direction helps us gauge what kind of protagonist (or antagonist) Max will be for the remainder of the story. Verbal prompts simply wouldn’t cut it.

Fluid content and design reduce the user’s search time and, in this case, justify the claims made textually. Users don’t have the time or willingness to hunker down and read, particularly when looking for a service. Fluid content and design convince users of the truth of a claim before they even begin to question it.

Tighten Up

Once you’ve eliminated any refutable claims, you might find your content looking a bit sparse. In fact, you want it naked: easy to scan and to the point.

Christine Anameier’s article “Improving Your Content’s Signal-to-Noise Ratio” points us in the right direction for creating tight content that isn’t afraid to depend on suggestive design to share the workload.  There will always be information that the user cannot process visually. So, what should you put in text?

Anameier suggests segmentation, prioritization and clear labeling to make the most of your content.

Segmentation

Segmentation entails sectioning content on the page according to audience or task.

The home page for Jessica Hische’s design portfolio does this effectively:

Jessica Hische

The home page targets the specific needs of users. Hische has divided the links to her services according to what particular users will be looking for, sparing us long descriptions of each service.

Hische also spares us a textual description of the quality of her service, instead pairing tight layout of text with sprawling, confident design. We can gather from the background a sense that she has clean organization. The orange ribbon font “welcomes” us and puts us at ease so that the text doesn’t have to.

Prioritization

Prioritization, as Anameier says, requires that you “understand your audiences and their tasks, and decide what your website is trying to do.” Structure your website to reflect these tasks, removing any content that strays from the path. Hische’s home page demonstrates a comprehension of her users’ purpose for visiting the website, and it wastes no words.

Content and design fluidity entails deciding what should be explained textually and what should be demonstrated graphically. Hische does not verbally boast about her quality of service. The design does that for her, conveying an array of positive attributes, from classic taste to proficient organization.

Hische recognizes that the first priority of users is not whether she’s any good, but whether she offers what they need. Once that is clarified, users will look into the quality. Keyword: look.

Creating those fluid user experiences in which content and design cohere requires, as Mark Boulton states in “A Richer Canvas,” “text that feels connected to the physical form in a binding manner that should make it invisible.” Anameier herself says that incorporating “specific and accurate link text, page titles and headings” gives users the luxury of perusing graphic elements on the page without being disrupted by navigation obstacles.

Labeling

Labeling that is structured with the user’s goals in mind will be trim and to the point, “invisible,” as Boulton suggests, so that the visual showcase enjoys some attention, too.

Tight content that follows Anameier’s guidelines will visually suggest your service’s qualities and attributes strongly. The description of the service itself will rely heavily on text, but what sets your service apart from others can be conveyed visually. Creating cohesive visual and textual discovery paths for users replicates that same sense of control that users get from the storybook.

Doodle Pad superbly utilizes segmentation, prioritization and clear labeling on its “About” page:

Doodle Pad

Carrying over the sketch-book theme to its visuals, Doodle Pad sets down user goals with clarity, displaying information directed at clients and creative professionals.

The labelling is clear and styled with familiar doodling motifs that show the user where to look for what they need. Key questions are answered, and the word count is not too shabby for a software concept.

Impressively, Doodle Pad connects the imagery and layout to the overall concept without over-informing or weighing down users with elaborate language. It gives us notebook-style notes for a notebook concept: tight and user-friendly.

Check The Narrative Voice

t

Curt Cloninger’s article “A Case for Web Storytelling” argues for narrative voice as being an essential consideration for Web designers who want to create engaging user experiences.

Designers are at a great advantage when it comes to synthesizing text with graphics. We can create a rich narrative tone that convinces and directs users. We are able to explore and experiment with the Web’s possibilities, going beyond Where the Wild Things Are and celebrating non-linear narratives, incorporating several kinds of interactive media.

With Web design, narrative voice need not stay put in the text. It’s more flexible that in storybooks, and Cloninger encourages us to play with that.

For instance, look at the layout for MailChimp 5.2. Toying with slogans that would look out of date on another Web page, the designers evoke nostalgia with their use of background images, color and typography, elements ripe with narrative potential:

Mailchimp Retro

Viewers interpret the slogans the right way because of the text’s ironic connection to the design. The “real people behind all those email addresses,” is a wink from the designers, because the viewers recognize that the “real people” in the background don’t look very “real” at all.

Users will commit to a fluid narrative online if the design fully commits to the content. And as Cloninger says, using narrative voice through Web design presents countless possibilities for exploration.

MailChimp explores one such possibility with its demo video, complete with more “wholesome” design and content:

Mailchimp Retro 2

Users can expect to be led on this retro journey through the other formats for narrative voice, as the video suggests with its old-school film-reel introduction.

The narrative voice is so woven into the content and design that MailChimp 5.2 could offer all kinds of 1950s-terrific claims and users would be moved to follow along.

MailChimp 5.2 experiments with tailoring content and design to a narrative voice, but it is effective because of its consistency. If it hadn’t committed to a particular narrative style, then the escapist spell of this user experience would have been broken.

Greentea Design

Green Tea Design has chosen a watery, traditional Japanese-inspired design for its website. A geisha shades herself with an umbrella, looking down meekly, making for a quiet non-confrontational effect. But look at the aggressive text: “We don’t design wimpy websites that get sand kicked in their face by the competition.” The text goes on the offence, but the design doesn’t align with or enhance the narrative voice.

Try this: choose one adjective with which you’d like users to describe your website. Affix a sticky note of this adjective to the top of your monitor, and measure every sentence on your website against this adjective. Ask yourself whether the content aligns with the adjective. Now pour over your design and assess it by the same measure. We’re looking for matching sensibilities. Does your content and design align with how you want users to feel about the website?

In Where the Wild Things Are, the narrative tone is the anchor in Max’s hectic journey. Consistent, calm and matter of fact, even when Max is off dancing with the wild things, the voice elicits the reader’s trust as it sees the protagonist back to safety.

Readers settle into this consistency the way Max settles into his boat for “in and out of weeks / and almost over a year / to where the wild things are,” and again “back over a year / and in and out of weeks / and through a day.” It steadies the commotion in Max’s imagination.

Here, readers recognize the tension between the consistent content and the disruptive visuals as the mark of a superbly imaginative journey, where anything can happen, but where eventually everyone must return home.

The narrative commits to this tension until the end, when Max gets back to his room, where dinner is waiting for him, “and it was still hot.”

As a children’s storybook, Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t employ multiple forms of narrative expression. But it is an effective example of the co-dependence of playful and experimental text and visuals, in which the narrative voice incites chaos and calms the senses at the same time.

One last example of a committed narrative voice:

Forefathers

Recalling Gold Rush-era drama and Victorian carnival sights with its effective design elements, Forefathers maintains an adventurous tone, employing text that is consistent, descriptively appropriate and authentic.

Be Mindful Of The User Experience

As Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare state in “Making Up Stories: Perception, Language and the Web,” as Web users scan pages, they are “filling in the gaps-making inferences, whether they’re based on past experience… or elaborate associations drawn from our imaginations.”

Trust the user to connect the graphics and text, and expect them to want to. Cloninger says that “the more power a user has to control the narrative himself, the more a visitor will ‘own’ that narrative.”

Keep the descriptions visual. The acts of “mischief” in Where the Wild Things Are are graphic. The connection is made when both elements are harmonized into one idea. The user will be willing to read the text and view the corresponding image if both elements are compelling.

Looking at Jonathan Patterson’s effective online portfolio, we can see he has maintained a fluidity of content and design by basing the user’s experience on the motif of “fresh meat”:

Jonathan Patterson

Patterson’s “About” page looks like a steakhouse menu. The text on the first page hints at a description of a meal, while suggesting the page’s function. The website can be flipped through like a menu, giving the user choice and control. The text is simple and linear, mirroring the sequence of appetizer, main course and dessert in a restaurant menu. Fluid text and design help Patterson to create a particular experience with his portfolio.

Maurice Sendak employs similar tactics in Where the Wild Things Are, encouraging readers to expand their gaze to match Max’s ever-growing visual landscape. As Max moves out of his room and onto the sea, the content on the right-hand pages (otherwise bordered in thick white space) creeps over gradually, thrusting more colors onto the facing page. At one point, a sea monster appears on the left-hand page, which was otherwise reserved for text and white space.

Here is the user experience at its most polished. The change comes quietly, invisibly, but the reader is aware that something is different. The protagonist’s growth has been connected with the reader’s experience of the narrative through the placement and cohesion of text and image.

Another polished example of fluidity in content and design can be found in an actual restaurant’s website layout:

Denny's Home

Yes, Denny’s. Look familiar? Replicating the experience of perusing a Denny’s menu, this layout shows how, in Patrick Lynch’s words, “visual design and user research can work together to create better user experiences on the Web: experiences that balance the practicalities of navigation with aesthetic interfaces that delight the eye and the brain.”

Denny's menu

The user controls the narrative here, with fluid navigation options that maintain the menu-like aspect of the layout, and a pleasing visual presentation that, as Lynch says, “enhances usability.” Filling in the gaps between glancing over a Denny’s menu and browsing the website, users feel encouraged to control their experience.

Conclusion

Fluidity of content and design requires that you trust users to make connections. By making the tone consistent, backing up your claims, tightening the text and being sensitive to the user’s experience, you can be assured that users will draw the conclusions you want them to draw. Designers of promotional Web projects can learn these lessons in part from storybooks such as Where the Wild Things Are, which demonstrates the essential elements of user control and delight. Trust your inner child; it won’t steer you wrong.