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Improving User Interfaces Through Dirty Design

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  1. Improving User Interfaces Through Dirty Design
  2. How to Design 'Dirty'
  3. Focus on Value
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Don't waste your time making your website gorgeous, says Jakob Thyness. Users probably aren't very interested in how your site looks; they care more about being able to find what they want, when they want it. By following some simple principles, you can build sites that work great, rather than just look great.
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Many modern websites have become too sleek for their own good. Websites don't have to look good in order to work well and be successful; in fact, sometimes not looking good yields better results. That might sound backward, but it's true.

The most important task of the web designer is to make sure that the user finds what he's looking for on the website. All other considerations—aesthetics, branding, being "on message"—are secondary, because all these values are useless if the visitor abandons the site. And you can be sure that he'll disappear very quickly if he can't find what he wants.

The interesting thing about web communications is the fact that the website provider no longer calls the shots alone. Rather, value is created in the interaction between the website provider and the user. This interaction constitutes an important difference between the Web and traditional mass media: Not only is the user an unknown factor, but this value creation is completely dependent on the user's being able to locate the website in the first place, and understanding how to navigate it when he gets there.

Push Versus Pull Communications

The type of communication used in traditional mass communications, such as advertising, is known as push. The same message is pumped out to a large number of people, many of whom are less than interested. Even the proposed target audience usually needs an incentive to sit still for the advertiser's plug. As a consequence, both advertising and design businesses have historically placed a premium on creativity, because this quality enabled them to get their message across to a possibly disinterested audience.

By contrast, the Web uses pull communication. Instead of responding to mass-market advertising, the user has a need that he tries to satisfy on his own. This user is highly motivated, knows what he wants, and has come to a particular website in search of it. In this case, there's no need for audience incentive; creative stratagems not only are rendered useless, but tend to get between the user and what he's trying to find.

Common mistakes in the switch from push to pull marketing on the Web include the following:

  • Undue emphasis on branding
  • Being too creative
  • Taking design cues from other media
  • Making the site too "pretty"

We'll examine each of these points in turn, and then consider some solutions to help you avoid these errors.

Undue Emphasis on Branding

Branding is regarded as important in traditional advertising, as a means of achieving a coherent presentation in different channels. On the Web, however, it's easy to take this strategy too far. Very few traditional branding elements are helpful to the user, apart from identifiers such as logo and colors.

In the past few years, for example, a lot of effort has gone into making more typefaces available, in order to allow websites to be "on brand." While this technique might be pleasing to designers and their corporate clients, it's of little or no importance to the user. Also, it can slow down the website's operation, which impacts the user negatively, particularly when using mobile devices.

Being Too Creative

Traditional design often places a premium on creativity. In mass media, an uninterested audience is the norm, and the designer has to counteract this situation in any way possible. One of the best tricks is to give the audience something they haven't seen before, and weren't expecting.

In web design, the unexpected can be very risky, because the delivery of the message depends on the user's ability to navigate the site. Certain aspects of the website, such as the menu system and layout, should deviate as little as possible from user expectations.

A website isn't a series of pages to be read; it's a machine to be operated by the user. Users have to understand how to operate this machine within seconds of their arrival, or communication will be severely impaired—or even fail altogether. The scope of creative design on the Web therefore is quite limited, and that creativity can be positively dangerous if used in the wrong places.

Taking Design Cues from Other Media

In any multi-channel environment, the client will also have a corporate identity, the product will have its own design, print and TV ads may be used, and so on. In many cases, the website is often an afterthought. This situation is slowly changing, but it's surprising how often the Web is relegated to second-rate status, when it should be the foundation of the marketing strategy. These days, the Web is the first port of call for many, if not most people when seeking information about products or services. So the website shouldn't take its design cues from the print ads—actually, the plan should work in the opposite direction. The website is usually critical to the marketing strategy, so the design requirements of the website need to come first.

Making the Site Too 'Pretty'

Aiming for beauty is all too easy for designers. Most designers are aesthetically inclined; that's part of why we got into this business in the first place. This fact, coupled with the quest for creativity and originality, both in design education and in the business in general, may have made us more artists than craftsmen. As a consequence, we're a little too inclined to let aesthetics influence our design decisions, often to the detriment of our clients—and, ultimately, of the user.

In the old days, we very often didn't know whether a given design decision was wrong, as we rarely bothered to check. With web analytics, however, a web designer can find out instantly if he made a bad call, moving just as quickly to correct it. Aesthetics are fine, but shouldn't be our primary guide in making design decisions. The world's most successful websites, such as Amazon.com or eBay, aren't particularly pretty—and they don't need to be.

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