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The Principles Behind Web Design, Part I: Usability Is King

As technology improves and we get the occasional radical revolution like the switch to responsive design (or, earlier, to CSS in general), it’s easy to assume that modern web design looks nothing like it did, say, half a decade ago. Surprisingly, though, that’s simply not the case. We had a pretty good idea of what web design was supposed to look before the Great Recession turned everyone’s lives upside down. (Well, OK, 99 percent of us.)

Over the next few days, I’m going to talk about the principles of web design as I understood them back then — and why it’s all still great advice today.

Usability Is King
Lots of people on the Internet are prone to saying “Content is king” — but let’s be frank: if your content isn’t accessible and your user-oriented bits aren’t usable, you could be the next Shakespeare and no one would care. To the logically oriented: content is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for success in online business. To be sufficient, content has to be supported by a framework that is eminently usable.

In order to design usability, a web designer must first understand how users interact with the websites they’re surfing. How do they think? What are their basic behavior patterns? Essentially, users Web surfing habits aren’t that different from how they proceed down the aisles of a grocery store: they glance at a page, identify whether or not it’s worth further examination, and move on — usually without looking at 80% of the page they’re scanning.

If they find something useful or interesting, they slow down. If they think a link might take them where they want, they click on it (the equivalent of picking up an item at the grocery store to examine it’s ingredients/nutrition panel). If they don’t find what they want on the other side, they click the Back button. (Hydrogenated oil? Not for me, thanks, I don’t do trans fat.)

And much like grocery store items, if they know that they can get good mileage out of an item, they’re more willing to forgive flashy advertising or other mild annoyances that come with it. If your content is truly good, you can get away with minor hiccups to usability like in-line advertisements or even the occasional pop-up — but it had better be truly good.

Remember, users don’t perform logically or optimally: they take the first reasonable option blithely, and if it turns out to not be what they want, they go back and take the next reasonable-looking option. A large part of your job as a web designer is making it very clear where they can find the things they’re looking for. This also means not doing things that interrupt a user’s intuitive understanding of what’s supposed to happen when they perform an action — for example, don’t open links in new windows, because that means the Back button won’t actually take you back to the previous page, and that upsets people.

We’re just scratching the surface here — come back next time for a look at the next rule: Reduce Cognitive Load

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