Technology Should Enhance Website Design--Not Detract From It

CEOs can be a quirky bunch. We once helped a client in the professional services sector design a website. He was an avid runner, and he wanted to use technology to convey that in some major way on his firm’s website.

Ultimately, he decided he wanted the site to automatically change the user’s cursor from the traditional arrow to an interactive, animated cursor of a man running on the website’s homepage.

It wouldn’t have been a simple task, but we could have given him what he wanted. The technological capability does exist. And that’s where we ran into a problem. He had asked us, “Can you do this?”

Our reply to that question was “Should we do this?”

His business had nothing to do with running or even fitness. Moreover, the cursor has been represented by an arrow ever since the invention of the mouse.

Population stereotypes are the well-ingrained knowledge we have about the world and expect to see in our user experiences. Users universally expect the cursor to be an arrow when navigating the screen, a pointer (or hand) when hovering over a link or action button, and an I-beam insertion point when editing text.

Just because designers can do something cool and different with a website doesn’t mean they should. Their primary guide should be the user experience. Features that streamline the UX and convey valuable brand attributes are useful. Features that can’t do that are just bells and whistles and often serve only to distract users — or worse, frustrate or confuse them.

Websites are powerful tools for building brands and serving customers. Your website’s user experience is the primary vehicle you have to convey your brand to your audience online. As web technology has advanced and been democratized, it’s easier than ever for companies to create a web presence. These new tools open up a world of design possibilities — and temptation.

Tools that impact UX

Two web technologies go well beyond appearances to help designers create a website that’s both compelling and highly functional.

Prototyping is a technology for improving web and mobile design. Prototype tools such as InVision let designers load static designs into actual desktop and mobile browsers. This lets them check critical aspects of web design, such as font sizes, information hierarchy, and whether action buttons are sized and spaced appropriately for mobile with sufficient space between them to avoid tapping on the wrong action. For all modern web designers, prototyping is key.

Web font technology allows designers to create unique, custom looks for their sites, which can be useful — but only if used sparingly. Each new type family and variant slows the initial website page load. And if multiple distributors host a website, that adds additional dependencies, costs, and maintenance risks to the equation.

Techniques to ensure a better UX

Using the right tools in the right way is only part of what designers need in order to create the best website. If they aren’t brought into a collaborative development process, their skills will be wasted and the UX will suffer. UX designers need to:

  1. Work closely with experienced partners. Good collaboration between developers and design partners is the key to a successful website implementation. The partners need to be well-versed enough in advanced UX to understand the limitations and constraints of the available technology and resources. There are many web developers, and their ranks are growing. Finding the right match is critical.
  2. Find development partners with an eye for design. Web developers who value design and technology will be able to amplify the work of good designers. Look for fellow artists whose priority is to maximize the quality of the website, not minimize their own effort. They will provide the best feedback and recommendations about how to further optimize the UX without sacrificing the design vision or the client’s business requirements.
  3. Avoid offshore development teams. Establishing effective collaboration between developer and designer is difficult enough, but the inability to meet face-to-face can make it almost impossible. Further,  offshore teams often don’t understand or focus on the finer points of the UX, which are often very cultural. Development and refinement of sophisticated user experiences does not happen offshore.

Great UX doesn’t happen by accident, but it doesn’t have to be a rare thing that only the largest corporations can achieve. With planning, skill, and great collaboration, any company can give its users a quality online experience.