Radical or Conformist? A Design Choice
Dr Alex DeWitt. Senior Customer Experience Consultant
January 27th | 2011 By
Within the information design sphere there is always a need to meet multiple objectives; please your client, please the end user, meet business requirements, and stay within technology limitations. One of the most fundamental questions this can raise is the extent to which your design should be radical, cool, or revolutionary, as opposed to standard, simple and conformist. I think there are two participants to consider when meeting this dilemma:
The underlying purpose of the design should be to meet the user’s needs; there is no need for a website if no customers or potential customers want to visit it. On the surface, the initial visual impression of a web site can have a big impact on the user. However, over time, the user will become accustomed to the design and lose their passion for it (compare your reaction at first touching an iPod to your 1000th interaction with it). This is not to say that visual appeal is not important, just that ease of navigation is more important (excluding specialist scenarios like gaming). One of the most memorable quotes I ever heard in a usability test was “Just give me the information I require in a manner I anticipate!”, in response to a wacky design which did not place information in the expected locations.
Some clients see ‘design’ as being equal to ‘creative’. It can be challenging to convey that the aim of information design is to build a taxonomy which gives the greatest information reward with the minimal time and effort expended, and that the output of this (e.g. wireframes) might not look very pretty. We have found that it helps to set expectations for this as early as possible (e.g. in the proposal), and to describe the benefits of good information design.
At One to one Insight we always design the taxonomy, terminology and interactions first, before laying the creative design on top. We help clients to understand that in the long term, users will keep using your interface if it is easy to navigate. Additionally, a wireframe offers more creative scope than may at first meet the eye; portraying a menu horizontally across the top of the page in a wireframe might look bleak and standard, but the creative team can then give that menu shapes, colours, textures and shadows, even making it appear part of a scene or background, as shown on the examples below:
We feel that the underlying structure of a website is at least as important as the visual appeal, and that both of these contributing design factors should be designed separately, to avoid creating dependencies where the visual design dictates, and therefore compromises the information design. Only once the information architect has completed the structure of the site should the creative layer be applied. This creative layer could be radical in its nature, but we believe that standards emerge for a reason. It is beneficial to conform to commonly accepted patterns, such as navigation menus being in a row at the top or column at the left, and beginning the with ‘Home’ link (for example). These standards allow users to learn one pattern and apply it to hundreds of interfaces which ultimately increases usability.