updated: July 12th, 2010 / Ross Johnson / 2 Comments

Your Design May Be Beautiful, but It Might Still Suck…

I want to preface this post by first saying that I believe one of the great strengths of our industry is that we have people from such diverse backgrounds. The evolution of the personal computer and the sophistication of design programs like Photoshop have created a low barrier to entry in the development of graphics. This means that even people who have very little experience, knowledge or skill can make some pretty nice look imagery.

It probably sounds like I am framing this in a negative light, but that is not my intent. I actually do see this as a huge strength for our industry. In any field or skill you are going to have newcomers and veterans. Having rewarding early experiences will results in a higher likelihood of sticking with the industry, which results in a greater number of skilled experts. This higher level of experts then leads to a more mature industry and a greater mind pool to help advance and improve everyones work.

That Being Said, There Are Drawbacks

Because the web is so new and fast paced, there are not a lot of great educational programs for design and how it relates to the web. Additionally many designers are self taught, so even if there was a great program they might not get the insights of experienced instructors. Now again, this is not necessarily a bad thing… I will be the first to admit that I do not have a formal education in design and there are a lot of other amazing designers in the same boat.

The major problem I see is that as an industry we are really good at focusing on some things but completely miss the boat on others. This means that those self teaching become very adapt at the “popular” news and information and many educational programs are shaped around these as well. Critically important aspects of design receive very little attention.

What We Are Good At…

There was a time when we were really good at talking about the better ways to “build” a website. You should use web standards, make it accessible and ensure that is usable (OK somewhat design related). As these topics become more common new “sexier” news become popular.

Where we once talked about the importance of accessibility, standards and the like we now are now pumping out tutorials and lists. Tutorials cover how to make fancy graphics, how to do the next cool jQuery trick or integrate a fun WordPress plugin. Lists of “cool styles of design” seem to sprout up every week and are shared around the web at lightening speed.

What We Are Not Good At…

I am always shocked at how little attention is given towards communicating the right message. There are tons of tutorials out there that talk about how to make “such and such” style of design and lists of “such and such” amazing designs. However there rarely is talk about when to use such a style. The web is such a highly visual medium and I think this leads to it. It is easy to overlook the context and the message when you are scanning through sites purely to see what looks good to you.

So we end up forgetting that users make very brash assumptions about our sites based on our graphics. Those assumptions can increase or decrease sales, brand value and the effectiveness of the site.

Design Can Communicate As Much as Words

Every piece of design on your site communicates something. As a whole the design can communicate more than the words you chose to place on your site (especially considering some users do very little reading). If you are communicating the wrong message it doesn’t matter how beautiful your design is, it still sucks (harsh but true!).

I would even go so far as to say that a design that communicates the right message but is not so visually pleasing will ultimately be more effective than a beautiful design that is completely off message.

So How Do You Know if it is On Message?

Determining how “on message” a design is can be tricky for a few reasons…

  1. As the designer we are often too close to the design
  2. We are also rarely the target market of the design
  3. Design is subjective
  4. The client (who ultimately gives approval) suffers from the same issues

However there is a great way to find out. We have usability testing and we should have design testing as well. It is much easier and less expensive than usability testing and can have a huge impact. The process is very familiar to usability testing as well:

  1. Identify your target market so you can get qualified test subjects
  2. Develop a list of specific questions
  3. Develop a set of instructions to get the highest quality feedback
  4. Perform the tests, record the results

Crafting the Questions

Obviously getting people with in your target market that will be using the design is a critical step. However the quality of the questions and instructions is equally important. Because people are so opinionated about visuals and design there will always be a tendency to just starting freeform talking about what they like or dislike about the design. However this is not helpful, what you want to know is what the design communicates to them.

I find that it is best to identify what you want the design to communicate then craft very specific yes or no questions around it. Sometimes you can get away with short answer questions as well, but the more freedom you give the further out your answers will be.

For example if you want the message to be “Child friendly restaurant with classic american food” you could develop a whole series of questions around it, such as:

  • Would you expect to see this design used for a grocery store?
  • Does this design feel like it is targeted at adults?
  • What sort of food would you expect to find here?

Now the first few questions might have thrown you off, but a high quality question shouldn’t lead the test subject. You wouldn’t want them to think “Oh they said restaurant so of course it must be a restaurant.” By asking a question that you WANT them to answer false too you will really know if the design clearly communicates your message.

Something is Better than Nothing

Simply being more aware of the design message and crafting the right design, but I really do encourage you to take it a step further and do some testing just to see what reactions you get. I bet you will be surprised. Furthermore it will make you a much stronger designer as well.

2 thoughts Your Design May Be Beautiful, but It Might Still Suck…

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