There are few things more important to a successful website
than its design. In many respects, it’s the window to the soul
of an Internet business as well as the people behind it. Portals
busy with too many elements fail, in that they attempt to
express too much, confuse visitors and make interaction
stressful. On the other hand, those which are too barren or
sparse fail to build trust or convey purpose with users clearly.
Is there a successful middle ground? A virtual place where
satisfying end-user needs and designer creativity meet to fulfill
the objectives of those running a website? That balance is
certainly the goal, but how do we (the collective of Web professionals)
get there without alienating either essential group?
There are, or perhaps should be, two schools of thought in the
psychology of Web design; should our experiences influence
design choices or should end-users (and their demographics, psychographics
and needs) determine how websites and applications
are designed and developed? The difference might be arbitrary to
some, but they can have a profound effect on how your site performs.
Do you listen to the actions of your users as they interact
with your site or do you, as a designer (or as the one responsible
for its success), dictate best practices? Clearly, this can be a challenging
choice for a designer. Yes, a designer’s job is to build a
Web page or website to fulfill the objective of the client which
meets or parallels the existing brand (and its customers affinity
for it), but are users’ needs superseded
in doing so? If the answer to that
question is yes, are we risking the
loyalty of existing clients or even
worse, prospects? And how do our
choices affect revenue?
In a perfect world, there would
be a balance between properly satisfying
the needs of the brand and creating
an appealing Web presence
that drives users to take specific
actions, feel certain emotions, and
create certain thoughts. Successful designers achieve this symbiosis.
But there are many challenges — cost, purpose, guidelines,
and environment, not to mention the many platform limitations.
Web designers express the objective of a website (without
copy) through layout, form, color and theme. To provide designers
with the best possible canvas to help achieve the objectives
and goals set forth, it is essential to address the psychology of
design from the perspectives of purpose, balance and branding —
often where genuine psychology comes into play. Those able to
romanticize the experience while remaining in line with fundamental
artistry achieve a certain mastery of design psychology
and provide a website with dramatically better odds of success.
No Page Is an Island
It used to be that the index, or home page of a website was the
most important piece of your entire Internet property. But thanks
to the increased sophistication of search engines and their broadening
indices (as well as the popular rise and use of landing pages
in all things Internet marketing) this is no longer a hard and fast
rule. In fact, since search engines, social networks and individuals
can send Web users to virtually any area of a website (predefined
or not), it is more essential than ever before to make strong
first impressions, regardless of the drop-off point for visitors.
The questions designers must ask themselves, considering the
fact that “no page is an island,” is: How do individual pages relate
to the overall purpose of the site itself and, in turn, how do these
pages relate to the user?
If our aim is to sell merchandise, secondary and even tertiary
pages must meet our underlying purpose in some capacity —
perhaps by giving the “add to cart” button a location high on the
page. If the business objective is to sell exclusive (not found elsewhere)
content, featuring multiple advertising units runs counter
to the concept of conveying credibility and makes the principal
focus of a design unclear for users. This ultimately decreases
the chances that end-users will make a purchase. In any context,
straying too far from the core mission of the website (no matter
how good of an idea it may seem) can be detrimental. To achieve
consistency and saliency of purpose, the rule should always be to
analyze each element appearing on each page to determine its
likelihood of distracting visitors. Do you really need another
third-party widget? Which elements of our CMS’ force users to
take an action that is counter to the action we really want them
to take? Asking these questions might reveal deeper site issues
than you previously thought.
Once the site visitor has seen the main/index page of the site
and is interested enough to venture deeper, presenting navigational
cues (textual and graphical) should become a primary purpose
of pages. After all, the visitor is coming to the site in search
of something to see, read, hear or purchase — or all of these
things combined. Getting users to this content as quickly as possible
is a priority, and there are several different ways to do this
depending on your visitors’ preferences. For example, popular
blogging and CMS system WordPress (wordpress.org) features
many plugins to help users find the most popular content, recent
content and even content related to the page the end-user is currently
viewing. The result is more interaction.
White space, often referred to
as negative space in design
circles, is the portion of a page
left empty or unmarked —
essentially, just unused space.
There is a purpose for white
space, however, and many
consider it a vital graphic element
in Web page design. White space is not about increasing
margins, paragraph spacing and the space between sections.
Expert use of white space helps a designer achieve balance, provides
a sense of elegance through simplicity, and focuses the reader’s
eye on a desired part of the page. Most of all, white space provides
a sense of breathing room for the viewer.
The concept of whitespace, however, can seem counterintuitive
to many website managers or inexperienced designers.
Wouldn’t it simply be better to include more content to tell the
story, promote a product and feed search engine spiders? More
content is usually better, but the presentation of your content has
a major impact on how it is consumed, if at all. When the spacing
of characters is small, margins are wide and paragraphs run
together, copy becomes a much less effective tool to convey the
intended purpose of the page to end users. People don’t typically
react well to rooms full of clutter, so why would they with a
Web page? Part of this sort of response has to do with how we
associate open space with emotional or physical comfort, and
our basic human survival instincts — when we feel spatially constricted
our primary concern is finding a way out. Often referred
to as fight-or-flight, this response comes down to one result on
the Web — leaving the website. And once a user feels threatened
and leaves with a bad impression, they won’t likely return. But
when spaces are comfortable, users feel safe and more open to
the power of suggestion.
Designers can influence decisions by discovering which
areas of a website are of the most importance, and which are
better left to secondary pages, or not included at all. The easiest
way to uncover this essential information (though there is
an investment of time) is through the implementation of heat
maps — a graphical representation of where clicks occur on a
two-dimensional map of a website. Popular services include CrazyEgg.com (commercial) and ClickHeat (open-source)
from LabsMedia (labsmedia.com/clickheat/), although most de
facto analytics solutions feature this capability out of the box.
With a graphical representation of viewer clicks, underperforming
areas can be replaced with white space to direct users
to focus on the desired portion of the page. Of course, testing
different elements is always suggested before making a sweeping
change to a website.
For designers, convincing a client to leave a portion of their
site unused can be a struggle. The client may need to be reminded of how the layout of the structure and content
should address the specifics of influencing how viewers
approach, consume, and act on the page. In other words,
remind the client that their page should be designed to produce
one primary action. If a client has trouble understanding the
value of certain design elements like white space, the designer
should make every effort to demonstrate its value through
tools like heat maps, case studies, testimonials or simply
presenting different versions of the page to several decision
makers at one time.
On the Importance of Image and Branding
Brands play a major role in the success of all organizations, both
online and in the brick-and-mortar world. But too often, the
branding of a Web businesses falls by the virtual wayside. While
it’s smart to focus on the value proposition of the actual service,
image is everything. You might initially struggle to explain the
essence of your own brand, but its worth every effort. The most
notable brands convey a certain cultural significance, a shared
lifestyle and, most importantly, an attitude. Coca-Cola, one of
the most identifiable brands on the planet, has branded to the
point where it is much more of a culture than a product.
If exceptional businesses are supported by great brands,
then bad businesses fail because of poorly conceived brands. In
hyper-competitive markets where “getting online” takes little
money and even less time, those with the ability to differentiate
themselves can rise above the noise and create an enterprise of
Branding is, of course, a lifetime pursuit but it begins on a
small scale. Those most successful in design branding understand
that logos communicate the essence of an organization
and invest heavily in their development. The same holds true for branding colors (Coca-Cola red, for example) and design
elements consistent throughout the brand (Coca-Cola’s cursive
lettering.) On an even smaller scale, a website’s favicon (the tiny
image in a browser bar) can instantly add credibility to a website
before the user even becomes familiar with the brand.
Clients’ aims and desires are always relevant to a site design
project, but hopefully the preceding information helps show
that individual client preferences should often take a back seat
to proven design principles and user expectations of websites.
The client’s investment of trust in the designer can pay high dividends
when it comes to design and branding issues. So, rather
than merely being the production of online decoration, Web
design is an effort of direction and communication.
Web design is not something that should be engaged in lightly.
The goal is to strike a balance between client preferences,
design principles, and trial-and-error tests based on end-user analytics
data. Perhaps it is best not to view Web design as a one time,
beginning-to-end project but rather as a continual work in
progress. At no point will the preferences of the client, the designer,
and the end-user all coalesce perfectly. But that’s fine as long as
they can come close enough to guide visitors to established objectives
— a goal common to all parties involved.