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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Monday, 13th July, 2009

Web Design Wisdom from Twitter

I asked my twitter followers for their web design words of wisdom. I had over 200 responses. Here are some of the lessons learnt.

Digital Strategy:
The estimated time to read this article is 8 minutes

I am a lazy guy and Twitter is the perfect tool for people like me. Rather than go to all the effort of searching for an answer on Google, I often find myself turning to the Twitterverse. After all, some of the brightest minds on the web use Twitter and I can get an answer faster from them than looking it up myself.

However, with this article I am taking laziness to a whole new level. Instead of carefully considering my own words of wisdom regarding web design, I have turned to Twitter…

I am writing a post on web design words of wisdom - think 'confusus says'. Post yours to Twitter in 140 characters or less. #webwisdom

Setting aside the people who wanted to point out that I cannot spell confucius, the responses was amazing. Answers ranged from the silly to the surreal. However, there were also some real gems and a number of recurring themes. What follows is a summary of the main recommendations.

Focus on the user

There was a general consensus that maintaining focus on the needs of users, was a crucial component in a successful website.

Dan Goodwin put it best when he wrote…

If you can’t work with your users, talk to them. If you can’t talk to them, at least think about them.

A number of users recommended Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think”. However, the irony of one particular tweet made me smile…

Confucius says “Don’t Make Me Think”.

There was also a lot of advice about the importance of providing adequate signposting for users as they navigate your site. Colin McCormick wrote…

When leading a user make sure they always know where they are, how to leave and how to continue.

The issue of users becoming lost and confused also led to a call for simplicity.

Keep it simple

A number of contributors spoke about the importance of keeping our sites simple and intuitive. Niki Brown encapsulated this attitude when he wrote…

Keep it simple… the average user tends to get confused with massively complicated interfaces.

It is certainly true that many damage their sites by continually adding features and content, when they should be simplifying. However, according to some of our twitterers that is easier said than done. One wrote…

Simplicity is the most complex achievement.

While another indicated that the ability to create simple sites only comes with experience

As you become a better designer, your designs become simpler.

There is no doubt that simplifying a website can be challenging. However as I explain in “The Three Secrets of Simplicity“, if you challenge the need for new features it is possible. Too many web projects experience scope creep that undermines simplicity. That is where having a clearly defined brief comes in.

Clearly defining the scope

Too many web projects lack clear boundaries. Often they are wishlists of functionality that have not been fully considered. As Rich Wells points out, the first step is to define the problem…

When planning a site it’s always worth asking “what problem am I trying to solve?” before looking at functionality/solutions.

The trouble is that many of us are seduced by some new piece of web functionality and forget that our websites should primarily be about fufilling business objectives. As Marc Hindley points out…

Think business first, technology second.

Of course defining the scope of a project should not just be the role of the client. The web designer has a responsibility too. As Wendy Phillips explains…

Clients think they know what they want until you ask the right questions.

It is down to the web designer to ask the right questions. In order to do that they need to understand the business. One twitterer encourages them to…

Get as much info from the client upfront as possible, even things you think aren’t that relevant – get to know their needs.

Web designers and clients should work together to define the scope of a project. The client brings their business expertise while the web designer brings their knowledge of the web. Unfortunately the role of web designer is often reduced to that of a pixel pusher.

Recognise the value of web designers

Interestingly it is not just clients who undervalue web designers. Many web designers undervalue themselves. Andy Clarke endevours to encourage fellow web designers when he writes…

You don’t get paid for the hours you work, but for the years learning your skills and craft.

However, it is not just an issue of payment. The Twitter community also encourages web designers to be willing to walk away if clients become unreasonable. Alun Rowe writes…

Don’t be afraid to say no, or to walk away if a client becomes unreasonable. It’ll only cause you pain/distress later on.

David Roessli echos Alun’s point before also going on to say…

Be clear, direct, and honest. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Too often web designers will say anything to win or keep a piece of work. Ultimately this is damaging to both the web designers business, and the website of their client.

Of course, this advice doesn’t apply just to designers. It is valid for developers too. That said, there was also some developer specific tweets as well.

Developers pay heed

Whether you are a front end developer or a server side coder, there was some excellent advice coming from Twitter. Our very own Craig Rowe shared one particularly pragmatic piece of advice that made me smile…

Web development is a balance between well made and made just to work.

His second tweet contained a touch of bitterness that can only come from a .net developer fed up with receiving abuse from the fanatical PHP crowd…

The backend language really doesn’t matter.

That said, there is no denying he is right.

Talking of fanatical, Mark Mcaulay put another overly enthusiastic group in their place when he wrote…

WordPress is not the solution to everything.

Of course you could just as easily replace the word WordPress with any other CMS or development platform. Nothing is a silver bullet.

There was certainly no shortage of tweets touting the benefits of various frameworks, CMS and platforms. However, there was a general principle that 29Visual summed up well…

Learn a framework or develop your own. About 90% of the Website structure can be reused. The other 10% falls on design.

You can save yourself a lot of time with the right tool. However it is not just tools that can save time. Good code can too, as Joel Drapper explains…

Code with the next developer in mind.

I think we can all remember times when we have inherited code that is impossible to read let alone understand!

Our last piece of advice for developers comes from Vicky who shares one of the nicest tweets of the lot…

Code with humility and grace – acknowledge those who are on IE6 or screen readers.

That brings us on to the subject of accessibility.

Always keep accessibility in mind

The Twitter responses I received were particularly passionate about the importance of accessibility. However as Ricky Onsman pointed out, they wanted more than just access for the disabled…

Forget disability access – go for universal access.

In particular universal access included access to those using older browsers. That said, there was realism in their expectations. Nobody expected websites to look identical in all browsers. David Randall commented…

Web sites should not look the same in every browser – it’s okay to be different.

This passion for graded browser support was encouraging. However, it was not the end of their ambitions. As Joel explained, accessibility also brings with it improved search engine placement…

If your site is accessible, it’s also search engine friendly.

Website owners are often willing to invest considerable money in things like SEO or design, but rarely in accessibility. Hopefully Joel’s words will encourage them to reconsider.

Talking of investing in design…

Lessons about design

I conclude these words of wisdom from Twitter with three pearls surrounding the development of a design. The first comes from Colin who says…

Prototype and consider other designs. Do not be narrow minded. Be prepared to throw away every design at the design stage.

This is excellent advice. Often designers become locked into a single approach too early in the development cycle and fail to experiment and seek out inspiration. Of course there is a fine line between inspiration and theft. Tom Kenny writes…

Remember, inspiration is not about copying but rather kick-starting an idea of your own.

And that takes time and lots of different ideas and approaches.

But do not fret! If you are struggling to find your inspiration remember Bruce Lawson’s words of wisdom about design…

Readers care much much much much less about your design than you do. They care about content.

Conclusions

To be honest the idea of a twitter driven post was somewhat of a whim, but the replies I received were extremely impressive. This post does not do justice to the depth and quality of responses. There were superb tweets on launching a site, reinventing the wheel, and the importance of copy. I highly encourage you to look through the entire list.

However for now I leave you with some final words of wisdom from Jonathan Snook.

Anything is possible. Its just a matter of time and money

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