Podcast 42: Choosing the right design

It’s not unusual to be in a position where you have to choose between more than one design for a site. This podcast may help with the question “which design do I pick?”.

In this week’s podcast Paul and Marcus discuss the decision making process involved in settling on a design for your site. Whether you are a designer or web site owner this podcast provides some interesting techniques for choosing the right design.

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How to approach choosing a design

Your approach to assessing a design is as important as the quality of design itself. Approaching your assessment in the wrong way can quickly lead to the wrong conclusions. Below are a few quick tips on assessing a design:

Avoid personal opinions

Design is very subjective. We all know what we like and yet we very rarely agree on what that is. It is easy to simply assess a design based on your personal preference. However, the chances are you will not be the end user of your site and so the design should cater for a wider audience than just you.

Be careful who you show

Although you don’t want your decision to be based on your personal preference you still need to think twice before you start showing it around. The temptation is to show it to work colleagues to get their feedback however they aren’t your target audience either (unless you are building an intranet). Try and avoid design by committee, have one decision maker that collates feedback from end users rather than co-workers.

View the design in context

It’s important that you assess a design within its context. Never print a design out to make your decision. Access each design on screen and within a web browser. After all, that is how other people will view it.

Check on multiple monitors

A design can look radically different on various monitors due to colour balance and gamma settings. Make sure you look at the designs on as many different screens as possible. A good design needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the different screens your site visitors will be using.

View at different resolutions

A design not only needs to work on different monitors but also at different resolutions. The resolution your PC is running at affects what can be seen on a design before you need to scroll. It is therefore vitally important to ensure key content doesn’t slip below the fold.

Accessing the design

Once you have worked out how you are going to go about assessing the design the next step is to establish the criteria by which you are going to make that assessment. Below are some initial ideas you might wish to use. Each of these areas could go into a lot more depth but I have tried to keep to the main points within each area.

Colour

Colour is a very subjective area, so rather than asking people what they think of a colour, ask them what words they associate with a colour palette. That way if they say a colour conjures up images of "progressiveness" you can compare this with the messages you want the site to convey.

Layout

There are two things to look out for when assessing the layout. Does the design have enough white space and does it have an underlying grid structure. White space allows a design to breath, making content more readable. A grid structure provides some organisation to the design and its absence can leave a design feeling chaotic.

Weighting and flow

Does the design draw the eye to key content and show the user what to look at next? Ensure that the design you choose puts the emphasis on the right elements in the same way a newspaper always makes it clear what the lead story is.

Typography

As with layout there are two key things to look out for when it comes to the text on your site. Firstly, make sure that the text has a decent space between lines. Tightly packed text can be really hard to read and will dramatically reduce dwell time. Secondly make sure that the designer has broken up larger blocks of text with headings, sub headings, bullets etc, as this dramatically improves scanability.

Accessibility

Obviously accessibility is a huge area but within the context of choosing a design there is only one main thing you need to know: Can you read the copy? Is there sufficient contrast between foreground text and the background? Avoid designs that you have to strain to read because ultimately they will drive users away.

Usability

Is it obvious what the user should do next? Do links look like links? Is the main navigation clearly positioned and labelled? Is the user overwhelmed with too many options? In many ways usability is the key criteria I use for judging design. Ultimately users just want to get at information as quickly and easily as possible and the design should not get in the way of that objective.

Branding

To a website owner this is probably the most obvious of the assessment criteria. How well does the design conform to your style guide and tie in with existing print material. A continuity across marketing collateral is vital for establishing a strong brand identity and the web is very much a part of that.

Imagery

The final area of assessment is the choice of imagery. Imagery can make or break a website. Some warning signs to look out for include:

  • Small busy images that are hard to see
  • A lack of consistency across the site with different styles of imagery, all mixed up together
  • Images that grab your attention away from content rather than directing you to it.

The golden rule

If there is a golden rule to choosing the right design it would be communication between client and designer. A client should listen carefully to what a design has to say about their design approach and the designer should be able to clearly communicate their ideas and why they have made the decision to produce a certain design. Too many designers fail to justify their approach and too my clients make up their minds about a design without listening to the logic behind it.

Also in this show

In this week’s show we take a look at a number of web conferences including the @media podcast feed, Refresh Orlando (which Paul will be speaking at) and d.contruct. We also discuss the ethical issues surrounding being "inspired" by another website, as well as a review of the Wiltshire Farm Foods website.

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