Some design principles never change

Paul Boag

Designing for the web can be challenging when things change so fast. Fortunately, whether it is 1994 of 2014 some principles never change.

When compared to Chris Sanderson and Ed Merritt (our two UX designers at Headscape) I am a design dinosaur. Sure, I used to be a web designer, but I haven’t designed an interface from start to finish in years.

You only need to look at the amazing work that Ed has done on this site to see what a modern web designer can do. That said, many of the principles that underlie this site applied to it when I launched it in 2004. Heck, they even apply to the sites I designed in the late nineties.

You see the web may change at a frightening rate, but people do not. It is people who use our sites and so many design principles remain unchanged.

In this post I want to share a few of the web design principles that have stood the test of time. Principles that are the bedrock of all good sites. I look forward to seeing what other principles you share in the comments.

Design has to be fast

Speed matters, whether you are designing a website to work over a 28K modem back in the mid–90s or one for the fastest cable modem today.

People base their expectation of speed on prior experience. If sites like Google deliver pages in a fraction of a second they will expect the same from you.

Google places a high value on sites that download quickly.
Google places a high value on sites that download quickly.

People have limited patience and if your site performs poorly when compared to the competition they will leave. They won’t care if your design looks amazing once it has loaded. They won’t hang around long enough to see it.

Design is about working within constraints and speed will always be one of those constraints. Bandwidth may change, but how long users are willing to wait for content will not. Google will continue to reward fast sites and the majority of people will always be using a slower connection than you.

Design has to support content

Good design should be invisible to the conscious mind. Yes, it will impact how we feel about the site. But our consciousness should focus on the content. We should be thinking about the message.

As site owners and designers we like to have an impressive interface. Something with the ‘wow factor’. But, a flashy design can be a distraction from your message.

Design should not prop up poor content. It should exist to focus the users attention on that content and encourage the right emotional response to it.

Design must fulfil site goals

Design is not art. Art exists for its own ends. It doesn’t serve an external purpose. Design exists for a specific role. In the case of web design that is to fulfil the site goals. Those goals vary but often include some form of call to action.

If the designer is not focused on achieving and measuring site success then the design will fail. A design can be visually outstanding, win awards and gain peer approval and yet completely fail.

Design trends come and go. We leap on these trends because they are fashionable and impress our peers. But if these trends don’t deliver site goals, they are worthless.

Design must be flexible

Design must be flexible in three ways.

First, the web itself is a fluid medium. Screen sizes vary. This means websites have to adapt to these devices. We forgot that for a while, but that has always been the case. We must be careful not to forget it again if the landscape shifts once more.

Second, users needs are many and our sites have to be flexible enough to accommodate them. Some users are colour blind, some have cognitive disabilities. Some are just getting old or have broken their wrist. Whatever the case, they need the power to adjust our websites to suit their requirements. Our sites should adapt to the user, not the other way around.

Third, our designs need to adapt to the changing needs of the business. If the company rebrands, how easy is it to adapt the site? If the company adds a new product what impact does that have on the site? What if the organisation decides to make more use of video, will your design accommodate this? The list could go on.

Designers need to look into the future and accommodate what might be. Take for example Dan Sheerman who built this site. He has made sure that this website works down to 140px in case somebody releases a smart watch with a built in browser.

Design must facilitate the user

I have talked about how good design should meet the physical needs of users, but it shouldn’t stop there. Good design should focus on helping users complete their goals.

Too often design gets derailed by organisational thinking. Sites end up structured around business silos rather than user needs.

As designers we need to be careful about our own thinking too. We tend to fall back on established design patterns without asking whether they are right for users in this situation.

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In short good design is only possible when produced in consultation with users. Usability testing is not an optional extra. It is the heart of good design.

Design must be able to evolve

Finally, good design should evolve. The design of a site is never done. Good design is like tending a garden, it is an ongoing process. A process of testing, refining and iteration.

Failing to do this means that a design begins to date. It also never benefits from the feedback you receive once a site goes live. When a site goes live you can watch real users interact with it. This tells you what works and what does not. What other design medium gives this kind of regular feedback? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could adjust the type size on a billboard ad after observing that people weren’t spotting it. On the web we can and yet so often we publish and then leave.

These are my unchanging design principles, but it is far from a comprehensive list. It would be great to expand the list in the comments below.