Designers should be obsessed by designing with the user in mind at all times.
If you’re designing a site with a main focus solely on fancy features, business objectives and the tech capacities of software tools and hardware, then you’re making a huge mistake because you’re neglecting the user. More importantly, you are contravening rule one of web design: Design for the user experience.
User-centered web design is defined as the objective of designing to increase the usefulness as well as usability of websites. There are many factors that apply to both usefulness and usability; navigability and efficient information retrieval are just two examples. Another way of looking at usefulness is how relevant the web content of the site is to the user, and usability can also be looked at in terms of ease of use.
The most vital part of the process is the end user, period. User-centered web design builds sites from the users’ perspective and with their satisfaction in mind at all times.
1) Concentrate on visibility
Visibility refers to vital site elements like navigational aids being highly conspicuous to the user. This allows the user to figure out immediately what he can do and what he can’t. Thus, visibility is a great help in assisting users to predict their actions’ effect.
The navigation bar of Cisco, the huge designer and manufacturer of networking equipment, demonstrates visibility perfectly. No matter what page of the site a user goes to, he’ll always be able to easily find his way to another section since the navigation bar is ever-present and grabs one’s attention. This creates a feeling of confidence and order for the user.
2) Memory load should be kept to a minimum
Navigating a poorly designed site will be taxing on the average user’s memory. There’s nothing worse than actually forcing users to remember what certain site elements mean from one page to another. The way to deal with this is to ensure that screen elements are purposeful and consistent over the whole site.
MSN.com is a portal that understands this principle well and executes it faithfully, too. No matter where you go on the site, memory load is kept to a bare minimum thanks to the site’s navigation bar that stays the same no matter what page you visit and a site layout that remains quite consistent from page to page.
3) Feedback ought to be instant
There’s nothing like instant feedback to make a site as user-centered as it can be. Fast feedback tells the user that actions on the site—such as clicking a button—registered and mattered. For example, in its most basic application, something on the site must change after the user clicked a button.
4) Make accessibility a priority
Your users wants their information found efficiently and quickly. Accessibility can therefore take the shape and form of any number of things, from the good, old sitemap to a basic search feature. Other ideas include the organization of web content into smaller pieces of easily digestible sections by utilizing a format that’s sensible to the user and even making it effortless for the user to skim your text.
Apple, unsurprisingly, epitomizes accessibility to the hilt. On its Mac webpage, the company organizes various aspects of the Mac—everything from buying a Mac and Mac customization to a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of the PC—in easy-to-absorb sections that are highly meaningful to a user shopping for a Mac.
5) Don’t forget site orientation
Site orientation is achieved by way of navigational clues that can take various forms. The most powerful examples include the sitemap, descriptive links and highly visible site elements on each page that tell the user where they are relative to other pages, as well as how to navigate to different pages.
The sitemap may be taken for granted by some designers these days, but it’s still a solid way of providing orientation to the user. PayPal’s sitemap may have too many links, yet for a user struggling to find where everything is on the site and how to navigate it, nothing beats checking out the sitemap.
6) Make your site pleasant
Making a site “pleasant” is open to interpretation, so let’s define this more specifically: the site ought to be simple to both use and look at. After all, the more satisfied the user is with your site interface, the likelier he is to have confidence in the dependability of the information on the site, perceive the site to be user-friendly and be motivated to learn how to utilize the site.
Flickr demonstrates this design principle nicely. The site is basically a repository of photos, and to start, users simply search for whatever type of photo they're looking for, and presto. The user sees an endless list of photos that match the search query. Not only is this a pleasant experience, but it also encourages confidence in the quality of the photos while also being motivated to become more adept at using the site. Such a positive experience works as a kind of positive-reinforcement tool, where a user is consequently prompted to explore the site in greater detail to see what else will pleasantly surprise.
7) Tie it together with visual design
Visual design is the aesthetics of your entire interface. This takes center stage as the most important vehicle in communicating both tone and information to users. Some of the most vital aspects of good visual design include webpages that feature a mix of being interesting and simple; the conservative use of color; and making the most vital elements the most visually prominent.
Sony has taken this advice and run with it. Its homepage is a celebration of these three points, with the layout being simple though eye-catching, and colors that are used sparingly.
User-centered web design should not be an afterthought
Too many designers forget the whole point of their trade: designing for the user. When that happens, you get sites that frustrate users and end up being nothing more than a hard slog through which to navigate. Having your name as a designer associated with such a sub-par site could be the death knell of your design career.
Yes, there are many aspects of user-centered design on which to focus, but the consummate designer will take great care to see that all of them are addressed in turn. Good design is a process from start to finish, one that can’t be rushed and demands a good deal of thought and consideration. Your users are everything, so it stands to reason that you should be designing to make their experience as delightful as you can.
Marc’s a copywriter who covers design news for Web Designer Depot. Find out more about him at thegloriouscompanyltd.com.