by Madelynne Jones, Content Strategist
This last weekend, we traveled down to Little Rock for the annual Little Rock Tech Fest, a fantastic gathering of geeks and code. Sessions ranged from soft talks on theories and ideas to the hard code behind some powerful applications.
I (Madelynne) attended a session with Duncan Jimbo entitled “Signs of the times: What road signs taught me about web design.” Here’s some insight I gathered from an excellent session:
Focus on your content more than your design
Content, after all, is why your readers are there. Readers don’t often come to your website to look at how pretty it is (though it helps), but rather to gain information from visiting it. “Your design must aid your content,” Jimbo said.
Design for permanence: a sign of the times
The 60s were no doubt a time of revolution, and two designers took the sign of upcoming change quite literally. Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir took ten years to redesign British road signage, meticulously choosing the most classic, utilitarian and consistent typography and images they could for posterity.
“We were designing for permanence. We were designing for something that wouldn’t look dated in 5 to 10 years.” - Margaret Calvert
This should be a sign to our websites, Jimbo said. Design for posterity. Let what you create be classic, useful and consistent, not confusing or jumbled or so quickly outdated that you will have to redo it. Think about why that client was most likely coming to you in the beginning anyway–because they need their website revamped and/or because they want a website that will last.
Design for the user
What does your audience need? Will they know to scroll up, down, left, right, click here or hover there?
“It’s all about asking the right questions and knowing for whom you are designing–it’s not always only about putting your personality into a particular design.” - Margaret Calvert
If you/your client wants to scroll down the page, make it obvious. Use arrows to point to edges where the user should scroll or have an automatic scroll. Make your designs intuitive so that your user doesn’t have to think, but has a natural reaction. For example, if you wanted content to swipe horizontally across the front page, or for the user to interact with it and cause it to swipe horizontally, then have photos and content extend beyond normal margins so that the content almost falls off the page, making the reader’s eye draw to the side, so that they naturally want to scroll horizontally to see more of it. This echoes real-life: when you see half of a huge billboard or wrap-around advertisement, you walk farther or bend your head to see more of it.
On that note, do your research and know how most people respond. According to Jimbo, most people do not respond well to horizontal sliders that they have to interact with. People respond well to scrolling up and down.
Test in different situations
Just like there are different driving conditions, there are different conditions in which people access your site. Test your site or app on multiple devices and browsers at multiple times and days. Test all the variables! (Otherwise you’re a bad scientist.) Did you know Google has colorblind settings and low backlight settings?
“Design products to be aesthetic and useable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.” - Ronald L Mace on Universal Design
Also, break conventions carefully. If you're going to break them, test to make sure the user can still figure out how to navigate your site and content.
Draw from real-life experiences
Calvert and Kinneir took inspiration from the world around them, Jimbo said. The committee decided to use universal symbols rather than words to prevent language barriers. A cow on Calvert’s relative’s Warwickshire farm was the inspiration for the red triangular sign warning drivers of wandering farm animals. And the children in the school crossing sign were modelled after a picture of Calvert as a child. A man working construction was modelled after Kennier.
So, Jimbo concluded to a room full of eager geeks, we should make our websites and designs so intuitive that users don’t have to think, so that it comes as natural and easy to them as driving.