Understanding Website Design

She's right...

She's right...

What is “good” web design? Many people don’t understand what makes websites good or bad, and some are even surprised to learn that effective web design takes time, and isn’t cheap. Let me explain…

When you look at a website, you’re looking at an end product. Like a car, there’s really no indication of what went into the creation of the product. We can break it down into its individual parts – wheels, pistons, frame, gears – but we don’t know *why* they, specifically, were used in its construction, or how to acquire and assemble the right types of parts for another car.

Who decides what’s good?

Most of us probably don’t understand how cars are designed, and have only a basic understanding of how they work. But we do know how to use them. We call them “sweet” or “clunker,” seeing distinctions in quality based on various attributes, such as age, safety, power, or utility.

Let’s dwell on that for a second. The designers and engineers who build these complex machines understand them a gazillion times better than you or I, and yet *we* are the arbiters of automotive quality? How does that work?

It’s simple, really. Cars are designed to solve our traveling problems. Need to pull cargo in hilly terrain? Alright, here’s a truck with more power…how’d we do?

“I need cargo space, but also passenger room.” Here’s your gas-guzzler.

“I need a place to put my drink while on long trips.” Okay: this model has 200 cup holders.

“I need an economical car.” Here’s a chair on wheels.

And we get to be the judge as to how well they’ve accomplished those goals. SUV? Wildly popular. Chair on wheels? Not so much.

So these researchers, designers, engineers and others all get together and attempt to solve our problems. They each have a role in the design and construction of our cars, and, together with all the complex parts and mechanisms in the machine, make for a price that can be pretty shocking.

After all, it’s just this little car. Like…a frame on wheels, right? With lights. And gears. Computers. An engine. Hoses and fluids and wires. Fabric and safety belts and airbags and safety glass and…yeah, that sounds expensive now.

You know what? I bet many of us could walk into a big automotive company office and tell those designers a thing or two about building cars. They’re made for *us*, after all. “Here’s what I want…”

But we’re not really telling them how to design cars, are we. We’re just telling them what problem we want them to solve. In the end we trust them to solve these problems in the most effective way, all variables taken into account, because we just don’t know how to design or build cars.

So now that we’ve completely forgotten the point of this article, let’s get back to web design.

Web design is…

The process of solving a business problem, communicating a message, and facilitating user action on the web. That’s my working definition. By all means, critique it in the comments – I’d love to get it nailed down.

1. Solving a business problem.
Website design – even print graphic design – is not art. As a designer, I’m not creating a work of art. The graphical and architectural decisions I make throughout the process are not primarily based on my own preferences – I have reasons for each choice I’ve made.

This is because I am creating a solution to a business problem. However one might want to articulate that problem, it usually can be constructed as an objective end, “Generate more foot traffic,” or, “Increase non-local sales,” or, “Take over the world.” Whatever the objective, all of my efforts as a designer revolve around it and attempt to fulfill it. This takes research and planning, information organization, writing, discussion, graphics work and programming.

The point here is that web design isn’t like creating art. Designers do have to think about the aesthetic form of the design, but within the context of business goals and the rules that go along with a communicated message.

2. Communicating a message.
With every website, something specific needs to be communicated, both visually and through the copy. Call it the brand or the marketing message – either way for this message to be communicated successfully, graphic and structural decisions must be subordinate to it. Does this color help convey the message? Does it fit the brand? Is it simply a preference? In web design, preferences must die.

3. Facilitating user action.
If there’s a clear goal for a website, the website user or “visitor” is involved on some level. You want them to read something, click something, subscribe, purchase, or interact in some other way. The design of the website must facilitate and not hinder whatever action you want the user to take.

All design decisions must be subordinate to usability. If a website looks great but is slow and clunky, or isn’t easy to figure out, it is not an effective solution to your business problem. Yet if it’s incredibly usable but has no visual appeal, you might also say it’s less effective than it could be. So there is a balance to be found, but when it comes down to either aesthetics or usability, usability must win. If your visitors don’t take the action you want them to take, you’ve failed.

Clear as mud?

I know there is confusion out there, and I hope this helps somehow. Creating a website is not just painting a pretty picture or moving some colored boxes around on the screen. It is an attempt to construct the most effective solution to meet a business goal, and sometimes this can be a lofty endeavor. There are so many things to consider beyond just the “look” of the site: the user experience, structure of information, findability, search engines, and more. It’s no wonder this stuff takes time.

But we’re not talking about a piece of wall art, here. This is a business investment, the core of your company’s web presence – a web used by over 1.5 billion people worldwide.

Don’t you think that’s something to take seriously?

Photo credit: lmnop88a


5 people are conversing about "Understanding Website Design"
  1. From Yavor Milchev | October 1, 2009 at 1:18 pm:

    I’m not a designer but I always end up approving design or proposing changes. I always try to aim for intuitiveness of the functionality, simplicity and effective use of colors to bring the right emotions to the visitor.

  2. From Kyle | October 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm:

    Thanks for the comment, Yavor. Always glad to hear of non-designers who are astute enough to focus on usability rather than aesthetic taste.

  3. From Web Design Lexington | November 10, 2009 at 1:37 pm:

    You said it right: loud and very clear. We are dealing with a business here and since we have a very competitive internet world, we should take designing seriously.

  4. From Michael Trythall | January 11, 2010 at 8:23 pm:

    “The experience is the brand”. This is what I tell my clients. We have very little time to get our point across with their site, and if we screw this up – if the experience is poor – we risk damaging their image with their customers.

    Your car example is perfect, and I use something similar when selling design. “Would you build a house without blueprints?” Same thing goes with web sites.

    Nice post.

  5. From Kyle McCabe | January 12, 2010 at 1:07 pm:

    Thanks for the comment, Michael. I've used the “house” analogy quite a bit, myself, which is probably why I went with the car this time ;)

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