Consistency: Key to a Better User Experience

In an effort to provide a quality experience to our users, it’s essential that we are consistent in both the design and content of our websites. The reason is thus: consistency separates a haphazard experience from a polished one.

UX Comic by Rachel Nabors

Illustration provided by Rachel Nabors

Consider an example closer to home: you wouldn’t spend hours looking for a fork or spoon in your kitchen, would you? Why not? Because they’re in the same place they were last week …and the week before that. It’s logical. You don’t think, you just do. In a way, consistency makes our routine tasks subconscious ones.

Definr defines consistency as:

  1. 1. Logical coherence and accordance.
  2. 2. A harmonious uniformity or agreement among things or parts.

Definr

Users should feel the same way when they visit your site—at home. They shouldn’t have to spend a long time finding what they’re looking for. A consistent website is predictable and therefore learnable. After a while, users will find the information that they’re searching for effortlessly.

Where should you be consistent?

So now that you know what consistency means, let’s identify areas where you can be consistent:

  • Elements
  • Design
  • Content
  • Interaction
  • Consistency means “logical coherence and accordance”.
  • Elements, design, content and interaction should be consistent to create a great user experience.
  • When your users feel comfortable with your site, they’ll return consistently as well.

Although its a great start, this list is far from comprehensive. Feel free to improvise. Many elements of a website’s design depends on its overall interaction goals, and everyone’s different. In other words, there’s are no rules.

Elements

When I say elements, I mean the footer, sidebar, or navigation. Users will get used to the location of these elements, so they should be kept in the same place. Remember, your website should be logical to the users and that can be accomplished when you have a consistent placement of your elements.

Elements Example

Jason Santa Maria changes the look and feel of his site but, the elements are consistently in the same place.

Don’t take this as a ban on experimentation. Experimentation is essential to design. Keep in mind, though, that experimentation may introduce unpredictability, which can have a drastic impact on your website’s usability.

Design

Design Example

It’s ok to experiment, but keep the design coherent.

The design of your site should also be consistent. Users remember the details, whether consciously or not. For example, users will associate a particular color on your website as the “link color,” they’ll come to recognize the typeface of your body copy, etc. Therefore, being consistent in these areas will not only contribute to a great-looking design, but it’ll also provide a more familiar experience for users.

The picture above illustrates this point perfectly. Using three different typefaces in one part of your site is not only confusing to the user, it’s incorrect design practice. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation but keep it coherent with the rest of the design.

Content

Design Example

Chris Spooner’s articles are consistent in tone, quality and quantity.

The content on your site should be consistent in tone, mood, quality, and quantity. Users get used to the tone and content of your website. If the design of the site is funny and laid back, you writing should reflect that. This content should reflect and compliment the design.

Also, readers get used to your posting schedule or the quantity of your articles. They know when to expect something new and this affects not only the user experience but the loyalty of your visitors.

The quality of your content is something else to meditate on. People visit your site because it fills a particular need they have and if the quality of your content is slipping, they’ll find somewhere else to fill that need. The content you publish should always be of good quality and interesting. If not, no one will return.

Interaction

The interaction of your site should be consistent, too. Yes, each user will choose to interact with your website differently; however, the way in which your website responds should be identical.

Interaction Example

Is the interaction with your site consistent? Even in the small details?

For example, if a few of your external links open in a new window, consider extending this behavior to all external links on your website. Decide how you’d like to display pictures, whether that be in a lightbox, a new tab or on a photo viewing service and the follow suit throughout. Ask yourself, “How do I want [X] to act?”.

This is a great time to evaluate how users will want your site to behave. Remember, the whole point is to make the experience gratifying for them.

Why should you be consistent?

Users should feel comfortable when they visit your site. They should feel that your site is designed, arranged, and filled with logical information that they know how to get to. When you are consistent, you make your users happy which will compel them to return.

Summary and wrap-up

Readers will notice when you take the time to make your site user-friendly. I’m positive that if you put this article’s advice into practice, you’ll find it much easier to find and retain loyal, consistent visitors.

About the Author

Tim Smith is a music loving designer and blogger. He’s passionate about design and the web. He’s currently experimenting with “Art Direction” on his personal site; something you should really take a look at.

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Comments

  1. I agree with your points but I find ‘consistency’ to be a dangerous phrase. In the wrong hands it can lead to overly modular, forced sites where the designer is more concerned about efficiency than optimising the user experience.

    I prefer ‘coherence’. It allows for variation when the context is right, but indicates that all pieces of the design must hang together.

  2. Simple and directly.
    The case of Jason Santa Maria is a great exemple of redesign.
    Good post!
    Regards

  3. I totally agree, consistency is really important in design, however, you need to make sure you have a strong design to start with before you be consistent.

    There was a blog I used to read regularly with a terrible layout and design – nothing made sense. They announced a redesign and then when they came out with the new site they just left all the links and such in the same stupid places – everything was still impossible to find! I’ve since stopped reading it since it was too troublesome to find the content.

    We always do extensive usability testing on our sites for the first designs and for any redesigns. We find consistency is really important, but it’s also important to change things that aren’t necessarily working perfectly.

    We developed our own tool at http://intuitionhq.com, but there are plenty of other testing tools out there too, and I feel using them helps compliment the design process very nicely as well.

    • You bring up a great point. You could be consistently bad which would defeat the purpose of being consistent. You should be consistent in areas that are doing well and change ones that are not.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thanks for getting us thinking, Tim.

    One example of an application damaged by lack of consistency is the 37signals family of SaaS collaborative working tools: Basecamp / Backpack / Highrise

    In all of these you can enter text in comments boxes (like this one). Some of them use a mark-up language based on Tex – and some don’t – and some use bits of it.

    You’ve got to either remember which ones use it or click on “submit” and see what happens.

    And it’s so hard to understand why they haven’t just fixed this by using some kind of O-O design at their end.

  5. Great article, thanks very much.

    Usability principles or “rules” are expanding due to the fact that the very nature of the Internet and the applications we design and develop for it are just that…always changing and growing. Fads come and go but throughout you always see the mainstays that just “work”.

    Even so, you point out some standards that serve the designer and developer well.

    I look forward to future articles. Thanks again.

  6. Great post. Consistency is at the core of our design principles for current projects and this is very inspiring/encouraging.

    You made the point immediately with the kitchen analogy. How the hell are we supposed to find stuff it keeps moving. Imagine every time you open the draw the spoon magics itself to another draw. Too many websites (even sites for big institutions and businesses) feel like that when you are suddenly linked to a microsite which was plonked on top of an old site, with no clear way of going back to where you came from. It’s like Scotty keeps beaming me up to the wrong place and his GPS can’t find me.

  7. 网站的一致性原则,确实是网站的核心因素,是辨别优秀网站的元素之一,呵呵,辛苦哦~ 文章不错~

  8. As with anything, the rules of consistency are not absolute. Aside from the example above about being consistent in bad aspects, there is a whole range of situations where consistency may not be the best choice.

    One example is a blog that has a different layout for every article – Jason Santa Maria comes close, but I’m struggling to recall that one blog by – I think – a scotsman that really changed the layout entirely. It’s consistency catch was its inconsistency.

    Another way this works, and I’d like to argue with Tim here, is if the typography directly points toward the content of the menu links, lending them a grpahic quality. “Works” may not be the right place to use a Western font, but “Squaredance” or “Rodeo” might well be. Granted, these kinds of wild font combination can be exceedingly hard to pull off, but they can still do exactly what is needed. They should be consistent across the site though, to allow people to learn the associations.

    Thank you for a good article.

  9. Great post. Consistency is at the core of our design principles for current projects and this is very inspiring/encouraging.

    You made the point immediately with the kitchen analogy. How the hell are we supposed to find stuff it keeps moving. Imagine every time you open the draw the spoon magics itself to another draw. Too many websites (even sites for big institutions and businesses) feel like that when you are suddenly linked to a microsite which was plonked on top of an old site, with no clear way of going back to where you came from. It’s like Scotty keeps beaming me up to the wrong place and his GPS can’t find me.

  10. User experience is so important! This is such a great article. I will be sharing this with so many other people!

  11. I just sent this to like 30 people on my team to prove my incessant whining about global elements across our large scale site, as well as having consistent navigation in sub sections, among a multitude of other things we need to fix.

    Thanks!!

  12. Thnx for posting this article.

    I’m new to UX and wanted to learn it so that i can make my blog look good and should be easy to use too. :)

    I guess this post is going to help me a lot, even for my other projects.

    Thanx again.

  13. This is a great post! Consistency makes for a better experience all around.

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