Design with the User in Mind

Are you putting the effort into your users experience that they deserve?

Congratulations, you have designed an amazingly illustrative website that is sure to get featured on every design gallery and inspirational site. You code it up to perfect validations and use innovative new CSS and Javascript techniques. You even add in some exceptional content worthy of book publishing deals. You upload the files to the web for all of the net-society to drool and fawn over as you lean back in your chair and think “Time to relax and let the visitors roll in.

Now, 2 months later, those hundreds of thousands of hits a day you were hoping for have not shown themselves. You check the stats daily for signs of making more than the 400 daily hits you get from your gallery submissions, but it never comes. Now instead of leaning back and relaxing, you’re hunched up over your laptop staring at your site, screaming in your head all the while “Why? Why is my traffic so low?

The Answer: You did not design with the user in mind.

You cannot run a successful website without having the design and functionality geared towards your users. The user does not care if you are offering unprecedented prices, exceptional sales, the perfect answer to their question, or that one-bit of info that will change their life for the better in some way if they cannot use your site. It has been proven time-and-time-again that it is the easy-to-access product which puts user’s needs first succeeds far beyond those products that make it difficult for the user.

Case Study: Apple iPod

Point:

Apple has always put out well-designed devices, causing a large buyer base to generate around their sleek, sexy, and powerful product lines. Nothing exemplifies this more than the iPod line. There is a reason why people say, “I want an iPod!” instead of “I want an MP3 player!” The iPod’s slick and gentle curve design makes it pleasing to the eye and the ultra-simple and intuitive controls make it easy to use. Exactly what the users want.

Counter-Point:

Some of you may be saying, “Well, what about the Zune?” and yes, the Zune is a perfect iPod competitor, but there are two flaws: It is too heavy and, and it released when the iPod had a dominant market share. The reason I bring up the Zune here in the counter-point is that the iPod is losing its control on the MP3 market. Why? Because the new generation of iPods (5th generation) do not have the same design aesthetics as the originals. To be frank, the new generation is horrible design wise. They are too small, what they did to the design would be the equivalent of compressing Angelina Jolie to 3 feet tall.

Guidelines to Checking Your Product’s Usability

Keeping your sites and products accessible by the user is the key to generating traffic and sales in any industry, but sometimes it can be hard to tell when your product/design has become unusable. Here are a few guidelines to check when creating your product to help keep you in the green with usability.

Get some fresh eyes:

Since you are the designer, you know that the ten by ten pixel orange block at the top right of your content area is the RSS feed button, but the users do not. Have someone who hasn’t seen the design or been told what certain things/areas are look at the design and guesswhat each area is, then adjust the areas where they guessed wrong to encourage the correct answer.

Stop Re-Inventing the Wheel:

Use Standard conventions when you can to help users us your product intuitively without thinking about what that function is.

Make Key Areas Stand Out:

Every product has an area/purpose that it is trying to bring innovation to, so make that area/purpose obvious. If users cannot figure out what your product is used for, then they will not use your product.

Use Logic when Designing:

This is my biggest tip; make sure your product or site follows a logical pathway. The Users are following the proverbial road laid out by your product so when you’re taking them from point A to point B don’t have the road suddenly veer off to point Q with a detour to point N.

The Sum of it All

The idea that I’m trying to get rooted in your head is that it’s easy to design an awesome site, but it’s more rewarding if you take the time and plan your designs with your user in mind. Illustrative borders, vector avatars, and brilliant animations may look nice, but they’re only decorations on a Christmas tree. The tree and presents underneath are the real substance of your site and are what your visitors and users will take away from your site, so give it the time and attention it deserves to take it from a pleasant experience to an extraordinary one.

About the Author

Jonathan Wolfe (aka: Fire G) and is what you could call a “perfectionist front-end developer with OCD for debugging”. He is constantly writing new ways to create stuff on the web and is also actively involved in helping sites follow web standards and also just flat-out function. Jonathan is constantly writing tech and design articles at his site Fire Studios and also preaching geeky-goodness on his podcast FS-Air.

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Comments

  1. Good points here Jonathan. Those guidelines will prove very helpful.

    On a side note, the fact that apple has iTunes to interface with the ipod will keep it ahead of the game.. none of the other mp3 players have such a dynamic not to mention popular program that interfaces with their mp3 player, and provides a quick and easy way to purchase mp3′s and movies.

    Through this Apple is enabling their users to get the most out of their product.

    thanks again… great stuff

    ~ Aaron I

  2. Interesting article, there definitely seems to be a strict line between people in design and people in usability and I think there is some way to go before the two are effectively combined.

    I disagree with a few points you make regarding the iPod. Firstly, I don’t believe the iPod’s success is purely due to the design. It’s also Apple’s brilliant marketing that builds the anticipation and makes the user associate those white earbuds with cool, young trendy people who they want to be like.

    I was also slightly confused by your comment regarding the 5th gen iPods not having the same design aesthetics as the originals. They still retain the identity of the wheel and look very much the same. To say they are ugly just because they are smaller is a bit OTT. The consumer market demands technology to be made constantly smaller. iPods are made to be carried around in pockets, on belts, used at the gym, etc. Being smaller greatly aids their purpose and portability.

    Here’s hoping they soon announce a smaller version of the iPhone soon! :)

    • as an agency we blend the 2 disciplines well, its a very Agile approach, born out of our attitude that we don’t want a sausage factory, the true winners will be the people that can overlap, they will soon become what we now refer to as creative directors.

  3. @Aaron: Thanks for the kind words. I did forget to take into account iTunes with the iPod situation. While iPods do interact with iTunes perfectly, so do Zunes and MP3 players. So it’s not AS much of a marketing advantage as you first make it sound.

    @Lisa: I simple find the 5th gen. iPods to be repulsive with their size. I know alot of people prefer the older generations because they fit better in their hands and also can be felt in their pockets. Also hoping the iPhone gets smaller!

  4. cssProdigy February 12, 2009

    Brilliant article! but I do have to disagree on some things:
    Do you have any data suggesting iPod market share is going down? Some people like small MP3 players and they’re fine with smaller sizes, I think that’s more of a personal choice. Great article though!

  5. @cssProdigy: Since the iPod’s release, Apple has had a30- 50% increase in iPod sales every year. But when the 5th generation line released that dropped dramatically to 5%. Now admittedly, the iPod Touch has enormous sales that actually give Apple a statistical sales gain, but remove that from the equation and it’s about a 25-32% decrease in iPod sales.

    The Zune really can become a contender again in the MP3 market if Microsoft took the time to lessen it’s weight to a reasonable amount and making it about 2/3s as thick (essentially helping with the first problem). They could also boot there revenues if they built the Zune with COMPLETE iTunes support and maybe even try and get iPod apps to run on Zunes.

    And yes, there’s a little personal preference in the iPod size argument, but there are also stats to back it up. Not to mention that Apple has released a “reloaded” version of the iPod Nano that retrospects back to the 4th generation style.

    Thanks for the comment!

  6. i hate to nit pick from what is otherwise a great article, but your use of the 5G iPod as a reference is a little confusing. the current generation of iPod is actually the 6G (iPod Classic), the iPod nano 4G and the shuffle 2G. the iPod classic has only gotten thinner, the iPod nano is back to it’s original size. Also, because the original ipod is really only thinner, I don’t see how people can say it doesn’t fit in the hand as well, and i can’t see that being the deciding factor between buying a zune and an ipod. furthermore, if you are referencing the introduction of the nano and shuffle, that is also a poor comparison because the niches are different.

  7. Nice article which i enjoyed reading, but i disagree with the comments about the ipod’s. Apple’s marketshare can only grow so much, and i don’t believe it has to do with the product line itself, let alone their design (which remains the best and most thought out in my opinion). Alot of the article seemed very one sided and opinionated, opposed to ‘overall’ informative

    Not sure what the comment about ‘compressing Angelina Jolie to 3 feet tall.’ was aiming at but in terms of thinking about your readers, it could put some off.

    Agree strongly with the ‘Guidelines to Checking Your Product’s Usability’ section though. Keep it up

  8. > The reason I bring up the Zune here in the counter-point is that the iPod is losing its control on the MP3 market.

    I’d hardly call a drop of less than 3% “losing it’s control” on the market. If anything, iPod sales are being cannibalised by iPhone sales.

    I’m not arguing with the base of your article, I just think you should have used a better example.

  9. Very true what you say about using standardised techniques that are known to work rather than trying to implement new ideas this is crucial that you follow the book as much as possible durin the inital period of a site. When you have got steady users in every day then experiment yes but nothing drastic or you might loose some of them.

  10. “Why? Why is my traffic so low?”
    The Answer: You did not design with the user in mind.

    This might be one reason, but ultimately, there are many other reasons a site might not be garnering the traffic expected. It’s a fallacy to think that “if I build it, they will come.”

  11. Make Key Areas Stand Out! Very true! This is so often overlooked! Cool read thanks

  12. Great read! Brand awareness is everything!

  13. Good points brought across in the article, but I gotta agree with some of the others that the iPod comparison doesn’t hold. In my experience, your average joe user finds the iPod difficult to use, and its exclusive integration with iTunes on only 1 machine makes it even more difficult. These features were definetely built with Apple’s market share in mind, rather than the user. It’s the hype surrounding the product that got it where it is.

  14. The original ipods had a horrible ui. They were not intuitive at all. Yes they looked good but damn they were annoying to figure out. Every time I go to use my original ipod I have to think how the hell do I turn this on again? O yes hold down some button that does not say power. How do I turn it off.. hell ill just let the battery die.

  15. Great article, I think you are a bit off on your iPod talk though. IF sales are down (which I would first argue that they are leveling out), it is because a lot of iPod owners have switched to their iPod being their iPhone, and the iPod hasn’t gotten smaller, their is just more choices. They still have an iPod Touch, and normal iPod. The first generation iPods were big white and bulky.

  16. Amazing Article,
    This is really resourceful for my learning experience.
    Thanks for sharing

  17. I can’t imagine my life without IPOD. so think of the others. that’s why i am reading it.

  18. Great read, Jonathan. I echo your thoughts and also appreciate that examples are necessary to put things in perspective, so am not debating for or against the attention-grabber example of iPod. The example in principle does show practical side effects of user-centric design, which I like. I often use examples that are subjective and sometimes extreme, but they help complement the theories and dimensions of usability.

    I’d like to browse more literature authored by you on similar topics. Thanks.

  19. So many of these issues are over-looked so often. Thanks for pointing them out. Great read.

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