We designers often feel saddled with the need to make our layouts compact and yet readable, everything beautifully-designed and yet fast-loading. And often, in the fever of design, we end up forgetting to make our pages actually usable (guilty as charged). When we’ve spent so much time with our graphic design creation, we tend to see it more as an extension of our pride and effort rather than an entity that needs to be intuitive and useful.
Based on this tendency, I have created a checklist for creating web designs that are both graphically pleasing and user-friendly. Bear in mind, most of my experience comes from my personal preference, but it also comes from many years of trial and error in web design. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, but usability is on trial today.
Do the design’s colors draw attention where you want it most?
In general, users’ eyes are attracted to the brightest or most interesting-looking color first. In your design, is there color beside or behind the element you want users to pay attention to first? If there isn’t, your users might be momentarily confused as to where to look first. (See point #3 for how to choose an interesting color that doesn’t take over the whole page.)
Do the pictures in the layout enhance the content?
When we design layouts, we can easily get too caught up in how pretty the pictures look in the layout, how well we’ve blended several pictures, etc. But we have to make sure that our designs’ pictures don’t take away from the content, but instead offer our “brand” or otherwise identify our site in the user’s mind.
Your graphics can be simple or complex, incredibly detailed or pixelated, but it’s got to make sense with the rest of the site. A grungy design can take away from a sleek technology-based site, for instance, and vice versa.
Do the colors “go” together?
Using complementary (opposite) colors in a web design can work to great effect when trying to draw attention to important elements (see point #1). But if there are way too many colors going on, the site design can cross the line between funky and tacky (like wearing too many patterns at once). Likewise, if your site has a monochromatic look, it may seem boring to users’ eyes. You have to throw at least something in there to break the tone-on-tone look, otherwise users won’t know where to look, or they will be turned off and navigate away from your site.
My fix: put in at least one contrasting or vibrant color into your layout, and for the rest of your color scheme, select colors that harmonize with each other. Then, you’ll have an “accent” color that draws attention to what you want to highlight, without overwhelming the rest of the page.
Is it easy to find site navigation?
I’ve seen it many a time–site navigation that is so darned tiny you can barely see it, and it’s tucked away close to the bottom of the page where nobody is going to find it. Place your navigation at or near the top of the page, and make it big and bold so your users immediately see it–otherwise you’ll have a lot of frustrated users on your hands!
Is it easy to keep reading the page?
Headings, subheadings, and a good amount of white space are essential, especially for long articles (such as the one you’re reading right now). If text is crowded together with no paragraph breaks, no headings, etc., then it will suffer from “Wall of Text” syndrome and no one will read it.
Is it easy to figure out where a particular page is located?
We designers can be awfully vague when we name our navigation links! Be careful that your navigation categories make sense and are immediately recognizable…even if this means typing a few more words into your navigation panel/bar than you’d really like to. (For instance: “Layout Info” is much more meaningful than just “Site Info”.)
Let me preface this by saying that Web designers have long been trying to outdo each other by using the prettiest or most complex fonts they can find in their graphics. Nowadays, the font battles continue even on regular text in blog posts and pages, since designers have found custom font tools such as Typekit. (I still stick to the Web-standard Verdana, Garamond, Arial, Times New Roman, etc., but many designers have gone over to using custom fonts for everything.)
Fonts do, however, tell users more about our content than perhaps we intend; one funny chart about fonts’ true meaning (with a bit of bad language) puts this competition over fonts in perspective. (I read this chart and thought, “Finally, somebody else who can’t tell the difference between Helvetica and Arial!”)
While this lends a humorous angle to the “font wars,” we as designers do have some serious concerns to address when we choose fonts for our designs:
Is the font style easy or hard to read?
We often forget, in trying to make our site look inventive and cool, that the font actually has to be reasonably legible. Overly cursive, decorated, or symbol-like fonts may look really unique, but it makes it almost impossible to determine what letter is which, especially on small resolutions. When we choose fonts, we must make sure that our users can still read our content underneath the “icing” of the font. (Pet peeve: really cursive font that is set to a tiny size. STOP. DOING. THAT.)
Is the font size big enough?
Before you choose 10pt font for your body text, ask yourself: do you like looking at pages and pages of text in 10pt font? Most people will say that they don’t. Many web designers, however, resort to using 10pt font (and even smaller!) to try to cram all their content onto one page without the user having to scroll. This is not the best way to draw users to your site–if it’s hard to read, they’ll leave and not come back. If you want your user to enjoy your content, make your fonts big enough to read; after all, isn’t the content the reason you created the site in the first place?
Designing layouts is not just about creating a visual work of art–we’re also creating an INTERACTIVE work of art, one which our users must be able to navigate and use to their heart’s content. Being considerate and careful in how we use color, fonts, and content organization will make our layouts much more usable–which means more people will visit our easy-to-use, easy-on-the-eyes sites!