Design As a Strategic Advantage

In this environment, the design of a Website can become a strategic advantage. Effective use of design will allow a company to benefit in a number of ways.

An effective design will allow the provider to better predict and control costs. For example, a design should include flexible rules for how and where the site will add new content (as opposed to updating old content). Establishing these rules in the design phase of the project will greatly reduce the need for ongoing design changes, as well as pushing out the time until the next major redesign.

A layered site design can allow a company to react more quickly and effectively. Separating content from presentation and function in the design reduces the effort to change any of the three later. In addition, a strong conceptual model streamlines decision making about whether or not to make changes in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, an effective design can help satisfy and retain users. There are measurable human factors that can be used to objectively evaluate the impact a site design has on its users. An effective Web site design can improve the experience for users in several measurable ways. For example, using consistent language on buttons and prompts reduces the time it takes users to perform tasks by 25 percent. Users come to a site with goals. Effective design will help them to attain their goals more quickly and easily.

A design can be used to reduce the number of errors users make while performing common tasks on a site. If someone hasn’t been exposed to how software designer’s deal with error, this idea may seem jarring. Users typically think of errors as mistakes they make that are somehow their fault. Software designers think of errors as a user’s best approximation of the correct action. In other words, the user took what appeared to be the right action to achieve a goal. Software designers use well-known principles to improve the likelihood that a user will take the correct action in the first place. There are no bad users, but there are less-than-perfect designers and designs.

Subjective satisfaction is another human factor that software designers measure. This is typically done by having users assign a numerical value to how much they enjoyed using the software. So although the factor being measured is subjective, it is assigned an objective number-by users-that will serve as a benchmark that can be remeasured over time to gauge improvement. If an organization thinks that user satisfaction with its site isn’t terribly important, it might want to keep in mind that it’s an important predictor of whether or not the user will ever return.

We’ve seen some of the ways that better design can improve a site in measurable ways. But with rising costs, rapid technological change, and increased functional complexity, how will designers cope, let alone move beyond current levels of usability, to achieve a strategic advantage for their sites?

As Web projects become more like software projects, Web designers will have to look to the methodologies of the software industry. This will result in a move to a new design imperative that will combine best practices from media design and production with principles of computer-human interaction. This is called action oriented design.

A good part of this new design movement will take place naturally. The Web may be the newest new medium but it certainly isn’t the first new medium. There is a natural progression to the design of all new forms, media or otherwise. New forms start out by imitating older forms, then evolve into what the new form will eventually become. Early automobile designs copied carriage designs (hence, the name “horseless carriage”). Early television programs copied both radio and live theater. So, too, the Web is struggling from its early imitation of print and broadcast media and toward what it will ultimately become.

Four Phases of Web Design

The four progressive phases of Web design evolution mirror the phases that many Web designers pass through in their development. There are many examples of sites on the Web today that correspond to the first three phases. The fourth phase is one that is only now beginning to emerge. The four phases are:

I. Applying What We Already Knew. Here the designer applies lessons from established media. Consequently, the site tends to look like a printed page, a video still, or a CD-ROM. Interactivity often suffers and performance is usually poor due to heavy graphics.

2. Imitating What We See. As the designer becomes immersed in the realities of Web design, new design problems pop up that can’t easily be solved by applying lessons from other media. At this point, the designer looks to how other sites solved these problems, and adapts those solutions. But although the designer is growing in knowledge, there is still no deep conceptual framework of understanding. A borrowed solution may not be appropriate and can even cause usability problems that are worse.

3. Learning by Experience. The feedback mechanisms of the Web are an incredibly valuable tool for learning. Study of server logs shows how users move through a site. Users voice their likes and dislikes through e-mail. But be warned: Although users know when they have a problem, they are not the right ones to design the solution. In addition, internal users are a constant source of data. As a Web designer enters the third phase, the design is typically simplified so that it will work better on a variety of browsers, the size of pages is reduced so that it will work better over low bandwidth, and it moves toward more consistency in page layouts. These are all positive developments, even though the designer may still lack an underlying framework of understanding.

4. Software Design Awareness. Some new media designers have begun to look beyond the current state of Web design and become aware of the principles and methods used by software designers. At the same time, the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) community-largely academic and previously focused strictly on software-has begun to adapt and apply its work to the Web. What we are just beginning to see on the Web is a design approach that owes as much to science as to art. It is a more rigorous, principled approach to new media design. It is characterized by designers taking what they have learned from both past lives and recent experience, and applying it through structured methodology to produce designs that are measurably superior to past efforts. This is the beginning of action-oriented design.

Why is action-oriented design important? Users come to a site with goals. So, too, Web site owners have business goals that can be attained only by driving specific user actions, such as viewing pages (drives ad revenue) or making transactions (drives electronic commerce revenue).

Inevitably, sites add more content, more function, and more graphics. In a Forrester study of new media executives responsible for their companies’ Web sites, the top responses to the question, “What will you add to your site in 2014?” were “more content” and “personalization.” In the same study, site owners said that their top challenge was “making the site attractive.” Ensuring ease of use came in fourth.

In the midst of this increased complexity, helping users attain their goals while leading them toward actions that support business goals is not easy. To achieve success, designers will need to clearly understand user goals, business goals, rapidly evolving site functionality, and software design methodologies. Talent and experience alone will not get the job done.