Good website design strikes a balance between aesthetic appeal and ease-of-use. Many websites are clever tributes to programming genius, but all the bells and whistles don’t necessarily help users who just want directions to the Astros stadium in Houston, buy a ticket to a Houston Astros game, or post photos of the kids in their Houston Texans jerseys.
The Internet is mature enough now to have taught web designers some valuable lessons about website design and what makes a satisfying user experience. Designers are taking a page out of Jakob Nielsen’s book 10 Heuristics for Usability. These principles have stood the test of time and are still the foundation of intelligent, user-friendly design.
Here is an abbreviated summary of his principles:
1. Transparency of system status. Provide sufficient information within a reasonably prompt timeframe in order to ensure that users are aware of changes or actions affecting the system.
2. Match between system and the real world. The system must speak in a language that is understandable to the user and adhere to convention that they are accustomed to.
3. User control and freedom. Provide undo and redo options, as well as an easy path of exit so that a user doesn’t find himself trapped and unable to back out or bogged down with extensive dialogue.
4. Consistency and standards. While creativity is a good thing in other areas, it’s important to conform to conventions that users are used to; it is not helpful to coin different words or actions that could confuse, and consequently, cost you the user.
5. Error prevention. Design to prevent problems rather than depend on error messages.
6. Recognition rather than recall. Make objects, actions, and options visible so that the user doesn’t have to work to memorize your site in order to keep from becoming lost.
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use. Accelerators are designed to speed the experience for the advanced user, but it’s also important to maintain the system so that inexperienced users aren’t left eating dust. Provide users with options to tailor frequently used actions.
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design. Dialogues should not be information heavy; simplicity is key.
9. Help users recover from errors. Error messages necessitate plain language, not code. Explain the problem clearly and concisely, then point them to a solution.
10. Help and documentation. Any help information or documentation should be focused on the task at hand, list steps in sequence, and not be overwhelmingly large. Help and documentation should also be easy to search.
Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But in the crunch of deadlines and the constraints of budgets, website design can become a case of doing what is easiest to code rather than doing what is best for the user. In the words of Web designer Sarah Horton, “A clean interface that supports basic usability and functionality wins out every time over a luxurious yet buggy design….”
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