34SP.com Blog

Designing for Change

My name is Simon, and I work for the 34SP.com design team. For those of you who aren’t aware, 34SP.com has been offering a web design service for nearly a year now. Each completed design comes with a business hosting account for one year at no additional charge. Over the last 12 months we have designed and developed a wide variety of sites ranging from simple static websites to complex ecommerce solutions and social networking sites. Although I’ve been designing websites professionally for over 5 years, I still look forward to designing new sites, and whenever we get a new client I still get excited like a kid at Christmas. My enthusiasm for my job is in no small part due to the fact that I enjoy the challenges each new website brings. Every single one of the websites we have designed over the last year has been created from a completely individual brief, with our clients having a wide range of expectations, requirements and priorities. This, you may think would be the same for any designer, architect or art director, but what keeps a web designer’s job so interesting is the constantly changing face of the web, and the associated technology and trends that go with it.

The fast paced evolution of the web, from crude looking hyperlinked text to the mixed media world we now know, has been nothing short of mind-blowing. In this blog post I’m going to write about some of the challenging issues web designers face working in this constantly evolving industry, and hopefully provide a few tips along the way.

Accessibility

There is no doubt that accessibility has been a key talking point in the web design community over the last 10 years. In broad terms, accessibility encompasses both compatibility and usability, in other words: practical design. The theory behind accessibility is that anyone should able to access your site on whatever platform they choose. In practical terms creating an accessible site is often a fine balance between usability, compatibility and creativity. In many cases, the client and the target audience should determine which way the balance tips. It’s no coincidence that the most popular websites online, be they Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia and Yahoo are not particularly pleasing on the eye. Despite their complexity, these websites are extremely easy to use and visitors respond well to this. On the flip side, media-rich marketing websites, such as Nike.com or Gettheglass.com, put a much stronger emphasis on creativity and cutting edge graphic design. These sites are light on written content, and deliver concise marketing messages through a more immersive online experience. Form versus function is an age old design conundrum, and in order to achieve the correct balance is it essential to understand your client’s needs, and the expectations of the target audience. Whichever route you decide to choose for your website, there are 2 key elements to bear in mind.

Compatibility

There is no point in creating a beautiful website, if it is only going to work on a particular version of a particular browser. In recent times, this has meant building websites that look great in both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and hold together on a variety of different screen resolutions. Over the last 2 years, however, the rule book for browser compatibility has been rewritten. The increasing popularity of browsers such as Opera, Safari and more recently Chrome, means there has never been so much choice in how to view the web. The rise of the smart phone has meant users are now going online using much smaller displays yet, paradoxically, there are more and more surfers using HD televisions to browse the web. It’s now impossible to test your website on all these different devices and the different browser choices each platform supports. Yet despite this dizzying array of different ways to view web pages, there are several steps you can take to ensure your site can be viewed as it should be, by the vast majority of web users.

1. Browser Testing
Love it or hate it, Internet Explorer is still the most popular browser around with nearly 45% of current browser usage share (statistic taken from http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_stats.asp). Although this statistic includes 3 different versions of the browser, there is no denying that it is still the most popular browser of choice for the average web user. It is therefore imperative that your site works well on both versions 6 and 7 of IE. With version 8 available in beta, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll need to add that to your to-do list as well, along with Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome.

2. Valid HTML
Using cascading style sheets rather than tables, produces slim, valid markup. Validating HTML and CSS will increase the chances of successful cross browser compatibility, and will help protect a site against any compatibility issues that may arise in the future. Unfortunately, having valid HTML and CSS does not guarantee perfect cross browser compatibility on all browsers, but it will definitely help both now and in the future.

3. File Sizes
Although Broadband has helped unlock many of the restrictions on the web, it is still important to keep file sizes to a minimum. Websites that are slow are very frustrating to use, and with more users connecting via wireless, 3G and even bluetooth connections, download speeds are an important consideration. Many websites need to contain large files, and if this is the case with your website, make sure the user is offered the choice to access the files, rather than forcing it upon them.

If you are interested in any of the topics discussed above, there is plenty to read about them at the following websites:

http://www.anybrowser.org

http://www.w3.org/WAI

Usability

Creating website interfaces that offer an intuitive, easy-to-use design is paramount if you want your website to deliver lots of information successfully. The web is a busy place, and users won’t generally hang around on one site, if they can’t find what they are looking for. If your website has poor navigation, typesetting or layout then it will fail in engaging the user. The most effective way to guarantee that your site is easy to use, is to test your website at regular intervals during the design and development process. Efficient testing is not achieved by asking colleagues at work to test your site. They will be aware of what you’ve been working on, and if they are a fellow web designer they will be more web savvy than an everyday user. To successfully test a website you need to find representative users, who have not used your website before. Ask your users to perform several key tasks on the site. If you are developing an ecommerce website, ask your user to find a specific item and add it to the basket. If you are developing an administration system, ask employees to perform a administrative task on the system, Observe your users whilst they perform these tasks and makes notes of any difficulties they experience.

That’s it for this post – look for more design-related information in the next post by my colleague in the design department, Ali.