Maybe you’re not using any website optimization tools. Or perhaps you’ve tried a couple, but never really given them a chance. I hear this from a lot of marketers, but let me ask you a question. What happens to a website that never gets optimized for search and conversions? It dies. You don’t want to sing a dirge for your site, right? You want it to flourish — and bring in paying customers. To fulfill that goal, you need the right tools. Search engine optimization (SEO) and conversion rate optimization (CRO) have become too sophisticated for manual optimization, which is…
You know how word of mouth is like the Holy Grail of marketing? There’s nothing quite as powerful as someone whose opinion you trust simply saying, “hey, check this out.”
Well, the other day my colleagues and I were talking about talks: conference talks, TED Talks, university lectures, a few candid post-dinner nuggets of wisdom from a tipsy aunt. We were recommending ones we’ve found helpful or inspiring as marketers (whether the topics focused on marketing directly, or were more broadly about professional development and personal growth). Surely other marketers want to know what’s worth watching too, we thought. And nobody wants to sift through an endless YouTube haystack of “find your passion, move to Bali, start a blog, now I’m a millionaire”-style videos to find those shiny needles, right?
Luckily we have a whole list of trusted someones coming to speak at Call to Action Conference August 28-29, and gift bags to hold for ransom if they don’t answer our emails. So we went straight to the source to ask our marketing experts about their favourite talks.
Ranging from strategy to copywriting to user experience to CRO, our speakers for this August know their stuff and have made it to the top of their fields. They’re smart cookies who can suss out what’s worth listening to, and below are some of their sage suggestions. Give ‘em a look and if you have some of your own must-watch recommendations for talks you’ve loved and quote to this day, let us know in the comments!
Want to see the marketing pros featured below talk the talk? Use the code “CTAConfTalks” at checkout for 35% off all ticket prices for Unbounce’s annual conference this August.
Ross Simmonds, Digital Marketing Strategist and Founder of Hustle & Grind
Recommends:Conversion Copywriting and the Death of Guesswork by Joanna Wiebe
“The biggest insight I took from Joanna’s talk was the process you take people through when it comes to conversion optimization. Specifically, the importance of not leading with the project but instead leading with the pain. Start by talking about the problem and the agitations, then reveal the solution.”
Runner-up:The Surprising Power of Small Habits by James Clear
“This is a great rundown of mental models and techniques that can help people be more productive. It shows marketers, professionals, and any entrepreneur the value of the little things. The story around compounding efforts leading to expertise is a message I think more people need to understand and embrace. No one starts as an expert. No one starts as the best of all time. It’s persistence and a layer of consistency around small things that compound to make up the skills that differentiate the best from the rest.”
Veronica Romney, Founder and President of SoLoMo Inc.
Recommends:Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek
“This talk came to my mind instantly. It’s by far my favourite, and I think the most inspiring, TED Talk for those in marketing and entrepreneurs in general. The points Simon makes can benefit a broad audience of businessmen and women who, like me, can get discouraged by comparisons.
In a nutshell, he describes how the values of a company represent the core of that company and why they have chosen to do business. His “Golden Circle” idea is simple, working from the why of the company to how the company will achieve the why, and what that company will produce. Focusing first on the why of business rather than the how is key in marketing, keeping a client base, and gaining new customers. Because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
Recommends:Growth is Good but Retention is 4+Ever by Brian Balfour
“I absolutely love Brian Balfour’s talk on the importance and impact of optimizing customer retention. It does a fantastic job of summarizing the metrics that really matter when it comes to growing a subscription-based business. This is so easy to ignore when you’re a marketer, since most of us are expected to spend 90% of our time on acquiring new customers and getting the word out about the product.
What’s the point of doing all that work if those new customers never stick around? It’s the equivalent of trying to fill a bucket with a giant hole in it, yet we as marketers rarely think about finding and plugging the hole before adding more water. Brian’s talk clearly maps out and visualizes these metrics in an almost diagnostic way, to give guidance on evaluating your own business’ growth and underscore the power and impact good data has.”
Recommends:The Science and Art of Self Assurance: An interview with The Confidence Code co-author Katty Kay
“My vote is for Adam Grant’s interview with Katty Kay, one of the authors of The Confidence Code. Her book spends time examining the confidence gap between men and women, the reasons behind it, and its effects. It’s really interesting, but that’s not the only reason I’ve chosen it as a favourite.
I chose it because hearing from successful people, men and women alike, who struggle with confidence the way I often do, was comforting for me. That they also over-prepare and stress about tiny mistakes was reassuring. But the biggest impact to me was hearing that if I spoke out, if I asked for things, if I took action, then the results would likely be positive. That pushed me to do so even when I was uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many times that attitude has opened doors for me because I pushed when I wanted to hold back. If I hadn’t, I would have lost those chances. And every time I did, my own confidence grew and any fears I had became less demotivating.”
Recommends:I Got There: How I Overcame Racism, Poverty, and Abuse to Achieve the American Dream by JT McCormick
“I saw a presentation by JT McCormick this year that really moved me. It has nothing to do with marketing or copywriting, but was very inspiring.
There isn’t a video of the talk itself, but I’d highly recommend reading his book I Got There: How I Overcame Racism, Poverty, and Abuse to Achieve the American Dream. In it, he speaks about his difficult childhood and the many hardships he endured. These are not the typical hardships people go through—his were unbelievably difficult. Yet, despite being knocked down over and over again, he managed to not only make something of himself professionally but to not let those events define who he is.
In my own life as an entrepreneur and single mom, almost everything starts and ends with me. There’s no safety net or backup plan. Things can get difficult and they can wear on you. But my life is so much more privileged than JT’s was, and watching his presentation helped me realize that we’re all so much stronger than we think we can be. External events don’t define who we are. And day-to-day life is what you decide it is.”
Unbounce’s list of must-watch talks by brilliant speakers (the above experts included) takes place August 28-29th on Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage. Check out the full agenda and use the code “CTAConfTalks” at checkout to get 35% off the most actionable marketing event and best experiences you’ll have at a conference this year.
Full-day workshop • June 25th
Every day, billions of people around the world use the web to work, to find information, and to be entertained. When they come to your site, they trust you to provide them with a good experience. They expect a site that loads quickly, that works in their browser, and that is well designed. And though they may not vocalize it, they certainly expect that experience will be safe: that any information they provide will not be stolen or used in ways they did not expect.
Figuring out how to convert website visitors into customers requires not only strategy, but extensive testing. You can learn from others what worked for them, but your website audience is unique. That’s probably why you’re reading this article. You want to know the best place to start. Then, you can test different solutions to increase your conversion rate. I’m a big fan of growth hacking. In other words, my goal is always to get the biggest possible results in the shortest possible time frame. That requires aggressive marketing and strategic application of data. You might take a different approach. Whatever…
A Reference Guide For Typography In Mobile Web Design
With mobile taking a front seat in search, it’s important that websites are designed in a way that prioritize the best experience possible for their users. While Google has brought attention to elements like pop-ups that might disrupt the mobile experience, what about something as seemingly simple as choice of typography?
The answer to the typography question might seem simple enough: what works on desktop should work on mobile so long as it scales well. Right?
While that would definitely make it a lot easier on web designers, that’s not necessarily the case. The problem in making that statement a decisive one is that there haven’t been a lot of studies done on the subject of mobile typography in recent years. So, what I intend to do today is give a brief summary of what it is we know about typography in web design, and then see what UX experts and tests have been able to reveal about using typography for mobile.
Understanding The Basics Of Typography In Modern Web Design
Look, I know typography isn’t the most glamorous of subjects. And, being a web designer, it might not be something you spend too much time thinking about, especially if clients bring their own style guides to you prior to beginning a project.
That said, with mobile-first now here, typography requires additional consideration.
Let’s start with the basics: terminology you’ll need to know before digging into mobile typography best practices.
Typography: This term refers to the technique used in styling, formatting, and arranging “printed” (as opposed to handwritten) text.
Typeface: This is the classification system used to label a family of characters. So, this would be something like Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, Comic Sans, etc.
Font: This drills down further into a website’s typeface. The font details the typeface family, point size, and any special stylizations applied. For instance, 11-point Arial in bold.
Size: There are two ways in which to refer to the size (or height) of a font: the word processing size in points or the web design size in pixels. For the purposes of talking about mobile web design, we use pixels.
Here is a line-by-line comparison of various font sizes:
As you can see in WordPress, font sizes are important when it comes to establishing hierarchy in header text:
Weight: This is the other part of defining a typeface as a font. Weight refers to any special styles applied to the face to make it appear heavier or lighter. In web design, weight comes into play in header fonts that complement the typically weightless body text.
Here is an example of options you could choose from in the WordPress theme customizer:
Kerning: This pertains to the space between two letters. It can be adjusted in order to create a more aesthetically pleasing result while also enhancing readability. You will need a design software like Photoshop to make these types of adjustments.
Tracking: Tracking, or letter-spacing, is often confused with kerning as it too relates to adding space in between letters. However, whereas kerning adjusts spacing between two letters in order to improve appearances, tracking is used to adjust spacing across a line. This is used more for the purposes of fixing density issues while reading.
To give you a sense for how this differs, here’s an example from Mozilla on how to use tracking to change letter-spacing:
Leading: Leading, or line spacing, is the amount of distance granted between the baselines of text (the bottom line upon which a font rests). Like tracking, this can be adjusted to fix density issues.
If you’ve been using word processing software for a while, you’re already familiar with leading. Single-spaced text. Double-spaced text. Even 1.5-spaced text. That’s leading.
The Role Of Typography In Modern Web Design
As for why we care about typography and each of the defining characteristics of it in modern web design, there’s a good reason for it. While it would be great if a well-written blog post or super convincing sales jargon on a landing page were enough to keep visitors happy, that’s not always the case. The choices you make in terms of typography can have major ramifications on whether or not people even give your site’s copy a read.
These are some of the ways in which typography affects your end users:
Reinforce Branding Typography is another way in which you create a specific style for your web design. If images all contain clean lines and serious faces, you would want to use an equally buttoned-up typeface.
Set the Mood It helps establish a mood or emotion. For instance, a more frivolous and light-bodied typeface would signal to users that the brand is fun, young and doesn’t take itself seriously.
Give It a Voice It conveys a sense of personality and voice. While the actual message in the copy will be able to dictate this well, using a font that reinforces the tone would be a powerful choice.
Encourage Reading As you can see, there are a number of ways in which you can adjust how type appears on a screen. If you can give it the right sense of speed and ease, you can encourage more users to read through it all.
Allow for Scanning Scanning or glancing (which I’ll talk about shortly) is becoming more and more common as people engage with the web on their smart devices. Because of this, we need ways to format text to improve scannability and this usually involves lots of headers, pull quotes and in-line lists (bulleted, numbered, etc.).
Improve Accessibility There is a lot to be done in order to design for accessibility. Your choice of font plays a big part in that, especially as the mobile experience has to rely less on big, bold designs and swatches of color and more on how quickly and well you can get visitors to your message.
Because typography has such a diverse role in the user experience, it’s a matter that needs to be taken seriously when strategizing new designs. So, let’s look at what the experts and tests have to say about handling it for mobile.
Typography For Mobile Web Design: What You Need To Know
Too small, too light, too fancy, too close together… You can run into a lot of problems if you don’t strike the perfect balance with your choice of typography in design. On mobile, however, it’s a bit of a different story.
I don’t want to say that playing it safe and using the system default from Google or Apple is the way to go. After all, you work so hard to develop unique, creative and eye-catching designs for your users. Why would you throw in the towel at this point and just slap Roboto all over your mobile website?
We know what the key elements are in defining and shaping a typeface and we also know how powerful fonts are within the context of a website. So, let’s drill down and see what exactly you need to do to make your typography play well with mobile.
In general, the rule of thumb is that font size needs to be 16 pixels for mobile websites. Anything smaller than that could compromise readability for visually impaired readers. Anything too much larger could also make reading more difficult. You want to find that perfect Goldilocks formula and, time and time again, it comes back to 16 pixels.
In general, that rule is a safe one to play by when it comes to the main body text of your mobile website. However, what exactly are you allowed to do for header text? After all, you need to be able to distinguish your main headlines from the rest of the text. Not just for the sake of calling attention to bigger messages, but also for the purposes of increasing scannability of a mobile web page.
The Nielsen Norman Group reported on a study from MIT that covered this exact question. What can you do about text that users only have to glance at? In other words, what sort of sizing can you use for short strings of header text?
Here is what they found:
Short, glanceable strings of text lead to faster reading and greater comprehension when:
They are larger in size (specifically, 4mm as opposed to 3mm).
Lowercase lettering required 26% more time for accurate reading than uppercase, and condensed text required 11.2% more time than regular. There were also significant interaction effects between case and size, suggesting that the negative effects of lowercase letters are exacerbated with small font sizes.
I’d be interested to see how the NerdWallet website does, in that case. While I do love the look of this, they have violated a number of these sizing and styling suggestions:
Having looked at this a few times now, I do think the choice of a smaller-sized font for the all-caps header is an odd choice. My eyes are instantly drawn to the larger, bolder text beneath the main header. So, I think there is something to MIT’s research.
Flywheel Sports, on the other hand, does a great job of exemplifying this point.
There’s absolutely no doubt where the visitors’ attention needs to go: to the eye-catching header. It’s in all caps, it’s larger than all the other text on the page, and, although the font is incredibly basic, its infusion with a custom handwritten-style type looks really freaking cool here. I think the only thing I would fix here is the contrast between the white and yellow fonts and the blue background.
Just remember: this only applies to the sizing (and styling) of header text. If you want to keep large bodies of text readable, stick to the aforementioned sizing best practices.
2. Color and Contrast
Color, in general, is an important element in web design. There’s a lot you can convey to visitors by choosing the right color palette for designs, images and, yes, your text. But it’s not just the base color of the font that matters, it’s also the contrast between it and the background on which it sits (as evidenced by my note above about Flywheel Sports).
For some users, a white font on top of a busy photo or a lighter background may not pose too much of an issue. But “too much” isn’t really acceptable in web design. There should be no issues users encounter when they read text on a website, especially from an already compromised view of it on mobile.
Which is why color and contrast are top considerations you have to make when styling typography for mobile.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has clear recommendations regarding how to address color contrast in section 1.4.3. At a minimum, the WCAG suggests that a contrast of 4.5 to 1 should be established between the text and background for optimal readability. There are a few exceptions to the rule:
Text sized using 18-point or a bold 14-point only needs a contrast of 3 to 1.
Text that doesn’t appear in an active part of the web page doesn’t need to abide by this rule.
The contrast of text within a logo can be set at the designer’s discretion.
If you’re unsure of how to establish that ratio between your font’s color and the background upon which it sits, use a color contrast checking tool like WebAIM.
The one thing I would ask you to be mindful of, however, is using opacity or other color settings that may compromise the color you’ve chosen. While the HEX color code will check out just fine in the tool, it may not be an accurate representation of how the color actually displays on a mobile device (or any screen, really).
To solve this problem and ensure you have a high enough contrast for your fonts, use a color eyedropper tool built into your browser like the ones for Firefox or Chrome. Simply hover the eyedropper over the color of the background (or font) on your web page, and let it tell you what the actual color code is now.
This website has a rotation of images in the top banner of the home page. The font always remains white, but the background rotates.
Based on what we know now, the purple is probably the only one that will pass with flying colors. However, for the purposes of showing you how to work through this exercise, here is what the eyedropper tool says about the HEX color codes for each of the backgrounds:
Here is the contrast between these colors and the white font:
Grey: 2.81 to 1
Beige/taupe: 1.42 to 1
Purple: 11.59 to 1.
Clearly, the grey and beige backgrounds are going to lend themselves to a very poor experience for mobile visitors.
Also, if I had to guess, I’d say that “Try a risk-free Starter Set now.” is only a 10-point font (which is only about 13 pixels). So, the size of the font is also working against the readability factor, not to mention the poor choice of colors used with the lighter backgrounds.
The lesson here is that you should really make some time to think about how color and contrast of typography will work for the benefit of your readers. Without these additional steps, you may unintentionally be preventing visitors from moving forward on your site.
Plain and simple: tracking in mobile web design needs to be used in order to control density. The standard recommendation is that there be no more than between 30 and 40 characters to a line. Anything more or less could affect readability adversely.
While it does appear that Dove is pushing the boundaries of that 40-character limit, I think this is nicely done.
The font is so simple and clean, and the tracking is evenly spaced. You can see that, by keeping the amount of words on a line relegated to the recommended limits, it gives this segment of the page the appearance that it will be easy to read. And that’s exactly what you want your typography choices to do: to welcome visitors to stop for a brief moment, read the non-threatening amount of text, and then go on their way (which, hopefully, is to conversion).
According to the NNG, content that appears above the fold on a 30-inch desktop monitor equates to five swipes on a 4-inch mobile device. Granted, this data is a bit old as most smartphones are now between five and six inches:
Even so, let’s say that equates to three or four good swipes of the smartphone screen to get to the tip of the fold on desktop. That’s a lot of work your mobile visitors have to do to get to the good stuff. It also means that their patience will already be wearing thin by the time they get there. As the NNG pointed out, a mobile session, on average, usually lasts about only 72 seconds. Compare that to desktop at 150 seconds and you can see why this is a big deal.
This means two things for you:
You absolutely need to cut out the excess on mobile. If this means creating a completely separate and shorter set of content for mobile, do it.
Be very careful with leading.
You’ve already taken care to keep optimize your font size and width, which is good. However, too much leading and you could unintentionally be asking users to scroll even more than they might have to. And with every scroll comes the possibility of fatigue, boredom, frustration, or distraction getting in the way.
So, you need to strike a good balance here between using line spacing to enhance readability while also reigning in how much work they need to do to get to the bottom of the page.
The Hill Holliday website isn’t just awesome inspiration on how to get a little “crazy” with mobile typography, but it also has done a fantastic job in using leading to make larger bodies of text easier to read:
Different resources will give you different guidelines on how to create spacing for mobile devices. I’ve seen suggestions for anywhere between 120% to 150% of the font’s point size. Since you also need to consider accessibility when designing for mobile, I’m going to suggest you follow WCAG’s guidelines:
Spacing between lines needs to be 1.5 (or 150%, whichever ratio works for you).
Spacing between paragraphs then needs to be 2.5 (or 250%).
At the end of the day, this is about making smart decisions with the space you’re given to work with. If you only have a minute to hook them, don’t waste it with too much vertical space. And don’t turn them off with too little.
5. Acceptable Fonts
Before I break down what makes for an acceptable font, I want to first look at what Android’s and Apple’s typeface defaults are. I think there’s a lot we can learn just by looking at these choices:
Android Google uses two typefaces for its platforms (both desktop and mobile): Roboto and Noto. Roboto is the primary default. If a user visits a website in a language that doesn’t accept Roboto, then Noto is the secondary backup.
It’s also important to note that Roboto has a number of font families to choose from:
As you can see, there are versions of Roboto with condensed kerning, a heavier and serifed face as well as a looser, serif-like option. Overall, though, this is just a really clean and simply stylized typeface. You’re not likely to stir up any real emotions when using this on a website, and it may not convey much of a personality, but it’s a safe, smart choice.
Apple Apple has its own set of typography guidelines for iOS along with its own system typeface: San Francisco.
For the most part, what you see is what you get with San Francisco. It’s just a basic sans serif font. If you look at Apple’s recommended suggestions on default settings for the font, you’ll also find it doesn’t even recommend using bold stylization or outlandish sizing, leading or tracking rules:
Like with pretty much everything else Apple does, the typography formula is very basic. And, you know what? It really works. Here it is in action on the Apple website:
Much like Google’s system typeface, Apple has gone with a simple and classic typeface. While it may not help your site stand out from the competition, it will never do anything to impair the legibility or readability of your text. It also would be a good choice if you want your visuals to leave a greater impact.
And, so, this now brings me to my own recommendations on what you should use in terms of type for mobile websites. Here’s the verdict:
Don’t be afraid to start with a system default font. They’re going to be your safest choices until you get a handle on how far you can push the limits of mobile typography.
Use only a sans serif or serif font. If your desktop website uses a decorative or handwritten font, ditch it for something more traditional on mobile.
That said, you don’t have to ignore decorative typefaces altogether. In the examples from Hill Holliday or Flywheel Sports (as shown above), you can see how small touches of custom, non-traditional type can add a little flavor.
Never use more than two typefaces on mobile. There just isn’t enough room for visitors to handle that many options visually.
Make sure your two typefaces complement one another. Specifically, look for faces that utilize a similar character width. The design of each face may be unique and contrast well with the other, but there should still be some uniformity in what you present to mobile visitors’ eyes.
Avoid typefaces that don’t have a distinct set of characters. For instance, compare how the uppercase “i”, lowercase “l” and the number “1” appear beside one another. Here’s an example of the Myriad Pro typeface from the Typekit website:
While the number “1” isn’t too problematic, the uppercase “i” (the first letter in this sequence) and the lowercase “l (the second) are just too similar. This can create some unwanted slowdowns in reading on mobile.
Also, be sure to review how your font handles the conjunction of “r” and “n” beside one another. Can you differentiate each letter or do they smoosh together as one indistinguishable unit? Mobile visitors don’t have time to stop and figure out what those characters are, so make sure you use a typeface that gives each character its own space.
Use fonts that are compatible across as many devices as possible. Your best bets will be: Arial, Courier New, Georgia, Tahoma, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS and Verdana.
I think the Typeform website is a good example of one that uses a “safe” typeface choice, but doesn’t prevent them from wowing visitors with their message or design.
It’s short, to the point, perfectly sized, well-positioned, and overall a solid choice if they’re trying to demonstrate stability and professionalism (which I think they are).
When you’re feeling comfortable with mobile typography and want to branch out a little more, take a look at this list of the best web-safe typefaces from WebsiteSetup. You’ll find here that most of the choices are your basic serif and sans serif types. It’s definitely nothing exciting or earth-shattering, but it will give you some variation to play with if you want to add a little more flavor to your mobile type.
I know, I know. Mobile typography is no fun. But web design isn’t always about creating something exciting and cutting edge. Sometimes sticking to practical and safe choices is what will guarantee you the best user experience in the end. And that’s what we’re seeing when it comes to mobile typography.
The reduced amount of real estate and the shorter times-on-site just don’t lend themselves well to the experimental typography choices (or design choices, in general) you can use on desktop. So, moving forward, your approach will have to be more about learning how to reign it in while still creating a strong and consistent look for your website.
(This article is kindly sponsored by Adobe.) We live in a world where just about every business has an online presence. Let’s say you want to reach out to a business — what would be the first thing you would do? Well, you would probably look up their website to search for answers to your questions or simply any contact details you can find. With no doubt, the first impression of any website is now more important than ever.
There are more than 1.8 billion websites on the Internet right now, and the number is growing. The increase of the competition brings a great interest in examining the factors of success of a website. While no one will argue that it’s essential to have a successful website, it’s still not easy to understand what exactly success means and how to actually measure it.
Define What Site Success Means To You
Set A Global Goal
Finding the answers to questions such as “What are our goals?” and “What do we want to achieve with this website?” should be the first thing to do when starting a new project. Skipping a stage of defining global goals and moving directly to the design stage is a pretty common mistake among many product teams. Without knowing exactly what you want to achieve, your chances of making a positive impact with your website will be poor.
Every website needs a well-defined product strategy. A strategy sets the tone for all of the activities, and it gives a context that helps in making design decisions. When you have a solid understanding of what you expect to get out of your site, it helps you to work towards that goal.
Here are a few tips that help you set a goal:
Tie the purpose to business goals.
The website’s purpose should serve to support the company’s mission and make the business more effective in achieving that mission.
Make it specific.
Instead of saying something like “I want to have a strong online presence,” consider this instead: “Our website should be a place where users submit requests for our services. Our goal is to have 50% of our orders submitted online, not over the phone.”
Conduct competitor research.
List sites of your competitors which you find successful, and try to pinpoint why they are successful.
Strive To Create User-Focused Experience
Because visitors ultimately determine the success of a website, they should be in the spotlight during site’s development. As Dieter Rams says:
“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.”
Thus, start with gathering this understanding:
Portrait your ideal users.
Try to understand what content they might need/want, their browsing habits (how they prefer to interact with a website) and the level of their technical competence. This knowledge will help you appeal to them better.
Think about the goal of your visitors.
Put yourself in the shoes of your visitor. What do you want them to get done? Place an order? Reach you for a quote? Become a member? Drive the design from the user’s goals and tasks.* *Ideally, each page you design should have a goal for your users.
Create user journey map.
If you have an existing site, you can figure out typical ways people use it by creating user journey maps.
8 Essential Characteristics Of Website Design That Influence Its Success
In this section, we aren’t going to discuss design implementation details (e.g. where a logo should be placed). We’ll be focusing on the main principles and approaches for effective web design. These principles will be reviewed from the angle of the first impression. It’s essential to focus on great user experience during the first-time visit. Generally, the better the first impression, the better the chance that users will stay for longer. But if the first impression is negative, it might make users want to avoid interacting with your product for years.
And how do we leave a good first impression? Good design. First impressions are 94% design related. While it’s impossible to define one-fits-all design decisions that will guarantee a successful site, it is still possible to focus on factors that are able to create a great first impression: the quality of content, usability, and visual aesthetics.
1. High-Quality Content
The copy used on your website is just as important as the website’s design; it’s the reason why people visit your website. More than 95 percent of information on the web is in the form of written language. Even if your site is beautifully designed, it’s no more than an empty frame without good content. A good website has both great design and great content.
“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
Provide information your users expect to see. For example, if you design a website for a chain of restaurants, most visitors will expect to find the restaurants’ menus as well as maps that show where each restaurant is located.
Content That Builds Trust
Trust is what creates a persuasive power; trust makes the user believe in your products or services. That’s why it so important to build a sense of trust on your website. For example, if you design a website that will offer services, you should include content that will bolster a visitor’s confidence in those offerings. A simple way to accomplish this is to provide social proofs — put some testimonials on your site.
One great example is Basecamp. The company lists feedback from its clients together with a data statistic that reinforces the power of the social proof.
Focus On Microcopy
Microcopy is the tiny words we use in user interfaces. These might be field or button labels, or description for forms and other UI objects. Right microcopy can influence business profits. But in order to write good microcopy, it’s essential to understand user’s intentions and emotions.
During the Google I/O 2017, Maggie Stanphill explained the possible business value of writing good microcopy. After the Google team changed ‘Book a room’ to ‘Check availability’ in the Hotel search on Google, the engagement rate increased by 17%. This happened because the first version of microcopy (‘Book a room’) was too committal for that stage of the user journey. Users didn’t want to book a room; they wanted to explore all available options (date range as well as prices).
Text Is Optimized For Scanning
It’s necessary to adjust content to users’ browsing habits. It’s a well-known fact that users don’t read online, they scan. When a new visitor approaches a web page, the first thing s/he does is tries to do is to scan the page and divide the content into digestible pieces of information. By scanning through key parts of the page, they are trying to determine if the content is relevant to their needs.
Here are a few tips on how to format your content to make it easy to scan:
Avoid long blocks of text without images.
With a huge probability, such content will be skipped. Use headings, paragraphs, or bullet points to break up a text.
Optimize layouts for natural scanning patterns.
Eye tracking studies have identified that people scan pages in an “F” pattern. We read the first few lines, but then they start skipping down the page, caching only parts of the message. For this reason, it’s important to keep your text frontloaded — put the most important concepts first, so our eyes catch those important words as we track down.
Quick design tip:You can measure your readability score using a tool called Webpagefx.
The human eye can instantly recognize moving objects. Moving objects such as animated banners or video advertising can capture users’ attention. An abundance of such content can lead to annoying and distracting experience. Thus, put an emphasis on a site with minimal distractions.
Make it easy for people to reach you. This requirement sounds pretty obvious; still, it’s quite a typical situation for first-time visitors to have to hunt for contact information. Don’t let that happen. Make a phone number, email, address and a contact form easily accessible.
Quick design tip:When designing your site, don’t make email or phone number a part of an image. Phone number/email should be in plain text so that users can copy this information.
Remember the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? It’s relevant to web design. A simple way to increase visual appeal is to provide high-quality imagery or video content.
One great example is Tesla which doesn’t tell the benefits of its car but rather shows a quick video that makes it clear what it feels like to drive a Tesla:
2. Simple Interactions
According to Hubspot survey, 76% of respondents mentioned ease of use as the most important characteristic of a website. That’s why the “Keep It Simple” principle (KIS) should play a primary role in the process of web design.
Cut Out The Noise
Cluttering a user interface overloads your user with too much information — every added button, image, and line of text makes the screen more complicated. Cutting out the clutter on a website will make the primary message more easily understood by visitors. Include only the elements that are most important for communication, and use enough whitespace. It will help to reduce the cognitive load for the visitors and will make it easier to perceive the information presented on the screen.
Quick design tip:Put more visual weight on important elements. Make important elements such as call-to-action buttons or login forms focal points so visitors see them right away. You can emphasize elements using different sizes or colors.
Strong Visual Hierarchy
The better visual hierarchy your create, the easier your content will be perceived by users (Simon’s law). A grid layout allows you to organize information in a way that makes it easier for visitors to read and comprehend information presented on the page. Using grids makes it much easier to create a layout that feels balanced.
Good navigation is one of the most important aspects of website usability. Even the most beautifully designed website will be useless if users aren’t able to find their way around.
When developing navigation for your website, think about what pages are most likely to be important to visitors, and how they will move from one page to another. Follow users’ expectations — create a predictable navigation structure and place it where users expect to see it.
Quick design tip:Reduce the total number of actions required for users to reach the destination. Try to follow the Three-click rule which means creating a structure that will enable users to find the information they are looking for within three clicks.
Recognizable Design Patterns
Design patterns are designer’s best friends. When designing your site, it’s worth remembering that users spend most of their time on other sites. Every time the user has to learn how something new works, it creates friction. By using recognizable conventions, you can reduce the learning curve. Recognizable UI patterns eventually help users to parse complicated tasks easily. Thus, when you follow users’ expectations and create a familiar experience (e.g. place UI elements in places where users expect to find them), site visitors can use their previous knowledge and act through intuition. This helps reduce the learning curve and the need to figure out how things work.
3. Fast Loading Time
As technology enables faster experiences, users’ willingness to wait has decreased. Slow loading time is one of the main reasons visitors leave websites. A typical user will only wait for a few seconds for your page to load. If nothing happens during this time, they will consider the site to be too slow, and will most likely navigate away to a competitor’s site.
Slow loading not only creates a lousy impression on users, but it also affects site’s search engine ranking, as slow-loading pages are reduced in rank in Google’s Search engine.
Test Your Website
There are tools available that allow you to test website performance. One of them is Google’s Test My Site which gives you an actionable report on how to speed up and improve your site. WebPage Test is another helpful tool which allows you to run a free website speed test from multiple locations around the globe, using real browsers (Internet Explorer and Chrome) at real consumer connection speeds.
Find What Is Causing The Slow Loading Time, And Fix The Problem
If slow loading is a typical situation for your website, try to find out what causes the problem and solve it. Typically, page load times are affected by:
Visual elements (images and animations).
HD images and smooth animation can only create good UX when they don’t affect loading time. Consider reading the article Image Optimization for tips on image optimization.
Like any other asset, it takes some time to download a custom font (and it takes more time if the font is located on a 3rd party service).
Whether or not a solution you’ve developed is optimized for fast loading time. There are a lot of things developers can do to minimize the loading time. For example, it’s possible to use file compression and decompression to improve the performance of а website.
An infrastructure is a place where you host your websites. It includes both hardware and software components as well as internet bandwidth.
Create A Perception Of Speed
If you can’t improve the actual performance of your website, you can try to create a perception of speed — how fast something feels is often more important than how fast it actually is. Employing a technique of skeleton screens can help you with that. A skeleton layout is a version of your page that displays while content is being loaded. Skeletons give the impression of speed — that something is happening more quickly than it really is and improve perceived load time.
Check out this Codepen example of skeleton effect in pure CSS. It uses a pulsation effect to give users a feeling that website is alive and content is loading:
To err is human. Errors occur when people engage with user interfaces. Sometimes, they happen because users make mistakes. Sometimes, they happen because a website fails. Whatever the cause, these errors and how they are handled, have a significant impact on the user experience. Bad error handling paired with useless error messages can fill users with frustration and can lead them to abandon your website. When errors occur, it’s essential to create effective error messages.
Designers can use a tactic called design for failure in which you try to anticipate the places users might face problems and plan for such cases. Whereas implementing the ideal user journey is the end goal, the complexities of an individual user’s experience are rarely so cut and dried. Recognizing potential pain points and preparing for it using tools like failure mapping for error recovery helps to ensure that you’re putting forth the best experience you can for the majority of your users.
No Aggressive Pushers
We all know that feeling. You visit a new website, the content on the page seems to be interesting. You begin to read it and just when you are halfway through the text, you are suddenly interrupted by a huge overlay asking you to either subscribe to a newsletter or take advantage of an offer. In most cases, your immediate reaction will be either to close the overlay or to close the entire page, the overlay along with it.
Aggressive pushers such as pop-ups with promotional content will put most people on the defensive. According to the NN Group, pop-ups are the most hated web experience ever.
Don’t Autoplay Video With Sound
When users arrive on a page, they don’t expect that it will play any sound. Most users don’t use headphones and will be stressed because they’ll need to figure out how to turn the sound off. In most cases, users will leave the website as soon as it plays. Thus, if you use autoplay video content on your site, set audio to off by default, with the option to turn it on.
5. Good Visual Appearance
Does an attractive design lead to more conversion? While there’s no direct connection between attractive design and conversion, visual appearance might increase chances for conversion. As Steven Bradley says:
“Human beings have an attractiveness bias; we perceive beautiful things as being better, regardless of whether they actually are better. All else being equal, we prefer beautiful things, and we believe beautiful things function better. As in nature, function can follow form.”
Capitalize On Trends
Just like with any other area of design, web design is constantly changing. Design trends come and go, and its necessary to be sure that your design doesn’t look dated. Familiarize yourself with latest trends and try to keep your design up to date by tuning your design.
Awwwards and Behance are great places which will help you be familiar with the latest trends.
Avoid Generic Stock Photos
Many corporate websites are notorious for using generic stock photos to build a sense of trust. Such photos rarely hold useful information. Usability tests show that generic photos and other decorative graphic elements don’t add any value to the design and more often impair rather than improve the user experience. Eye-tracking studies show that users usually overlook stock images.
6. Design Is Accessible To All Groups Of Users
You can’t call your design successful if your audience has trouble using it. There’s a direct connection between bad UX and inaccessibility. One typical example of design decisions that often create terrible UX for the sake of beauty is using light grey text on light backgrounds. The example below was taken from one of the most popular powerful platforms for creating websites. Even a person with normal vision will struggle to read a text on this page, and there’s a huge possibility that a visually impaired person wouldn’t be able to read it at all.
Taking into account the fact that almost all business have an online presence today — no matter what product or service you offer online — there are many other websites offering exactly what you do (perhaps even with the same benefits). It’s essential to set your website apart from the competition by crafting really memorable design.
Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman proposed a psychological heuristic called the “peak-end rule” which dictates the way our brain works with information. The peak-end rule states that people judge an experience based mainly on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The effect occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. In other words, when we remember experiences, we tend to recall not entire experience but only key events that happened. That’s why it’s essential to create a spark that will stay in a user’s memory for a long time.
Color hugely influences on what people remember, and how vividly they remember it. Selective use of color can trigger the memory and be that one added element that ensures your brand stays memorable and recognizable.
For example, when we think about Spotify, we usually think about vibrant colors. The service uses color as a brand and experience differentiator:
Illustrations are a versatile tool useful in creating a unique design. From small icons to large hand-drawn hero sketches, illustrations bring a sense of fine craftsmanship in digital experience.
A straightforward way of using illustrations in web design is to tailor them to your messaging.
Using brand mascots in web design is another great example when illustrations can create a memorable experience. Mascots become the elements of identity and inter-connector between the user and the product.
Consistency is arguably the key rule to a successful brand. Inconsistency brings a huge problem — users won’t picture a specific thing when they think about a brand, and, as a result, it can quickly become forgettable. That’s why the website’s design should be consistent with your brand. Make sure that basic brand attributes such as brand colors, fonts, logos, and slogans are used consistently on the website.
Quick design tip:An excellent way to boost your ability to maintain a consistent brand design is through a style guide. Prepare it once and use it for each product you design.
Make your experiences fun, so people remember them. One good example is Mailchimp, a service used to schedule and deploy email campaigns. The company fulfills a fairly technical niche, but by using humor it transforms this dry task into an inviting experience. Mailchimp uses a mascot called Freddie von Chimpenheimer. Freddie often cracks jokes, and humor is an effective way to connect with people. This positive attitude will often lead to people sharing and even advocating for the product with their friends.
8. Design Is Optimized For Mobile
Just a decade ago, designing for the web meant designing for a desktop, now it means designing for mobile and desktop. Mobile phones and tablets are driving an increasing amount of web traffic, and the numbers are only going to grow. In 2018, more than 50 percent of all website traffic worldwide was generated through mobile phones.
Prioritize Content And Features
Optimizing web design for mobile is a lot more than just making your design responsive. It’s about content and feature prioritization. Taking medium limitations into account, the goal is to show only what your users need in this medium.
Focus on refining the experience around your core objectives. Know what the core purpose of your app is — analyze which features of your app are used the most and put the most effort into making that experience intuitive.
After we’ve defined what makes a site successful, it’s time to understand how to measure the success. Measuring a site’s success requires an in-depth look at the analytics and data. As the first step in the process of measuring usage data, it’s essential to define right metrics. Metrics will make it clear whether your design decision is working or not. There are two groups of metrics — marketing metrics and UX metrics. Both groups of metrics are essential to a site’s success.
Acquisition includes information about site’s visitors — how many people visit your site and how do they find it. Acquisition metrics include:
Number of gross visits.
This is the most basic acquisition metric that you can track. It gives you a good baseline on how your site is doing, but it won’t tell you much without other metrics. For example, an increasing number of visitors does not necessarily mean success, because those visitors might not be relevant to your business goals.
As well as knowing your top-level traffic numbers (number of gross visits), you should also know where your traffic is coming from. If you use Google Analytics, it organizes acquired website traffic into a few broad categories such as Direct, Organic Search, Referral, Social. These groupings allow you to immediately segment your traffic source and identify specific patterns of behavior for each source.
Points of entrance.
An entrance shows you what page people started their session on. You might think this would be the home page, when in fact that’s rarely the case, especially with referral and social traffic. If you go to the Behavior section of Google Analytics, you’ll be able to see your best-performing pages regarding traffic volume. Knowing what pages bring the most traffic is hugely important because it gives you reliable information on what content attracts people.
Engagement measures the amount of time visitors stay on your website, as well as how many pages they visit. Engagement metrics help UX teams understand how much attention visitors give to a website.
Engagement metrics include:
Time spent on your site.
Time visitors spend on site is often equated with engagement. Generally, the more time users spend on the site, the more valuable it’s for them. However, there might be an exception to this rule. For example, users might spend more time on a site because it’s hard to complete a specific task (e.g., find the information they need).
Total number of pages visited during user session.
Generally, the more pages people visited, the better. However, it can also be an indicator of dissatisfaction – if people have to visit dozens of pages to find what they’re looking for, that often leads to unhappiness.
The bounce rate (reported as a %) enables you to track how many people visit only one page before leaving your site. Naturally, you want this percentage to be as low as possible. There are some factors which could contribute to a high bounce rate. Generally, a high percentage could point to the lack of relevant content or usability issues. But of course, this rule has exceptions. For example, a visitor may have come to your site just to find contact information about your company. Once they had your phone number or address, there was no need to visit another page.
Create a list of top 10 pages visitors are most engaged with. The pages that users are spending most time may help you determine if your goals are in-line with the goals of users.
Track exit pages. It’s essential not only to track how a user gets to your site but also how they leave it. This metric is different than a bounce rate in that it tracks visitors who visited multiple pages (bounce rate is a single page metric). If a particular page has a high exit rate, it might be an indication of a problem.
There are two types of website visitors: first-time visitors and returning visitors. Retention is the percentage of return visitors — people who continue visiting your website within a specific time frame. When a team measures retention, it becomes much easier to distinguish new users from returning users, and, as a result, see how quickly user base is growing or stabilizing.
Retention can be distilled from the percentage of new sessions. By comparing the percentage of new sessions vs. returning visitors, you can determine if your website is attracting new visitors and whether it offers enough value so people return to it.
The majority of websites have a goal of getting visitors to convert (take action), whether it is to purchase an item or sign up for a newsletter. That’s why conversion is the metric that everyone cares about the most. Aim to maximize the number of people who convert (e.g., buy something after they come to your site). Obviously, the higher the conversion rate, the better your website is doing.
A conversion rate can tell you a lot about the quality of your traffic. For example, having a low conversion rate while having a lot of unique visits can be an indication that you are attracting the wrong traffic.
Here are a few tips for measuring conversion:
It’s always better to select easy-to-measure activities. For example, it might be something as simple as contact form submissions. Contact form submissions can be a great indicator of your site’s success — if users prompt an inquiry this is a great indication that your site has engaged them.
For larger sites, it’s good to have many different conversion goals on one site. For example, an eCommerce store might have three conversion goals — a product purchase, a subscriber to an email list, a social share.
Pirate Metrics (AARRR Framework)
As you can see, there are a lot of metrics that can be used. But how do you figure out which metrics to implement and track?
In the attempt to simplify the task of selecting right metrics, Dave McClure created a framework called AARRR. This framework uses a customer lifecycle as a foundation (the idea that visitors go from being a first-time visitor to a returning visitor), and tracks users through a conversion funnel over time. The life cycle consists of 5 steps:
Users come to the site from various channels.
Users enjoy their first visit (happy user experience).
Users come back and visit the site multiple times
Users like the product enough to refer it to others.
Users conduct some type of monetization behavior.
Pirate metrics can help you determine where you should focus on optimizing your marketing funnel.
User Experience Metrics
While marketing metrics define the success of a product based on the conversion, user experience metrics focus on the quality of interaction with a product. Focusing on business goals does not necessarily lead to a better user experience. UX metrics can complement marketing metrics by concentrating on the critical aspects of user experience.
The Quality Of User Experience (HEART Framework)
When it comes to measuring user experience, it’s always hard to define specific metrics. Of course, there are high-level UX metrics that correlate with the success of user experiences such as usability, engagement, and conversion. But it might be hard to define metrics that will be relevant to a particular product. In the attempt to simplify this task, the Google team created a framework called HEART. This framework is intended to help designers focus on the product they create, and the user experience it provides. HEART uses some metrics that we already mentioned in the marketing section, but from a different angle.
Measures of user attitudes: satisfaction, perceived ease of use, net-promoter score. This metric can be collected via survey.
Level of user involvement. Engagement is typically measured as depth of interaction over some time period. For example, the number of visits per user per month.
Gaining new users of a product or feature. For example, the number of users who tried new product features in the last week.
The rate at which existing users are returning. For example, for a web service this might be the number of active users remaining present over time. For e-commerce website, this might be the number of repeat purchases.
This category is most applicable to areas of your product that are task-focused. It includes behavior metrics such as efficiency (e.g. time to complete a task), effectiveness (e.g. percent of tasks completed), and error rate. For example, for e-commerce website this might be the number of search result success.
The HEART framework is very flexible — it can be applied to a specific feature or a whole product. It’s important to mention that you don’t need to collect metrics in all of HEART categories — you should choose only the most important for your particular project. It’s possible to choose metrics by following a process of Goals-Signals-Metrics.
The Goals-Signals-Metrics Process
The Goals-Signals-Metrics process helps you to identify meaningful metrics you’ll actually use.
The process of selecting metrics you can implement and track starts with goals. To define a goal, you need to focus on knowing what determines success. This is where the HEART categories will be particularly useful. For example, if you create a news site you might set a goal in the engagement category; the aim would be to have users enjoy the articles they read, and to keep them browsing to discover more articles from different categories.
Here are two tips that will help you define better goal:
*Don’t define your goals in terms of your existing metrics. *It’s a common pitfall when a team defines goals based on information it has. As a result, a goal might sound as something like ‘We need to increase traffic to our site.’ Yes, everyone wants to have more visitors, but does more visitors will move you towards your goal? Not necessary.
Work with team and stakeholders to identify the goals. You may not realize that different members of your team have different ideas about the goals of your project. Identifying goals early on in design process provides an opportunity to build consensus about where you are headed. Make sure that everyone on the team understands the proposed solution in sufficient detail.
After identifying your goals, you need to think about what user actions will result in progress toward these goals. These actions are your signals. There are usually a large number of potentially useful signals for a particular goal. Once you have identified some potential signals, you may need to do research or analysis to choose the ones that are most relevant. If we circle back to our example with a news site, an engagement signal for it might be the number of articles users read on the site.
Here are a few tips:
Consider how easy or difficult is to track each signal. It’s preferable to focus on signals that can be monitored automatically (e.g. your product can log the relevant information so you can use it for further analysis).
Try to choose signals that are sensitive to changes in your design. This way you will be able to analyze the data you have to understand whether the design changes benefit your users or not.
Don’t ignore negative signals. Identifying signals for possible missteps (e.g. number of errors during particular interaction) can help you reveal pain points in your product.
Once you’ve chosen signals, you can refine them into metrics you’ll track over time. In our news site engagement example, we might implement “how long users spend reading news” as “the average number of minutes spent reading news per user per day.”
Prioritize your metrics.
Focus on tracking the metrics related to your top goals.
Don’t add metrics for sake of adding metrics.
Avoid the temptation to add “interesting stats” to the list of metrics. Always ask yourself whether you will actually use these numbers to help you make a decision.
The metrics you track should be tied back to design decisions.
When you see a change, you should be absolutely clear on what has caused that change.
What Can Influence Success
Follow TETO Principle
How to make sure that website meets user’s expectations? You can’t just assume that it does — you need to test your design to see how users engage with it. Testing can reveal much more than how usable a site is — it can also demonstrate the users’ emotional response to the design. That’s why TETO-principle (test early, test often) should be applied to every web design project.
Don’t expect to build a perfect product right from the first attempt.
Product design is an ongoing journey for both you and your users. That means that you design something, test it, rework it and then test it again.
Use comparative testing to find the best solution for your users.
If you have multiple solutions to a particular problem and not sure what solution works best for your product, you can use A/B testing to validate it. Compare what users do in one scenario vs. another, and see which design is the most effective.
Collect qualitative feedback.
All measurable data that we’ve talked about in previous sections can tell you a lot of answers on “*how many*” questions. But this data won’t tell you why people interact in a way they do. Facing readability issues, hesitation when filling out a payment form, using search because site’s navigation is really hard to deal with — all of these types of details are critical to understanding the user experience. They might be a reason why people abandon a process and leave the site. It’s possible to find answers to why questions by observing and interviewing your users.
Data-Informed, Not Data-Driven Design
When product teams collect data, they usually follow either data-driven or data-informed design process. The latter is more preferable. Design shouldn’t be driven by data, it should be informed by data.
Don’t Be Obsessed Over Numbers
A lot of metrics get reported simply because they are flowing in from analytics tool. While it’s tempting to report a lot of different things and hope that this will make your report more valuable, in reality, this usually leads to more complex reports that are hard to read.
Don’t Fall Into The Trap Of Complete Redesign
All too often design teams try to introduce a complete rework for a solution which they believe will result in more successful web experience. Jared Spool calls major product redesign a Flip-the-Switch strategy — “the most ineffective way to get major changes into a design.” In the article, “ The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch,” he shares a story on the eBay redesign — and it’s a great reminder of why users don’t like dramatic changes. A complete redesign that brings new visual and interaction design might be too much change and have an adverse effect.
If you have an existing website, instead of investing in a large scale redesign focus on subtle evolution, make small and incremental changes that can (over time) improve conversions without visitors even noticing that changes have been made.
So, how do you know that your website is a success? As a product creator, you must first define what success means to you. For that, it’s always important to have a big picture in mind of what it is that you want to achieve.
The next step would be to focus on metrics. Metrics will show you how a site changes over time. They will help you fill in the blanks between what has happened and why.
FAST UX Research: An Easier Way To Engage Stakeholders And Speed Up The Research Process
Today, UX research has earned wide recognition as an essential part of product and service design. However, UX professionals still seem to be facing two big problems when it comes to UX research: A lack of engagement from the team and stakeholders as well as the pressure to constantly reduce the time for research.
In this article, I’ll take a closer look at each of these challenges and propose a new approach known as ‘FAST UX’ in order to solve them. This is a simple but powerful tool that you can use to speed up UX research and turn stakeholders into active champions of the process.
Contrary to what you might think, speeding up the research process (in both the short and long term) requires effective collaboration, rather than you going away and soldiering on by yourself.
The acronym FAST (Focus, Attend, Summarise, Translate) wraps up a number of techniques and ideas that make the UX process more transparent, fun, and collaborative. I also describe a 5-day project with a central UK government department that shows you how the model can be put into practice.
The article is relevant for UX professionals and the people who work with them, including product owners, engineers, business analysts, scrum masters, marketing and sales professionals.
1. Lack Of Engagement Of The Team And Stakeholders
“Stakeholders have the capacity for being your worst nightmare and your best collaborator.”
Anyone who has tried to do this knows that it can be extremely difficult to organize and get stakeholders to participate in research. There are two main reasons for this:
Research is somebody else’s job. In my experience, UX professionals are often hired to “do the UX” for a company or organization. Even though the title of “Lead UX Researcher” sounds great and very important in my head, it often leads to misconceptions during kick-off meetings. Everyone automatically assumes that research is solely MY responsibility. It’s no wonder that stakeholders don’t want to get involved in the project. They assume research is my and nobody else’s job.
UX process frameworks are incomplete. The problem is that even when stakeholders want to engage and participate in UX, they still do not know *how* they should get involved and *what* they should do. We spend a lot of time selling a UX process and research frameworks that are useful but ultimately incomplete — they do not explain how non-researchers can get involved in the research process.
Further, a lot of stakeholders can find words such as ‘design,’ ‘analysis’ or ‘fieldwork’ intimidating or irrelevant to what they do. In fact, “UX is rife with jargon that can be off-putting to people from other fields.” In some situations, terms are familiar but mean something completely different, e.g., research in UX versus marketing research.
2. Pressure To Constantly Reduce The Time For Research
Another issue is that there is a constantly growing pressure to speed up the UX process and reduce the time spent on research. I cannot count the number of times when a project manager asked me to shorten a study even further by skipping the analysis stage or the kick-off sessions.
While previously you could spend weeks on research, a 5-day research cycle is increasingly becoming the norm. In fact, the book Sprint describes how research can dwindle to just a day (from an overall 5-day cycle).
Considering this, there is a LOT of pressure on UX researchers to deliver fast, without compromising the quality of the study. The difficulty increases when there are multiple stakeholders, each with their own opinions, demands, views, assumptions, and priorities.
The Fast UX Approach
Contrary to what you might think, reducing the time it takes to do UX research does not mean that you need to soldier on by yourself. I have done this and it only works in the short term. It does not matter how amazing the findings are — there is not enough PowerPoint slides in the world to convince a team of the urgency to take action if they have not been on the research journey themselves.
In the long term, the more actively engaged your team and stakeholders are in the research, the more empowered they will feel and the more willing they will be to take action. Productive collaboration also means that you can move together at a quicker pace and speed up the whole research process.
The FAST UX Research framework (see Fig. 2 below) is a tool to truly engage team members and stakeholders in a way that turns them into active advocates and champions of the research process. It shows non-researchers when and how they should get involved in UX Research.
In essence, stakeholders take ownership of each of the UX research stages by carrying out the four activities, each corresponding to its research stage.
Working together reduces the time it takes for UX Research. The true benefit of the approach, however, is that, in the long term, it takes less and less time for the business to take action based on research findings as people become true advocates of user-centricity and the research process.
This approach can be applied to any qualitative research method and with any team. For example, you can carry out FAST usability testing, FAST interviews, FAST ethnography, and so on. In order to be effective, you will need to explain this approach to your stakeholders from the start. Talk them through the framework, explaining each stage. Emphasize that this is what EVERYONE does, that it’s their work as much as the UX researcher’s job, and that it’s only successful if everyone is involved throughout the process.
Stage 1: Focus (Define A Common Goal)
There is a uniform consensus within UX that a research project should start by defining its purpose: why is this research done and how will the results be acted upon?
Generally, this is expressed within the research goals, objectives, research questions and/or hypotheses. Most projects start with a kick-off meeting where those are either discussed (based on an available brief) or are defined during the meeting.
The most regular problem with kick-off sessions like these is that stakeholders come up with too many things they want to learn from a study. The way to turn the situation around is to assign a specific task to your immediate team (other UX professionals you work with) and stakeholders (key decision makers): they will help focus the study from the beginning.
The way they will do that is by working together through the following steps:
Identify as a group the current challenges and problems.
Ask someone to take notes on a shared document; alternatively, ask everyone to participate and write on sticky notes which are then displayed on a “project wall” for everyone to see.
Identify the potential objectives and questions for a research study.
Do this the same way you did the previous step. You don’t need to commit to anything yet.
Ask the team to order the objectives and questions, starting with the most important ones.
Reword and rephrase.
Look at the top 3 questions and objectives. Are they too broad or narrow? Could they be reworded so it’s clearer what is the focus of the study? Are they feasible? Do you need to split or merge objectives and questions?
Commit to be flexible.
Agree on the top 1-2 objectives and ensure that you have agreement from everyone that this is what you will focus on.
Here are some questions you can ask to help your stakeholders and team to get to the focus of the study faster:
From the objectives we have recognized, what is most important?
What does success look like?
If we only learn one thing, which one would be the most important one?
Your role during the process is to provide expertise to determine if:
The identified objectives and questions are feasible for a single study;
Help with the wording of objectives and questions;
Design the study (including selecting a methodology) after the focus has been identified.
At first sight, the Focus and Attend (next stages) activities might be familiar as you are already carrying out a kick-off meeting and inviting stakeholders to attend research sessions.
However, adopting a FAST approach means that your stakeholders have as much ownership as you do during the research process because work is shared and co-owned. Reiterate that the process is collaborative and at the end of the session, emphasize that agreeing on clear research objectives is not easy. Remind everybody that having a shared focus is already better than what many teams start with.
Finally, remind the team and your stakeholders what they need to do during the rest of the process.
Stage 2: Attend (Immerse The Team Deeply In The Research Process)
What often happens is that observers join in on the day of the research study and then they spend the time plastered to their laptops and mobile phones. What is worse, some stakeholders often talk to the note-taker and distract the rest of the design team who need to observe the sessions.
This is why it is just as important that you get the team to interact with the research. The following activities allow the team to immerse themselves in the research session. You can ask stakeholders to:
Ask questions during the session through a dedicated live chat (e.g. Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype);
Take notes on sticky notes;
Summarize observations for everyone (see next stage).
Assign one person per session for each of these activities. Have one “live chat manager,” one “note-taker,” and one “observer” who will sum up the session afterwards.
Rotate people for the next session.
Before the session, it’s useful to walk observers through the ‘ground rules’ very briefly. You can have a poster similar to the one GDS developed that will help you do this and remind the team of their role during the study (see Fig. 3 above).
Farrell (2017) provides more detail on effective ways for stakeholders to take notes together. When you have multiple stakeholders and it’s not feasible for them to physically attend a field visit (e.g. on the street, in an office, at the home of the participant), you could stream the session to an observation room.
Stage 3: Summarize (Analysis For Non-Researchers)
I am a strong supporter of the idea that analysis starts the moment fieldwork begins. During the very first research session, you start looking for patterns and interpretation of what the data you have means.
Even after the first session (but typically towards the end of fieldwork) you can carry out collaborative analysis: a fun and productive way that ensures that you have everyone participating in one of the most important stages of research.
The collaborative analysis session is an activity where you provide an opportunity for everyone to be heard and create a shared understanding of the research.
Since you’re including other experts’ perspectives, you’re increasing the chances to identify more objective and relevant insights, and also for stakeholders to act upon the results of the study.
Even though ‘analysis’ is an essential part of any research project, a lot of stakeholders get scared by the word. The activity sounds very academic and complex. This is why at the end of each research session, research day, or the study as a whole, the role of your stakeholders and immediate team is to summarize their observations. Summarizing may sound superfluous but is an important part of the analysis stage; this is essentially what we do during “Downloading” sessions.
Listening to someone’s summary provides you with an opportunity to understand:
What they paid attention to;
What is important for them;
Their interpretation of the event.
Summary At The End Of Each Session
You do this by reminding everyone at the beginning of the session that at the end you will enter the room and ask them to summarize their observations and recommendations.
You then end the session by asking each stakeholder the following:
What were their key observations (see also Fig. 3)?
What happened during the session?
Were there any major difficulties for the participant?
What were the things that worked well?
Was there anything that surprised them?
This will make the team more attentive during the session, as they know that they will need to sum it up at the end. It will also help them to internalize the observations (and later, transition more easily to findings).
This is also the time to consistently share with your team what you think stands out from the study so far. Avoid the temptation to do a ‘big reveal’ at the end. It’s better if outcomes are told to stakeholders many times.
On multiple occasions, research has given me great outcomes. Instead of sharing them regularly, I keep them to myself until the final report. It doesn’t work well. A big reveal at the end leads to bewildered stakeholders who often cannot jump from observations to insights as quickly. As a result, there is either stubborn pushback or indifferent shrugs.
Summary At The End Of The Day
A summary of the event or the day can then naturally transition into a collaborative analysis session. Your job is to moderate the session.
The job of your stakeholders is to summarize the events of the day and the final results. Ask a volunteer to talk the group through what happened during the day. Other stakeholders can then add to these observations.
Summary At The End Of The Study
After the analysis is done, ask one or two stakeholders to summarize the study. Make sure they cover why we did research, what happened during the study and what are the primary findings. They can also do this by walking through the project wall (if you have one).
It’s very difficult not to talk about your research and leave someone else to do it. But it’s worth it. No matter how much you’re itching to do this yourself — don’t! It’s a great opportunity for people to internalize research and become comfortable with the process. This is one of the key moments to turn stakeholders into active advocates of user research.
At the end of this stage, you should have 5-7 findings that capture the study.
Stage 4: Translate (Make Stakeholders Active Champions Of The Solution)
“Research doesn’t have a value unless it results in decisions and actions.”
—Lang and Howell (2017).
Even when you agree with the findings, stakeholders might still disagree about what the research means or lack commitment to take further action. This is why after summarizing, ask your stakeholders to work with you and identify the “Now what?” or what it all means for the organization, product, service, team and/or individually for each one of them.
Traditionally, it was the UX researchers’ job to write clear, precise, descriptive findings, and actionable recommendations. However, if the team and stakeholders are not part of identifying actionable recommendations, they might be resistant towards change in future.
To prevent later pushback, ask stakeholders to identify the “Now what?” (also referred to as ‘actionable recommendations’). Together, you’ll be able to identify how the insights and findings will:
Affect the business and what needs to be done now;
Affect the product/service and what changes do we need to make;
Affect people individually and the actions they need to take;
Lead to potential problems and challenges and their solutions;
Help solve problems or identify potential solutions.
Stakeholders and the team can translate the findings at the end of a collaborative analysis session.
If you decide to separate the activities and conduct a meeting in which the only focus is on actionable recommendations, then consider the following format:
Briefly talk through the 5-7 main findings from the study (as a refresher if this stage is done separately from the analysis session or with other stakeholders).
Split the group into teams and ask them to work on one finding/problem at a time.
Ask them to list as many ways they see the finding affecting them.
Ask one person from each group to present the findings back to the team.
Ask one/two final stakeholders to summarize the whole study, together with the methods, findings, and recommendations.
Later, you can have multiple similar workshops; this is how you get to engage different departments from the organization.
Fast UX In Practice
An excellent example of a FAST UX Research approach in practice is a project I was hired to carry out for a central UK government department. The ultimate goal of the project was to identify user requirements for a very complex internal system.
At first sight, this was a very challenging project because:
There was no time to get to know the department or the client.
Usually, I would have at least a week or two to get to know the client, their needs, opinions, internal pressures, and challenges. For this project, I had to start work on Monday with a team I had never met; in a building I had never worked, in a domain I knew little about, and finish on Friday the same week.
The system was very complex and required intense research.
The internal system and the nature of work were very complex; this required gathering data with at least a few research methods (for triangulation).
This was the first time the team had worked with a UX Researcher.
The stakeholders were primarily IT specialists. However, I was lucky that they were very keen and enthusiastic to be involved in the project and get their hands dirty.
As is the case on many other projects, all stakeholders were extremely busy as they had their own work on top of the project. Nonetheless, we made it work, even if it meant meeting over lunch, or for a 15-minute wrap up before we went home.
There were internal pressures and challenges.
As with any department and huge organization, there were a number of internal pressures and challenges. Some of them I expected (e.g. legacy systems, slow pace of change) but some I had no clue about when I started.
We had to coordinate work with external teams.
An additional challenge was the need to work with and coordinate efforts with external teams at another UK department.
Despite all of these challenges, this was one of the most enjoyable projects I have worked on because of the tight collaboration initiated by the FAST approach.
The project consisted of:
1 day of kick-off sessions and getting to know the team
2,5 days of contextual inquiries and shadowing of internal team members,
Half a day for a co-creation workshop, and
1 day for analysis and results reporting.
In the process, I gathered data from 20+ employees, had 16+ hours of observations, 300+ photos and about 100 pages of notes. Here is a great example of cramming in 3 weeks’ worth of work into a mere 5-day research cycle. More importantly, people in the department were really excited about the process.
Here is how we did it using a FAST UX Research approach:
Focus At the beginning of the project, the two key stakeholders identified what the focus of research would be while my role was mainly to help with prioritizing the objectives, tweak the research questions and check for feasibility. In this sense, I listened and mainly asked questions, interjecting occasionally with examples from previous projects or options that helped to adjust our approach.
While I wrote the main discussion guide for the contextual inquiries and shadowing sessions, we sat together with the primary team to discuss and design the co-creation workshop with internal users of the system.
Attend During the workshop one of the stakeholders moderated half of the session, while the other took notes and observed closely the participants. It was a huge success internally, as stakeholders felt there was better visibility for their efforts to modernize the department, while employees felt listened to and involved in the research.
Summarize Immediately after the workshop, we sat together with the stakeholders for a 30-minute meeting where I had them summarize their observations.
As a result of the shadowing, contextual inquiries and co-creation workshop, we were able to identify 60+ issues and problems with the internal system (with regards to integration, functionality, and usability), all captured in six high-level findings.
Translate Later, we discussed with the team how each of the six major findings translated to a change or implication for the department, the internal system, as well as collaboration with other departments.
We were so perfectly aligned with the team that when we had to talk about our work in front of another UK government department, I could let the stakeholders talk about the process and our progress.
My final task (over two additional days) was to document all of the findings in a research report. This was necessary as a knowledge repository because I had to move onto other projects.
With a more traditional approach, the project could have easily spanned 3 weeks. More importantly, quickly understanding individual and team pressures and challenges were the keys to the success of the new system. This could not have happened within the allocated time without a collaborative approach.
A FAST UX approach resulted in tight collaboration, strong co-ownership and a shared sense of progress; all of those allowed to shorten the time of the project, but also to instill a feeling of excitement about the UX research process.
Have You Tried It Out Already?
While UX research becomes ever more popular, gone are the days when we could soldier on by ourselves and only consult stakeholders at the end.
Mastering our craft as UX researchers means engaging others within the process and being articulate, clear, and transparent about our work. The FAST approach is a simple model that shows how to engage non-researchers with the research process. Reducing the time it takes to do research, both in the short (i.e. the study itself) and long term (i.e. using the research results), is a strategic advantage for the researcher, team, and the business as a whole.
Would you like to improve your efficiency and turn stakeholders into user research advocates? Go and try it out. You can then share your stories and advice here.
I would love to hear your comments, suggestion and any feedback you care to share! If you have tried it out already, do you have success stories you want to share? Be as open as you can — what worked well, and what didn’t? As with all other things UX, it’s most fun if we learn together as a team.
Working Together: How Designers And Developers Can Communicate To Create Better Projects
Among the most popular suggestions on Smashing Magazine’s Content User Suggestions board is the need of learning more about the interaction and communication between designers and developers. There are probably several articles worth of very specific things that could be covered here, but I thought I would kick things off with a general post rounding up some experiences on the subject.
Given the wide range of skills held by the line-up at our upcoming SmashingConf Toronto — a fully live, no-slides-allowed event, I decided to solicit some feedback. I’ve wrapped those up with my own experience of 20 years working alongside designers and other developers. I hope you will add your own experiences in the comments.
Some tips work best when you can be in the same room as your team, and others are helpful for the remote worker or freelancer. What shines through all of the advice, however, is the need to respect each other, and the fact that everyone is working to try and create the best outcome for the project.
Working Remotely And Staying Connected
The nomadic lifestyle is not right for everyone, but the only way to know for sure is to try. If you can afford to take the risk, go for it. Javier Cuello shares his experience and insights from his four years of travel and work. Read article →
For many years, my own web development company operated as an outsourced web development provider for design agencies. This involved doing everything from front-end development to implementing e-commerce and custom content management solutions. Our direct client was the designer or design agency who had brought us on board to help with the development aspect of the work, however, in an ideal situation, we would be part of the team working to deliver a great end result to the end client.
Sometimes this relationship worked well. We would feel a valued part of the team, our ideas and experience would count, we would work with the designers to come up with the best solution within budgetary, time, and other constraints.
In many cases, however, no attempt was made to form a team. The design agency would throw a picture of a website as a PDF file over the fence to us, then move on to work on their next project. There was little room for collaboration, and often the designer who had created the files was busy on some other work when we came back with questions.
It was an unsatisfactory way to work for everyone. We would be frustrated because we did not have a chance to help ensure that what was designed was possible to be built in a performant and accessible way, within the time and budget agreed on. The designer of the project would be frustrated: Why were these developers asking so many questions? Can they not just build the website as I have designed? Why are the fonts not the size I wanted?
The Waterfall versus Agile argument might be raised here. The situation where a PDF is thrown over the fence is often cited as an example of how bad a Waterfall approach is. Still, working in a fully Agile way is often not possible for teams made of freelancers or separate parties doing different parts of the work. Therefore, in reading these suggestions, look at them through the lens of the projects you work on. However, try not to completely discount something as unworkable because you can’t use the full process. There are often things we can take without needing to fully adopt one methodology or another.
Setting Up A Project For Success
I came to realize that very often the success of failure of the collaboration started before we even won the project, with the way in which we proposed the working relationship. We had to explain upfront that experience had taught us that the approach of us being handed a PDF, quoting and returning a website did not give the best results.
Projects that were successful had a far more iterative approach. It might not be possible to have us work alongside the designers or in a more Agile way. However, having a number of rounds of design and development with time for feedback from each side went a long way to prevent the frustrations of a method where work was completed by each side independently.
Creating Working Relationships
Having longer-term relationships with an agency, spanning a number of projects worked well. We got to know the designers, learned how they worked, could anticipate their questions and ensure that we answered them upfront. We were able to share development knowledge, the things that made a design easier or harder to implement which would, therefore, have an impact on time and budget. They were able to communicate better with us in order to explain why a certain design element was vital, even if it was going to add complexity.
For many freelance designers and developers, and also for those people who work for a distributed company, communication can become mostly text-based. This can make it particularly hard to build relationships. There might be a lot of communication — by email, in Slack, or through messages on a project management platform such as Basecamp. However, all of these methods leave us without the visual cues we might pick up from in-person meetings. An email we see as to the point may come across to the reader as if we are angry. The quick-fire nature of tools such as Slack might leave us committing in writing something which we would not say to that person while looking into their eyes!
Freelance data scientist Nadieh Bremer will talk to us about visualizing data in Toronto. She has learned that meeting people face to face — or at least having a video call — is important. She told me:
“As a remote freelancer, I know that to interact well with my clients I really need to have a video call (stress on the video) I need to see their face and facial/body interactions and they need to see mine. For clients that I have within public transport distance, I used to travel there for a first ‘getting to know each other/see if we can do a project’ meeting, which would take loads of time. But I noticed for my clients abroad (that I can’t visit anyway) that a first client call (again, make sure it’s a video-call) works more than good enough.
It’s the perfect way to weed out the clients that need other skills that I can give, those that are looking for a cheap deal, and those where I just felt something wasn’t quite clicking or I’m not enthusiastic about the project after they’ve given me a better explanation. So these days I also ask my clients in the Netherlands, where I live, that might want to do a first meeting to have it online (and once we get on to an actual contract I can come by if it’s beneficial).”
Working In The Open
Working in the open (with the project frequently deployed to a staging server that everyone had access to see), helped to support an iterative approach to development. I found that it was important to support that live version with explanations and notes of what to look at and test and what was still half finished. If I just invited people to look at it without that information we would get lists of fixes to make to unfinished features, which is a waste of time for the person doing the reporting. However, a live staging version, plus notes in a collaboration tool such as Basecamp meant that we could deploy sections and post asking for feedback on specific things. This helped to keep everyone up to date and part of the project even if — as was often the case for designers in an agency — they had a number of other projects to work on.
There are collaboration tools to help designers to share their work too. Asking for recommendations on Twitter gave me suggestions for Zeplin, Invision, Figma, and Adobe XD. Showing work in progress to a developer can help them to catch things that might be tricky before they are signed off by the client. By sharing the goal behind a particular design feature within the team, a way forward can be devised that meets the goal without blowing the budget.
Scope Creep And Change Requests
The thing about working in the open is that people then start to have ideas (which should be a positive thing), however, most timescales and budgets are not infinite! This means you need to learn to deal with scope creep and change requests in a way that maintains a good working relationship.
We would often get requests for things that were trivial to implement with a message saying how sorry they were about this huge change and requests for incredibly time-consuming things with an assumption it would be quick. Someone who is not a specialist has no idea how long anything will take. Why should they? It is important to remember this rather than getting frustrated about the big changes that are being asked for. Have a conversation about the change, explain why it is more complex than it might appear, and try to work out whether this is a vital addition or change, or just a nice idea that someone has had.
If the change is not essential, then it may be enough to log it somewhere as a phase two request, demonstrating that it has been heard and won’t be forgotten. If the big change is still being requested, we would outline the time it would take and give options. This might mean dropping some other feature if a project has a fixed budget and tight deadline. If there was flexibility then we could outline the implications on both costs and end date.
With regard to costs and timescales, we learned early on to pad our project quotes in order that we could absorb some small changes without needing to increase costs or delay completion. This helped with the relationship between the agency and ourselves as they didn’t feel as if they were being constantly nickel and dimed. Small changes were expected as part of the process of development. I also never wrote these up in a quote as contingency, as a client would read that and think they should be able to get the project done without dipping into the contingency. I just added the time to the quote for the overall project. If the project ran smoothly and we didn’t need that time and money, then the client got a smaller bill. No one is ever unhappy about being invoiced for less than they expected!
This approach can work even for people working in-house. Adding some time to your estimates means that you can absorb small changes without needing to extend the timescales. It helps working relationships if you are someone who is able to say yes as often as possible.
This does require that you become adept at estimating timescales. This is a skill you can develop by logging your time to achieve your work, even if you don’t need to log your time for work purposes. While many of the things you design or develop will be unique, and seem impossible to estimate, by consistently logging your time you will generally find that your ballpark estimates become more accurate as you make yourself aware of how long things really take.
“It all comes down to respect for your colleague’s craft, and sort of knowing your place and precisely where you fit into the project. When working with a developer, I surrender to them in a creative way, and then, defuse whatever power play they might try to make on me by leading the charges with constructive design advice, lightning-fast email replies and generally keeping the spirit upbeat. It’s an odd offense to play. I’m not down with the adversarial stuff. I’m quick to remind them we are all in the same boat, and, who’s paying their paycheck. And that’s not me. It’s the client. I’ll forever be on their team, you know? We make the stuff for the client. Not just me. Not ‘my team’. We do it together. This simple methodology has always gone a long way for me.”
I love this, it underpins everything that this article discusses. Think back to any working relationship that has gone bad, how many of those involved you feeling as if the other person just didn’t understand your point of view or the things you believe are important? Most reasonable people understand that compromise has to be made, it is when it appears that your point of view is not considered that frustration sets in.
There are sometimes situations where a decision is being made, and your experience tells you it is going to result in a bad outcome for the project, yet you are overruled. On a few occasions, decisions were made that I believed so poor; I asked for the decision and our objection to it be put in writing, in order that we could not be held accountable for any bad outcome in future. This is not something you should feel the need to do often, however, it is quite powerful and sometimes results in the decision being reversed. An example would be of a client who keeps insisting on doing something that would cause an accessibility problem for a section of their potential audience. If explaining the issue does not help, and the client insists on continuing, ask for that decision in writing in order to document your professional advice.
Learning The Language
I recently had the chance to bring my CSS Layout Workshop not to my usual groups of front-end developers but instead to a group of UX designers. Many of the attendees were there not to improve their front-end development skills, but more to understand enough of how modern CSS Layout worked that they could have better conversations with the developers who built their designs. Many of them had also spent years being told that certain things were not possible on the web, but were realizing that the possibilities in CSS were changing through things like CSS Grid. They were learning some CSS not necessarily to become proficient in shipping it to production, but so they could share a common language with developers.
There are often debates on whether “designers should learn to code.” In reality, I think we all need to learn something of the language, skills, and priorities of the other people on our teams. As Aaron reminded us, we are all on the same team, we are making stuff together. Designers should learn something about code just as developers should also learn something of design. This gives us more of a shared language and understanding.
“I have basically made a career out of being both technical and creative so I strongly feel that the more crossover the better. Obviously what I do now is wonderfully free of the constraints of client work but even so, I do think that if you can blur those edges, it’s gonna be good for you. It’s why I speak at design conferences and encourage designers to play with creative coding, and I speak at tech conferences to persuade coders to improve their visual acuity. Also with creative coding. It’s good because not only do I get to work across both disciplines, but also I get to annoy both designers and coders in equal measure.”
I have found that introducing designers to browser DevTools (in particular the layout tools in Firefox and also to various code generators on the web) has been helpful. By being able to test ideas out without writing code, helps a designer who isn’t confident in writing code to have better conversations with their developer colleagues. Playing with tools such as gradient generators, clip-path or animation tools can also help designers see what is possible on the web today.
We are also seeing a number of tools that can help people create websites in a more visual way. Developers can sometimes turn their noses up about the code output of such tools, and it’s true they probably won’t be the best choice for the production code of a large project. However, they can be an excellent way for everyone to prototype ideas, without needing to write code. Those prototypes can then be turned into robust, permanent and scalable versions for production.
An important tip for developers is to refrain from commenting on the code quality of prototypes from members of the team who do not ship production code! Stick to what the prototype is showing as opposed to how it has been built.
A Practical Suggestion To Make Things Visual
Eva-Lotta Lamm will be speaking in Toronto about Sketching and perhaps unsurprisingly passed on practical tips for helping conversation by visualizing the problem to support a conversation.
Creating a shared picture of a problem or a solution is a simple but powerful tool to create understanding and make sure they everybody is talking about the same thing.
Visualizing a problem can reach from quick sketches on a whiteboard to more complex diagrams, like customer journey diagrams or service blueprints.
But even just spatially distributing words on a surface adds a valuable layer of meaning. Something as simple as arranging post-its on a whiteboard in different ways can help us to see relationships, notice patterns, find gaps and spot outliers or anomalies. If we add simple structural elements (like arrows, connectors, frames, and dividers) and some sketches into the mix, the relationships become even more obvious.
Visualising a problem creates context and builds a structural frame that future information, questions, and ideas can be added to in a ‘systematic’ way.
Visuals are great to support a conversation, especially when the conversation is ‘messy’ and several people involved.
When we visualize a conversation, we create an external memory of the content, that is visible to everybody and that can easily be referred back to. We don’t have to hold everything in our mind. This frees up space in everybody’s mind to think and talk about other things without the fear of forgetting something important. Visuals also give us something concrete to hold on to and to follow along while listening to complex or abstract information.
When we have a visual map, we can point to particular pieces of content — a simple but powerful way to make sure everybody is talking about the same thing. And when referring back to something discussed earlier, the map automatically reminds us of the context and the connections to surrounding topics.
When we sketch out a problem, a solution or an idea the way we see it (literally) changes. Every time we express a thought in a different medium, we are forced to shape it in a specific way, which allows us to observe and analyze it from different angles.
Visualising forces us to make decisions about a problem that words alone don’t. We have to decide where to place each element, decide on its shape, size, its boldness, and color. We have to decide what we sketch and what we write. All these decisions require a deeper understanding of the problem and make important questions surface fairly quickly.
All in all, supporting your collaboration by making it more visual works like a catalyst for faster and better understanding.
Working in this way is obviously easier if your team is working in the same room. For distributed teams and freelancers, there are alternatives to communicate in ways other than words, e.g. by making a quick Screencast to demonstrate an issue, or even sketching and photographing a diagram can be incredibly helpful. There are collaborative tools such as Milanote, Mural, and Niice; such tools can help with the process Eva-Lotta described even if people can’t be in the same room.
I’m very non-visual and have had to learn how useful these other methods of communication are to the people I work with. I have been guilty on many occasions of forgetting that just because I don’t personally find something useful, it is still helpful to other people. It is certainly a good idea to change how you are trying to communicate an idea if it becomes obvious that you are talking at cross-purposes.
Over To You
As with most things, there are many ways to work together. Even for remote teams, there is a range of tools which can help break down barriers to collaborating in a more visual way. However, no tool is able to fix problems caused by a lack of respect for the work of the rest of the team. A good relationship starts with the ability for all of us to take a step back from our strongly held opinions, listen to our colleagues, and learn to compromise. We can then choose tools and workflows which help to support that understanding that we are all on the same team, all trying to do a great job, and all have important viewpoints and experience to bring to the project.
I would love to hear your own experiences working together in the same room or remotely. What has worked well — or not worked at all! Tools, techniques, and lessons learned are all welcome in the comments. If you would be keen to see tutorials about specific tools or workflows mentioned here, perhaps add a suggestion to our User Suggestions board, too.
As technologies change and design techniques evolve, it’s inevitable that we’d experience massive growth in terms of design quality. There are similar parallels we can see within video game design as well. For instance:
This was CERN, the very first website back in 1991. Just some basic HTML and ample white space:
This example from Smashing Magazine is how we design websites and share information online in 2018:
Now, if you look at the history of video game design, you’ll note a similar track; one in which early games like Pong were incredibly simplistic and devoid of any real story:
But now there are games like Grand Theft Auto that put players in the actual driver’s seat, allowing them to control the pace, direction, and outcomes of their experience:
As technologies improve and design techniques evolve, improvements in digital design are inevitable. What is truly impressive, however, is how we are now able to use design to tell a story. In other words, we no longer need to use long scrolls to set up plots or describe what a company does. This is especially great when designing for the mobile experience, which already sets pretty strict limits on how much we can “tell” versus “show.”
In this article, I want to look at three ways in which video game designers get the storytelling aspect of design right, and how web designers can use these techniques to provide users with an immersive experience and drive them more quickly and effectively to conversion.
Three Video Game Storytelling Techniques We Need More Of In Web Design
Video games have come a long way since they were introduced in the late ‘70s in terms of graphics, user controls and, of course, story development. With video game design evolving around the same time as web design, there are similar features and trends that can be found between the two. The only thing is, I don’t know if many web designers think to look to video games for design tips.
Granted, the overwhelming use of shocking colors and cheesy dialogue won’t work that well when you’re developing a professional website. However, it’s the way in which video game designers tell a story with design elements — and effectively guide players to the end by using those elements — that we need to pay attention to.
As your visitors’ attention spans shorten and demand grows for more engaging experiences, web designers can greatly benefit from using these storytelling techniques on the web and, more importantly, for mobile.
1. Make Your Visitor the Hero
Ever since the early days of video games, the goal was to put the player in the front seat and to let them be the hero of the story.
The player was always the hero (i.e., PAC-MAN), and his or her mission was to work through the situation (i.e., to fight the ghosts) and get to the end.
The same holds true for modern gaming as well, though many games go the route of giving players the impression they have control over their heroic journey. A good example of this are the Telltale games.
Basically, each of their games is crafted around a well-known story. In the example above, the game is based on the events that unfold in the T.V. show Game of Thrones. Throughout the game, players are called upon to step into the world and make active choices about what happens next. Sometimes this is through dialogue (at 6:00), and sometimes it happens through action (at 11:55).
In the end, every player of the game ends up at the same place regardless of which way they turn or what line they utter. This doesn’t make the experience any less enthralling for the player as they are actively engaged throughout, and there is a reward in the end — even if it’s one they share with every other person who has played this game.
That’s exactly what websites should do for their visitors, right? They allow visitors to take full control over the experience so that they want to get to the end. For the web, this translates to conversion. And the best way to do this, as evidenced by video games, is to give visitors the ability to pick and choose how they traverse through the story.
Here are some ways in which you can do this with web design:
Create User Personas
Develop user personas before you do anything else when strategizing and planning for a website. Your personas should have a key “problem” they face. It’s then your job to establish the user’s journey in a way that helps them discover solutions to that problem.
Enable Avatar Setup
For those of you with websites that allow for users to create profiles, this is a great opportunity to enable them to define their own unique identity. Allow them to upload a photo of themselves and to personalize their profile. You can also give them different access settings which directs what kinds of content they see, what types of offers they receive, and so on.
WordPress membership websites like WPMU DEV are a good example of websites that do this. Users can create their own profiles and earn points and special statuses based on how much work they put into the community.
Use Relatable Content
In video game design, there is something known as “ludonarrative dissonance.” Basically, it “is the unpleasant situation where we’re asking players to do something they don’t want to do… or prevent them from doing what they want.”
You’ve likely encountered this sort of resistance as you’ve designed websites in the past.
You review the analytics and discover high bounce rates on certain pages or even right from within the home page. You discover that there’s a visual element or a line of copy that just doesn’t sit right with your audience. That’s because it’s a disruption in what should be an otherwise immersive experience. By using content that resonates with the visitor, that makes them feel like you’re telling their story, they won’t feel disconnected and want to stray from the goal.
Let’s face it; if you’re building a website on behalf of a business or other professional entity, you don’t have some dramatic tale to spin like a video game does. And that’s fine.
Consumers aren’t visiting websites in order to get caught up in hours of epic storytelling. That said, they do still expect to be engaged by what you’re sharing with them.
So, why not depict a fantastic scenario through visual storytelling? The brain digests visual content 60% more quickly than written content, so your web designs and other visuals (like video, animation, and so on) are the keys to doing this.
The Airbnb blog always does a great job of this type of visual storytelling.
While every story is probably told through 800 to 1,000 words, it’s also accompanied by highly attractive visuals that tell you something about what you’d experience at this specific destination.
2. Minimize Distractions by Using Symbols
Let’s talk specifically about websites viewed from mobile devices for a second, shall we? As of August 2017, 52.64% of all visits to websites were done via a smartphone. And, starting in 2017, the most popular size for a smartphone was between five and six inches and will only continue to grow in popularity as the years go on.
That’s not a lot of space to fill with content for the majority of site visitors, is it? So, how do you effectively tell a story if you have limited real estate? If we’re to take a page out of the video game design handbook, then we should turn to symbols.
“[O]ne, often overlooked, strong point of game UX is the preference towards symbolism. The ability to transform meaning into symbols was a huge step towards visual decluttering.”
Functional minimalism is already something you’re doing in your own web design efforts, but have you thought about how it can tie into the storytelling aspect as well? When it comes to video games, symbols help clear the way so that players can focus on the story before them. You’ll see this most often in two-dimensional, side-scroller games:
Street Fighter and other fighting games place the health bar at the top:
There are even ones like Virtua Racing and other geographic-dependent games that put their navigation off to the side for players to reference:
As you can see, the use of symbols keeps the gamespace clear and easy to follow along with.
Whether you’re designing mostly for desktop or mobile users, your aim is to design a space that encourages users to follow along and not get caught up in distractions. So, while you might think that full-screen, overlay navigation is a creative choice for your website or the ever-present live chat pop-up will get more engagements, you may be doing yourself a great disservice.
By employing the use of easily recognized symbols throughout your site, you can keep the design clean and clear and distraction-free. The story you’re weaving throughout is the most important thing, and you don’t want to stand in the way of visitors being able to get to it.
The website is for their architecture design firm. Rather than write volumes of text about what they’ve done and how they do it, they allow the images to speak for themselves. They’ve then employed a number of symbols to help visitors continue on to other points of interest in their journey.
Here are some ways in which you might use symbols to declutter your site:
Hamburger icon (for the navigation)
Profile photo icon (for account details)
Pencil icon (for an editing interface)
Gear icon (for settings)
Shopping cart icon (to checkout)
Magnifying glass (to expand the search bar)
Connector icon (to open social sharing and RSS feed options)
Question mark (to expand live chat, search, or help options)
And so on.
One thing to note here is that you don’t want to overdo it with icons. As you can see from the video game examples above, the entire interface isn’t strewn with icons. They’re simply there to hold the place of elements players are already familiar with and will refer to often. That’s the way you should handle icons for your own site. Think about how easy your icons will be to decipher as well as which ones are absolutely necessary. Decluttering doesn’t mean hiding every element under an icon; you simply want to tidy up a bit.
If you’re concerned with the potential for confusion over what your icons mean to users, then use labels, alt text, or tooltips to provide further elaboration to those who need it.
3. Be Smart About How You Use Space
One of the nice things about video games is how they use actual walls and roadblocks to prevent players from navigating into territory where they shouldn’t be. One of my favorite games that does this right now is called LittleBigPlanet. While it is similar to side-scrolling adventures like Super Mario, its design expands beyond the basic two dimensions usually experienced in these kinds of games.
As you can see, the player encounters a number of hard surfaces which then prompt him or her to move back and forth between layers, to climb up various elements, and to find a more ideal route towards the end of the game.
First-person shooter games like Halo also use physical elements to keep players confined to the main gamespace and on track to completing the mission and story.
As a web designer, you don’t have the luxury of crafting walls around the user’s journey on your site. That said, you don’t have to design a website and leave it all to chance. There are ways to steer visitors through a direct path to conversion.
Kill Screen did an interesting write-up about the art of spatial storytelling in video games. In it, writer Sharang Biswas explained the idea that “Spaces can be designed. They can be made to promote certain pathways, encourage specific behaviors, even elicit emotional reactions.”
There are a number of ways in which you can do this with design:
Use a Spotlight
In video games, you can use light and darkness to draw attention to important pathways. On websites, it’s not always easy to employ the use of lightness or darkness as too-dark of a design or too-light of text could lead to a bad user experience. What you want to do instead is create a “spotlight” of sorts. You can do this by infusing a key area of your design with a dramatic color or a boldly stylized font.
In a site that’s otherwise pretty light in color usage, Kappow does a nice job using it to highlight two key areas of the site where it’s clear visitors should visit: its case studies.
If you’ve ever played a horror video game before, you know how critical the element of sound can be for it. Here’s an example of how Until Dawn uses sound (as well as visual footprints) to try to steer the player in the right direction:
In all honesty, I’m not a big fan of music on websites, even if they’re from auto-play videos that I visited the website for in the first place. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way as there aren’t many websites that employ the use of background music or auto-play audio anymore.
That said, while you might not be able to direct visitors down the page with the sound of something playing down below, you can use other elements to lead them. For one, you can use interactive elements like animation to draw their attention to where it needs to go. Let’s take a game like Angry Birds, for example.
See how the little red birds are hopping up and down while they wait their turn? It’s a subtle gesture, but one that is sure to draw first-time players’ attention to the area of the screen in which they should directly interact if they want to move on to the next level. Animation on a website would work just as effectively if you’re trying to lure visitors’ eyes down to a key element like a contact form or a clickable button.
But it doesn’t just have to be animation. Other video game designers simply plant clues around the landscape to steer players through the journey. I’m not suggesting that your site start hiding Easter eggs all over the place. Instead, you may want to think about using subtle arrows or lines that define the space in which visitors should “play” and then move down through.
Employ a Mascot
For some brands, it might make sense to employ the use of an actual mascot to guide visitors through the story. If it’s an already established mascot and it won’t intrude too heavily on the experience, then why not bring it on the journey to ensure that visitors are checking in at all the right spots?
Or you can do like BarkBox and use a series of related mascots to guide visitors through different parts of the site (especially the signup and subscription process).
As attention spans shorten and visitors just want to get to the good stuff on a website, designers have to get more creative in how they communicate their website’s “story.” Ideally, your web design will do more showing of that story instead of telling, which is how video game design tends to succeed in this matter.
Remember: Storytelling isn’t just relegated to big brands that can weave bright and shiny tales about how consumers’ lives were changed with their products. Nor is it just for video game designers that have hours of gameplay to develop for their audiences. A story simply needs to convey to the end-user how their problem can be fixed by your site’s solution. Through subtle design strategies inspired by video game storytelling techniques, you can effectively share and shape your own story.