A scary article about the death of web design swept through the internet this summer making the web design community ponder about the future of the industry. There were many different responses from different quarters that claimed that web design is not dead, just changing a little more quickly than other industries.
Change is real, and sustainable businesses need to move forward and swim with the stream. In this post we will take a glance at the changes that indicate the necessity of switching the way how we think about and do design.
For quite a long time web pages were the alpha and omega of the internet experience. However, in the last few years the software market has evolved with a speed that was never seen before. We read about new devices every day, and smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous in our lives.
Designing for mobile screens is different from designing for the desktop, but it can’t be compared to extra-small screens such as the watchface of a smartwatch. There’s not too much place for glossy design elements on most wearables.
They need to be functional, and designers need to focus more on how users interact with the screen. Interaction with the screen also has many new methods such as gestures, voice control and facial expressions.
Not only do we see hardware changes but there are also changes in content types and distribution channels. Just think about the expansion of mobile and tablet apps, social media platforms, or the increasing number of small business sites moving to their Facebook page.
To put it shortly, these days designers need to create multi-channel digital experiences in a world where an increasing number of screens are connected together by the internet.
Web design therefore is not dead at all, it just has become more complex due to the maturing of the industry. These days a website has become one integral part of a company’s online strategy, not its sole online representation, as before.
The rise of content management systems such as WordPress brought the era of free and premium themes that some people see as a threat for bespoke web design. More often than not, this is not the case. Customizable templates are excellent solutions for small business owners who have to work with so low a budget that they couldn’t have afforded a website.
From an aesthetical point of view most pre-made templates have quite similar appearances, but they serve a certain type of customer quite well. After small businesses mature enough, these business owners may move on to unique web design.
The easy access to themes and drag-and-drop website makers raises the question of how to persuade your client to root for a unique design. Arguing only from the aesthetical point of view can be successful sometimes, but it’s better to be prepared for when clients want more.
In many cases you need to present a broader approach, and show the client that you understand that a website is not only a fancy online document, but a tool that a company uses to engage its customers, by efficiently communicating with them.
Sustainable web design businesses therefore need to move from web design to experience design. The goal of experience design is to put website users in the focus during the design process, and provide them with a web experience that is easy-to-use, easy-to-understand and culturally relevant.
User experience (UX) design, interaction design, and human-centered design are all the wider approaches of the field we now call web design. Their appearance doesn’t erase the need for web design, but it does turn it into a part of a broader concept. Any design that understands its specific target group and helps in effective communication with them will excel.
The key point here is that any serious company with an online strategy needs to pay attention to the needs, goals and cultural background of its own users to rise above the average.
Generic solutions can hardly be as effective as those that back up their human-centered design with relevant context and constant user testing and feedback.
Of course it is not only the sales pitch that needs to be leveled up, we also need to change the way we think about design.
There have been visionary minds out there who anticipated this change long before. More than 10 years ago Steve Jobs said this about design:
“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
If we think about Apple’s incredible success during the last decade we must say that Jobs knew something. Apple’s products attract people because they are designed with a focus on the needs of their users.
The UX first approach suggests that how things work should always come before how they look, and it’s always your users who can tell the best if something is working for them or not.
The most important thing in understanding how user-centered design works is that users are not like you, not like your client, not like your family or friends. Every online product has its specific target group with specific behaviour patterns and needs.
When you think about the efficiency of your design you need to think about someone who knows absolutely nothing about your product which is probably the hardest part of the design process, as designers and clients usually have a great knowledge about their own product, service or goals.
You also have to prepare yourself for the sad truth: the visitors of the site you design not only have little to no knowledge about the product, but many of them don’t really care about it.
A significant number of users just arrive from a somewhat related Google search or via an incoming link, but in fact the percentage of the really determined visitor is pretty small. You have to persuade them to stay. You have to engage them in the first ten seconds, otherwise they will simply jump to the next site.
To persuade them you need to deeply understand them, their goals and needs. Good analytics can do a lot for you, but good analytics always have to be followed by efficient experience design backed up by constant user testing. One thing’s for sure, shiny buttons, glossy elements won’t keep them on your site. However they can complement well a smart user experience strategy.
People also tend not to like thinking too much, in plain words, they eat what you serve them. Most of your visitors don’t make optimal choices but they make the easiest one. So they won’t dig up your site for content that would interest them.
That’s why it’s essential to know what to put on your home page over the fold and on other important spots. Thorough research of the target audience, usability tests and a deep understanding of human psychology help you understand how to structure the site the best way – in a way that serves users the best and provide the most conversions to your client.
User experience and the ways of interaction need to be planned first to make the website a communication channel that can compete with mobile apps and other new technologies.
Visual design has its place in the next step in this more complex design strategy, and visual elements need to be built in a way that complements the user experience design. The great news is that this wider approach requires even more creativity than ever.
Designers who can move towards experience design will always be in need as the online landscape becomes more and more competitive.