Thursday, 16 July 2015

Why Web Design is such a pig

Introduction

I remember writing an article a while back about the argos.co.uk website and how very poorly it was designed. It kind of looks OK on paper, the colours are fairly consistent and the layouts are varying shades of average but trying to actually interact it with was painful (it's slightly better but still has some problems).

How can someone like Argos get it so wrong? Let's be honest, the site probably cost several hundred thousand pounds to produce, either in contractor or Argos time and salaries so it pains me that something is already so poor at time of release (as opposed to a site that starts to feel old over time).

The reason is mostly because design is a pig. There are sometimes technical issues but in my experience, most of the difficult things in the technical area are related to design decisions. There are various reasons why design is a pig, some of them easier to fix than others but they all add up to the mess that most of us experience.

1.Terminology

Terminology is really important in so many fields, including software development. We still use this idea of Design/Build, something that has probably been around since the stone-age, despite the fact that software is much more subtle than that.

Software is actually a combination of several different but inter-related practices. The look and feel of the software, the functionality of it, the user journey design and the technical decisions all add up to that single entity that exists in many an amateur's mind: "the product" or the "web site".

Why is this important? Because most web design companies do not have people who specifically look after each of those areas. Sure, they will have "designers" and they will have "developers" but whose job is the functional design? Who is supposed to ensure the user journey works or that we are not asking developers to do things that will cost far more in time than they are worth in usability?

Even the phrase "Designer" irks me in this world of software. What is a Designer? They design stuff? Like what? They definitely do the obvious stuff like choosing Lime Green and Sunbeam Yellow to form a colour pallette but since these designer jobs tend to attract artists, you end up with very nice graphical work but still a vast void between that and the code that needs to make that design happen. We should not be allowed to use phrases like Web Designer but should be more specific. Graphic Designer for Web or User Experience Designer or something.

2.Most design tools are not web friendly

What do most "designers" use for web designs? Photoshop! Of course, the de-facto leader of the pack, the only package that is cool enough to be allowed in Web Design but apart from some small add-ons for web, this package is totally not designed for web application design. It is a glorified photo-editor. What do you get sent from these tools? A load of HTML that can be the start of a web site? Nope. A load of Photoshop or PNG format drawings that a developer has to chop up into individual images.

Back in the day, this was not ideal but was OK because sites were sites were sites but now it is not acceptable to not consider designing for mobile. How do "designers" design for mobile? Many don't - it's the developer's job to work it out and of course because the developer decides, once it is finished, a load of people will disagree with those decisions and make them change it - each of these a potential bug, another load of time and money that either has to be coughed up by the customer or swallowed by the developer. Those that do will often send a second set of drawings showing mobile layouts but again, this can be unhelpful. The two layouts are actually the same site in most cases and why should the developer waste time trying to work out how to make the site respond in the correct way for two drawings that took an hour to draw on Photoshop?

Adobe do actually produce a tool called Edge Reflow, which looks interesting because it allows designers to consider many of these things earlier so if they don't work, it can be designed out now rather than after the developer has either hacked something together or made it work using loads of duplicate code. However, I have never seen one of these designs or what they look like as a design source for the developer, I would like to though!

3. Customers don't know anything

If you went to a doctor for some surgery, would you tell her which way she should cut into you or which part of the liver to remove? No, because she is a doctor and you are not. You might know some stuff about it but you still trust their decision and you know that they don't really care about your opinions.

One of the most annoying things in Web Design is customer input - that is "design" decisions given by the person paying you to build the site. Of course, they are the customer so they get to choose right? Actually, not really. If you let a customer walk all over you, then you probably have an issue with assurance. If they don't believe that you will do something well, they are likely to try and direct it too much. If they do trust you, then you can be nice and clear with them that they get top-level input into the general style of the web site but otherwise you will decide what looks good and what is usable because you are the experts.

We often get this wrong and it can be hard but you should be good enough at your job that if somebody is really insistent on controlling everything, you turn down their work. I have seen some shocking web sites and they have a link to some company "web design by..." and I think to myself that there is no way I would put my name on a site so badly implemented. I would not use that company purely on the basis of one terrible web site so be warned, that site that you take on because you think you need the work might also be the reason why you don't get any more!

4.Functional design is missing

This is pretty common on smaller web sites but who is designing, documenting and SIGNING OFF the functionality of the site? This relates to issue 3 because part of the problem is often that the customer does not actually know what should happen where. Why take on the job if that can't be agreed up front and signed off? Do you think it will come out in the wash because it won't! For any site other than the most basic shop stuff, it is madness to design a site with no functional design.

Employing a Business Analyst is not high on the list of priorities for a web design company but why not? For their wages, which can be half that of a developer, you can employ somebody who is really good at simplification, spotting inconsistencies, nailing customers down to make decisions and producing something that is MUCH easier to work from for a Developer than some half-arsed drawings made on post-it notes. If you are a small company, this person could do other jobs if there isn't enough work but actually functional design is a pretty involved job that reduces the cost of design changes because they are made before the technology has been developed and becomes a risky place to make changes.

5.No-one owns User Experience

I am shocked by how many web sites of all different qualities fail in the most fundamental way: A user needs to do whatever they need to do on your web site as easily as possible!

Your site can look amazing and achieve some slick functional goals but yet the user cannot find out how to journey through the site. This might be because of major bugs but is more likely because the customer and web company did not actually think about things from a user's point of view. Your users may have a wide range of technical abilities, ages, races or whatever might affect their ability to use your site. Just because the Developer could get round it doesn't mean that someone's Grandma will be able to.

User Experience and Design are linked because some things are potentially related to both like the colour and size of buttons but other things exist above the level of design. How do I lead my users through this web site? How will they know what to press? Where do they get taken to after certain things happen like adding items to the shopping basket? Where does it make sense for them to go.

Some of this is, of course, subjective but there are still things that are just considered good practice - period. Navigation must be obvious and not too many levels deep. Button colours need to reflect the seriousness of the action - deleting an account should probably be red or orange as a warning. Update my details should be green because it is saying, "yes, you've finished". You can also cary out user tests if you are unsure, there are companies who provide this or you can organise them yourself with local schools or old peoples homes or whatever.

At the end of the day, you need someone with influence who can fight for the user experience and make sure that no other decisions impact this badly.

6.Design is not always documented

If your company is heavily biased towards Developers then it is likely that you don't like documentation. Graphic Designers are also very keen on making pretty drawings but not documenting their decision process.

A few years ago when we first started designing our product at PixelPin, I wanted that design decisions need to be documented so that if a change was needed, we would know whether we were making things better or regressing. For example, we might have moved a button because user testing showed that the only way for them to press it was to move it away from other buttons. If we know that and someone suddenly wonders about moving the buttons, we can take a view on whether the original decision is still valid. We didn't do this and have paid the price in certain ways.

Let's be honest, designers are known for creativity, not for technical detail and documenting these things is probably not what graphic designers want to spend their time doing but actually, it is part of the process and an important part too. Branding agencies are better because they often have to justify their time and choices more clearly to their customers but as with all jobs, a critical part of being good at your job is knowing what you are doing well or not and changing something to make you do better.

Conclusion

Although we might not think we have the money to have everything the way we want it, there are two types of companies: those who strive towards the way things should be or those that don't bother trying. Guess which ones do the best?

These are just some of the issues in moving from decision to product in the world of web design and there are others but if you actually work out in your own company who should be doing these and educate your customers that these are not just nice-to-haves or excuses to charge money but are a way of making the process robust, the decisions transparent and agreed as well as producing a site that is attractive, usable and consistent.

What will you do?

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