Category Archives: Usability

Aesthetics and the Halo effect – a case for design?

The prettier, the better – by extension

The Halo Effect, described in the link, is a psychological process whereby we develop:

a cognitive bias whereby the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.


Basically if a central trait in someone or something is percieved as ‘attractive’, other traits will appear more attractive by association.
In a nutshell, the prettier your site appears to be, the more usable, accessible and trustworthy it will appear to be also.

Micro management and design woes

In a recent article over at webcredible, they mentioned the halo effect and touched on studies that showed that a lot of users will base their perceptions of how a site performs in terms of usability, security etc, based solely on the aesthetic of the site.

Recently I’ve read a number of articles where designers have lamented the fact that those above them in the work heirarchy seem to see them as little more than pixel polishers – essentially ‘colouring in’ the site around the content, which is usually dictated by marketing or management.

I’ve got personal experience of seeing this kind of micro-management in action at my place of work. Although I’m only slightly involved in the web side of things, I’ve seen the graphics guys and website manager be dictated to on design decisions by people with absolutely no background in design or anything creative for that matter.

The difference in the perception of design between designers and non-designers

Why does that sort of thing happen? Personally I think the problem is threefold.

  1. Management need to feel in charge and often think showing a lack of knowledge on a subject looks like weakness in front of subordinates.
  2. Pick an ugly site from web pages that suck and a pretty one from css beauty. Now ask some non-designer types to pick which they like the best. Because people can tell an aesthetically pleasing design, they often think they should have input due to this ‘skill’.
  3. Design is seen as subordinate to more ‘real’ concerns, such as marketing or information architecture. Usually because a direct and quantifiable path can be seen between marketing and increased sales.

Problems dissected;
1: Management involvement

The first problem is partly one of ego and who ever knew a (micro-) manager who didn’t have an abundance of ego? The only way I can think to get around this is to think of some subtle way of reminding them of the fact that you’re the expert in that area, (at least within your company,) which is why they hired you in the first place.
If they want to do everything, they’d better be prepared to put in some long hours. Hopefully your manager is adult enought that you can approach them with your concerns honestly without taking it personally.

2: “I could do that!”

The second issue is one of perception. It’s like the people who stand in modern art galleries saying “I could’ve done that!” (which is slightly different to those that say “a four year old could’ve done that!”). Knowing what looks good seems to be possibly innate in humans, but is a very different thing from creating something that looks good. Personally I’d try to sneak in the phrase, “viewing is not doing” into the conversation somewhere!
Oh and I forget where I heard this, (I have a feeling it was a comic,) but the best comeback I’ve ever heard to the “I could’ve done that” comment is simply, “Maybe, but YOU didn’t.”

3: Poor little design

The third issue is the most relevant to the Webcredible article. Many times, people in the upper echelons want statistics to quantify and verify that something implemented has been a positive ROI. If marketing puts out a new email, they can use tracking to deliver targeted statistics about a campaign.
With design, this is a lot more difficult to achieve without doing a complete redesign or makeover and judging the results, but if people base their perceptions of how secure a site is or how usable it is, or even if they trust your site enough to make a purchase from it, then surely the case for design becomes that much more important.

Realigning people’s perceptions

People don’t tend to change their minds on a topic without fresh information, so you’re going to have to do some teaching. Get people above you who have input to read the  webcredible article if you can. If they’ll read that, buy a copy of  The Website Owner’s Manual and get them to read that after you – there should be plenty in there to spark debate from both sides. If they get really interested, then grab a copy of A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web – Just make sure they don’t end up putting you out of a job!

So as long as it’s pretty, we’re good right?

Does that mean that aesthetics are the most important part of a website design? Absolutely not. Primary concerns should still be usability and accessibility. Users will still leave an unusable site even if it’s pretty – it’s just that they might take a moment to admire it first.

What about you? How do you explain to people what you do and why it’s important?


Annoying home page mistakes

Just a quick one to have a small rant. We’ll get back onto the main topic soon, (I keep not quite getting around to it… I know, I’m a bad blogger…)

The Builder whose home is falling apart.

(A study in four gripes.)

I’ve seen quite a few websites for web design companies lately – mostly due to scoping out the competition and seeing what sort of prices they charge, what services they offer etc, and it struck me how awful some of these sites were. Some contained spelling and grammatical errors while offering content and copywriting services, some touted themselves as being usability experts or consultants while having sites that were difficult to use and others were just plain broken. As a web designer your website is not only part of your portfolio, it’s the crowning piece. It’s your showcase and as such it should show you at your best, so you should take some time to ensure it reflects your best work. This can be problematic because as the title suggests, we’re all too busy working on other people’s stuff to work on our own. If you’re a freelancer and find yourself with some down time, spend a few hours checking over your site for errors and fix them. If you’re an agency you’ll have to find some way to find time.

But wait a minute – you don’t even have a site up! And isn’t this a default WordPress theme?

OK, you got me. But that doesn’t make me wrong about any of this, it just means that I’m in the early stages of planning to go freelance and still figuring out how to brand myself. (If you are too, I’d recommend this free pdf minibook and this ‘personal vs. business branding’ article.) My girlfriend and I both realised recently that the only reason we knew what the word ‘penitent’ meant was from watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. My point being that although we got that information from a film and not a dictionary, the meaning of the word is the same and so is the fact that we both know it, so you can either be a snob or you can accept that good information is good information, regardless of where it comes from. Once I’ve figured out my brand, I’ll do my own theme and put a site up.

Gripe 1: Asking the client to fill in a questionnaire

Many web designer’s sites include an online or downloadable sheet with a questionnaire that they ask clients to fill in. It seems like a good idea. Get the client to fill in a load of stuff about why they want a website, if they already have a logo, what colour it is, what they want the website to ‘do’ etc… It’s all information you will need in order to understand the client’s business and objectives for the website. Here’s a few example questions from a few I’ve collected:

What is your company profile?

* What do you do?
* How many staff do you employ?
* What is your niche market?Content

* How many pages will you need and what will they contain?
* Do you need help with copywriting?
* Do you already have pictures of your product or will you need help with photography / picture research to give a professional look?
* Do you just require a basic site or would animated pages work better for you?

Here’s another set:

For example, do you want to:
• Generate sales?
• Encourage enquiries?
• Gain newsletter subscribers?
• Obtain information from your audience?
• Encourage them to tell a friend?

All good stuff that will help you understand your client’s needs. Now while I agree that clients need to think about what they want their site to do and more often than not, also need to be educated about what they need to think about, getting them to do it via a form is a bad idea.

“But why?” I hear you cry, “online forms are quick and simple and we can get early feedback and information from the client.” Yes, some of that is true. What isn’t true is that online forms are quick and simple. To you and me maybe, but we’re techies and your clients probably aren’t. If they were, it’s doubtful they’d have need of your services in the first place. So while being faced with a detailed online form asking questions about the nature of your business might not intimidate you, the same may not be true of your clients. Think about it – they’ve come to your site to find out if you can help them, not to spend ten minutes of their day filling in a form when they could be using that time to make money.

“Ah!” you say, “We thought of that! We made ours a downloadable form so people can fill it in at their leisure!” OK, so pat yourself on the back for thinking of the end user and then slap yourself hard on the forehead for missing the point. Using a downloadable form does give the user the chance to fill it in whenever, but do they want to? If they don’t really like filling in forms, (I don’t and I don’t know anyone that fills in forms as a hobby,) then they’ll put it off as long as they can – perhaps permanently.

Besides which, you’ve actually created more work for the client. At least with an online form, they can fill it in there and then and hit submit. With an offline form, they now have to download it, figure out where it downloaded to on their computer, open it (if you supply it as anything other than plain text or a .doc you’re asking for trouble – even PDF’s might require them to upgrade their Adobe Reader…) fill it in, then figure out how to get it back to you – “do I attach it to an email or copy and paste it into the body?” Each of these extra steps is a new opportunity for the client to say ‘hell with this!’ and give up.

Also, using a form is impersonal. While you may do the majority of your communicating via IM, Twitter, Forums and Blog comments, your clients may not. Most people will prefer a face to face because whether they realise it or not, they are getting much more out of that type of communication – intonation cues, facial expressions (and micro expressions,) body language patterns…  and they’ll use these non-verbal channels to determine if they want to do business with you based on how you behave, much more than what you say.

They judge how trustworthy you seem depending on eye movements and eye contact, among other ‘tells’ and judge how professional you seem to be – usually without even realising. Using a form to conduct your first stage of business suggests to me that your company has trouble dealing with people and that maybe I should consider looking elsewhere. Even a phone call is preferable as a client will be able to discern many things about you from your tone, pitch, speaking rhythm and speed, such as how friendly you are. Meeting or calling a client makes it personal, it says “I’m happy to spend the time talking to you to understand your needs and do the best job possible.” Using a form says at best “I’m trying to keep you at arms length” and at worst “We want you to do a lot of the work for us“. Faced with that, who wouldn’t start to wonder what they were paying you for? If this happens at the first stage, you’re kind of asking for trouble.

By all means have the information somewhere on your site. Have a page called: Things to think about when planning your website, and put the information there, so that your client can browse through it if they want to – but aren’t forced to.

“OK Mr. Smart guy, what do you suggest?”

Glad you asked:

Gripe 2: Make it easy to contact you

Most sites online have a ‘contact us’ page. It’s become a web convention, just like the ‘about us’ page. Most sites I see don’t use these pages to their full potential. Also, is the ‘contact us’ page really the best way of presenting this information? For all the talk over the years of minimising the number of clicks taken to get to the information required, people have still been putting contact information on a seperate page. Why not have your phone number and other contact details right there on your homepage, thus saving a click? If I go to two sites and one makes me click for a phone number, while the other has it emblazoned on the first page I look at, who am I more likely to call?

Give people a phone number. Many of the sites I visited recently didn’t even give a phone number, just an email address or worse – an online contact form. That really says you don’t want to talk to your clients. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most people have email by now, but don’t have it as the only way for people to contact you. A lot of people will prefer to speak to you on the phone rather than email, for reasons mentioned previously. Telephones are a long established technology that most people are comfortable using. Email by comparison, is still relatively in its infancy, so give your clients the option of how to contact you.

Gripe 3: Learn to write, but more importantly, learn to read.

This is fundamental. If you don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re; write and right; your and you’re; wear and where, (often even confused with we’re and were,) which and witch – then learn! There really is no excuse for bad grammar and sloppy writing, particularly if you are writing copy or content for the client. Recently I saw several web designer’s sites that contained grammatical errors, one of which was so badly written I wasn’t sure if English was their first language or not. If not, then I completely understand as English is generally recognised as one of the hardest languages to learn, but then should you really be offering your services in a language you aren’t native in?

For anyone who speaks English natively or as a first language – you should know this stuff. You should know the difference between its and it’s and when to use either. Apostrophe use is a slightly complicated subject, but there are some guidelines that can help. Usually it’s used in the possessive, i.e. The man’s hand – the hand belonging to the man and in contractions, i.e. That’s  it’s lair where that’s and it’s are conractions of that is and it is respectively. Oh and, before I forget: apostophes only go one way.

It’s the same with spelling -you should learn to spell correctly. Most CMS’s, Blogs and writing software will have a spell checker built in. This is a great first line of defence and it astounds me how many people fail to use it. How can you see a page full of red underlined words and not realise there are mistakes? It’s just down to laziness at that point and is that really the image you want to give out on your homepage?

A better way of doing things is to learn the correct spelling once it’s been corrected by the spell checker. Take a moment out of your day to look at the correction and go, “oh ok, it’s spelled that way.” Maybe write it down on a pad to help really embed it.

What’s that you say? Your software doesn’t have automatic spell checking? Well I’m dubious, but in that case should be able to help. There – now you’re out of excuses.

Get into the habit of proofreading everything. Sorry, maybe that’s a little vague, so let me clarify – proofread everything you write ever, including text messages, emails, blog posts, blog comments, forum posts, letters to your Grandmother, post-it notes – everything. In today’s fast paced world, there is a temptation to just bash it out as deadlines are important and we’re all really busy despite using all the latest time saving technologies (Oh the irony.). Really though, you should be reading things back as you go and at least once all the way through when you’ve finished writing but before you post or send. I know, there’s a really big shiny button that says ‘post’ or ‘send’ and you’re worried that you’ll succumb to space madness if you don’t press it. But hold on there skippy, what if it’s actually a History Eraser Button?

OK, so it’s probably not a History Eraser Button, but it could be a ‘Lose Client’s Business‘ button, if your content is full of spelling and grammatical errors. Hold off on pressing it for a second and read back through what you’ve written. Whoops, there’s a mistake – edit – fixed. That’s all it takes and could be the difference between a client trusting you to write their content, knowing it will read professionally and the client going elsewhere. If you get into the habit of doing this with everything you write, rather than just the stuff clients will see, the effects will kick in that bit quicker.

So far I’ve spotted several mistakes in this post and fixed them as I’ve noticed them. Even grammar nazis like me aren’t immune from making mistakes – we just give ourselves the chance to fix them and avoid looking like an idiot. (If I’ve missed any, please be kind enough to point it out in the comments so I can fix it. You may jeer or gloat if you wish.)

If you’re only ever going to learn one language, then you’d better make sure you learn it well because it’s the only way you’ll have of communicating with other people. There are a bucketload of grammatical points I’ve not even touched on, such as not using commas before the word ‘and’, comma usage in general (use when you would take a breath when reading aloud,) correct use of capitalisation… but to be honest this post is already way longer than I intended and also I’m not your English teacher. If you write or speak badly, you’re basically saying “I can’t be bothered to learn how to express myself properly because my ideas are pretty worthless.” Would you hire someone like that?

Gripe 4: Broken pages.

I had a call the other day at work from a company who used to look after the DNS for our domain, asking if we wanted any web design work doing. Now, their first mistake was that they hadn’t done their homework. (This would be Gripe 5 if it fitted in with the theme for this post,) They had no idea that they used to handle our domain and had no recollection of ever having worked with us previously.

Needless to say even if we had needed work, that would have put me off. I visited their site to have a look at their portfolio and found sites with lots of problems, despite them touting usability as one of their cornerstones. Worse than that, some of their own site’s pages were broken. Maybe not like 404 broken, but images were pixellated or had artifacts due to bad compression, text was unreadable unless resized and my favourite – on their ‘web design’ page,  the image for the web design tab was missing, so that the text link hovered above the other links, the next tab along was out of place and the design, as a whole, broke. Even their ‘portfolio’ link was way over to the right hand side of the page, outside of the main content area, with no obvious styling applied.

Even more sadly, I visited the site of a well known UK design agency and found their main logo/banner was cut off at the right due to overflowing its container’s boundaries. They had an image of a website they’d been working on recently with a text link saying ‘view more clients’ which was virtually unreadable due to being overlaid on the image instead of underneath or somewhere where it could be easily read. Other heading images were cut off too – one even cut off the last letter and a half of the company’s name and this was not due to text resizing as doing so did not fix the problem. A video overlapped the outside of the main content area and a text link for RSS feeds was cut in half by the image below it, making it very hard to read.

I say sadly because this is a company that gives a lot back to the web design community in various ways and whose articles I’ve read with enthusiasm. I don’t want to say much more but I hope someone from there will read this and fix those problems. (I’m using Firefox 3.0.6 on Ubuntu Linux by the way, but I’ll be checking it in IE and FF at work on a Windows box tomorrow.)

The difference between builders and web designers:

Builders generally don’t use their own homes as a showcase of their work – they have show homes for that purpose, so it doesn’t matter if their own houses are in a state of some disrepair. As web designers we don’t have that luxury – our ‘homes’ are the first piece of our work that clients will see. Make sure yours does the job it’s supposed to.

Web design is hard – and that’s a good thing.

So I had a slight crisis of faith the other day and I wrote, (whined?) about it on another, personal blog. I wrote about how much there is to learn, how I’d begun reading a forum and become hopelessly lost, how I get anxious when I read about coding stuff like frameworks and development methodologies, (I ended up reading about waterfall vs. agile just so I knew what the hell they were,) and don’t understand it… basically I’d gotten overwhelmed by it all. It happens.

The problem was that I think of myself as a pretty smart guy, I do ok in IQ tests and the like, although I didn’t excel academically, but I didn’t feel like I was ‘getting it’, or at least, not as quick as I wanted. I work in IT and I can reel off acronyms with the best of them and have trained myself over the last few years in things like network administration, desktop support, router configuration, DNS, DHCP, Active Directory, IIS, I’ve set up web servers and installed PHP and MySQL, I’ve learned enough of those two to write a call logging system… anyway, I cope well with having things thrown at me and having to go off and learn on my own.

So at the moment I read a lot of articles on everything from a beginners guide to creating a CMS in PHP to standards compliant CSS, to… whatever. I’ve bought a small shelf’s worth of books, the last one being Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think!” – an excellent book on common sense web usability, and I already plan to buy more – the next being Jeffrey Zeldman’s “Designing With Web Standards” and it’s starting to come together but, like I said, I was working on a site and I’d basically mirrored what they had and designed a logo and I took a step back and looked at it and… I hated it.

Now, I’m the sort of person that has been arty all my life. I used to draw constantly as a kid, whenever I wasn’t reading. (Or playing with Star Wars toys or Transformers.) I did art at school but never went to college for it. My drawing ability is above average but not amazing. (If you want to see something I drew, head over to my now abandoned-until-I-have-more-time-to-work-on-it comic strip, Exotic Soup, although I do other stuff.) Thing is I don’t have what you would call a natural ability with colour. I know a good colour scheme when I see one. I know a great layout when I see it, but putting a good colour scheme together is actually work for me. Putting together a layout requires some thought and planning. I can’t just reel them off.

I thought maybe I should rethink this whole web design thing. Maybe I’m just not cut out for it, I thought. I like coding sites. I’ve really enjoyed the work I’ve done so far on my company’s site converting it to CSS and XHTML from a table based design. That’s not much different from working on a photoshop comp right? Maybe I should just stick to that.

Then I was watching an episode of the West Wing, (I bought myself the full 7 series boxed set with my Christmas money, along with a few webdev books,) and there was an episode where two of the main characters meet a guy who is struggling to send his daughter to college and he turns to them and says:

It’s hard… I like that it’s hard though, it’s a man’s accomplishment.

And that got me thinking. I read the thoughts of some people in the industry and sure, some of them give the impression that it comes easily, but more often than not, they go through several pages of possible designs before they even open an editor and then they have to contend with accessibility issues, usability issues, browser inconsistancies, lack of support for fonts and a hundred other things they have to keep in mind – and that’s before the whole ‘client’ issue. They don’t generally just sit down, pop out a design on paper and then code it up. There are meetings, research, requirements surveys, accessibility testing, usability testing, debugging…

I bought some graph paper. I ran off some ideas and talked them over with my girlfriend. I tried different shapes and layouts and I’m starting to get somewhere. For colour, I went and spent some time with kuler. A friend recommended “Colour Index” by Jim Krause and it’s going on my ‘to buy’ list.

Maybe it shouldn’t be easy. Maybe, like many things, you have to work at it and earn it. Maybe, at this early stage, I can give myself a break for not knowing everything and look at what I’ve accomplished so far and say, “Not bad. I’ve taken my first steps on a long road.” The thing is, there’s only one way off the road – you can stop at any time and the road just dissapears from view in front of you. Or you can keep going, regardless of stumbles and maybe even the occasional fall and the road will keep pointing the way, onward to the horizon.

I’ve been putting off writing here because I kind of wanted to continue from where I left off and continue with the web standards trifle. That will now be next time, unless I have something else I want to say. In fact I’m going to start logging the articles I read each day as they may be of help to someone. The long ones will be the ‘ongoing story’ so to speak.

Here’s today’s:

Amusing web design pie chart. – some slight bad language, just so you’re warned.

Most used free fonts by designers.

Cheat sheets for web designers.

How to choose the right CMS.


*Edited to include the History of the Internet Video.