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Why Truly Great Web Design Should Be Invisible

“Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.”

That’s a well-known quote from graphic designer Joe Sparano, and it is as relevant today as it was when he first made it.  What he meant by this is that design should not be a distraction, but should instead always provide a function—and this often means that the very best design does not get noticed at all.

What Should a Website REALLY Do?

If you ask someone what they like about a website, they will probably give you a list of things that stand out to them. They might say how much they love the colors on the home page or how the images “pop”. What they will rarely—or never—mention are the behind-the-scenes elements that the website developers and User Experience specialists have been sweating over for weeks, or months. The elements that allow you to interact with the website without thinking. These are the most important things of all. Not color scheme. Not fonts. It’s the things you don’t notice that are the most important. The fact is that users only care when a website doesn’t work or the design is bad enough to cause mistrust.

Pro Tip – I like to refer to Amazon.com quite a bit for this point.  Amazon is one of the most successful ecommerce companies in the world because of how easy their website is to use and their strategic use of customized content.  Think about your last interaction with Amazon. Can you name the colors? How about the fonts, did those strike you as interesting and unique? Maybe it was that shadow effect in the menu? (Or, was it the lack of one?)  You probably don’t remember any of these but chances are that you found what you were looking for really quickly.

In this article at User Interface Engineering (UIE) from a few years ago, Jared M. Spool talks about the Netflix website. After conducting interviews with users of the site, many of the users highlighted the numerous features they loved—but none mentioned the information architecture, the use of Ajax, and other such elements.  All of these are things that the designers pay great attention to but which go unnoticed by the user. And that’s a good thing. In Spool’s words, this is because “the designers have done their job really well: they’ve made them invisible.”  For the user, it is all about the overall experience rather than any design elements that stand out to them.

Ease of Use Is What Matters

What really matters to your website users is that they can use the site—and enjoy using it.  A great website with great design should be pleasurable to use, and that’s because great design improves the user experience—even if the user cannot put their finger on why they enjoy using it.  Great websites do not call out attention to the design. Instead, they focus on increasing engagement and encouraging people to spend time interacting with the site.

Website users want to use the site; they don’t want to know about how it works. They simply don’t care. They want to carry out a function (reading about a topic, buying a product), and they don’t want to struggle to do it.  If they have to ask themselves how to get somewhere, this isn’t going to provide a good user experience. If they struggle to read the content, they won’t care about the cool typeface you’ve chosen.  In short, how things work is not a concern for website users. Your site should just work naturally.

The Danger of Following Trends

Web design is affected by trends just like any other area of design. Sometimes there is a very good reason for trends from a usability perspective (just look at responsive design, for example).  So trends are not always bad. The danger is when you are following a trend for the sake of it. Or when you want the website users to stop to enjoy an element of the site, perhaps a cool new feature that they have not seen before.  Avoiding such things can be hard for designers—especially when you spend months on a project that does not look like anything special to the untrained eye. But it’s also necessary.

Always Ask This One Important Question…

The question to ask yourself whenever you are putting a website together is: What will this design element do?  Will it improve the user experience? Will it increase engagement? Or are you just using it to make your site look modern and on-trend?  In short, does is have a job to do, or is it just for show?

Design embellishments are a way of showing off. Adding fancy elements for the sake of it is like the writer who draws attention to their writing by using impressive words rather than drawing the reader into the work.  If a design element has a function such as helping to connect with users or improving engagement, then use it. But it you don’t know why you are using it, or you just want it to look good, ignore it.  Always remember that you are communicating through design and that the design should not get in the way of that communication but should aid it.

We Don’t Design Websites For You

We don’t design websites for you, and we certainly don’t design them for us. We design them for your users.  DesignModo talks about how a lot of design involves “feeling right,” about how people want to engage with the site, but they don’t really know why.  This is exactly what guides us when we work on our clients’ websites. We design for the very people who have no idea about web design, who don’t care about typography or color or icons.  We want your users to connect with your site and to engage with it. Not through showing off, but by making your design invisible.

And we would love to show you what we can do.