Although we've come a long way from the just-build-something-and-they-will-come approach that characterized the early days of web development, it nonetheless remains important to remind (and sometimes convince) clients and decision-makers about the importance of user-centric design in creating truly compelling websites.
In a user-centric design, the content, design and functionality are prioritized, and the user's goals on the site become our touchstone, keeping us on track to creating a satisfying user experience. As we sketch the architecture and lay out the information on the pages, usability is prioritized; we ask ourselves, does this piece of content, this graphic element, or this link help the visitor find their answer or complete their transaction?
The importance of remembering the user continues into the visual design process where we look to human psychology and universal principles of design to inform our choices. Knowing the way the left to right readers tends to scan pages, understanding the importance of white space for “resting” and rhythm, and implementing visual cues and affordances are examples of cultural and psychological tendencies which drive basic design decisions.
Now, this user-centricity of course does not mean that we ignore the stated goals of the site, goals that come down from founders, upper management or marketing departments, but it does mean that those directives must be seen through the prism of the individuals who will actually be using the site. If readers, customers, clients and community members don't feel that the site is meeting their needs, they have plenty of other sites to visit to get the information or experiences or products they need. If designers and developers do not keep the end users in mind, conversion goals and traffic targets are unlikely to be met.
In an upcoming blog post, I will go into further detail on user research and how the needs of your site visitors drives the design process. At a high level, we start by identifying the types of users your site already has and whom you would like to attract. These are your target audiences. From these user-types, we document the tasks and goals they come to accomplish. Mapping these goals to content is the seed for the site map and for the information layout to come.
One of my favorite thing about the user-centric design process is that it allows a satisfying blend of problem-solving/opportunity-discovering and creativity. It gives the information design and development processes a strong grounding foundation from which to work, informed by actual people's needs, while allowing the visual design to focus on how branding and color and typography will reinforce the needs of the site audience and the site owners.
When interface and layout decisions are informed by actual people's needs, as a designer I am able to put on one of the visitor's (well-researched) hats and ask myself the question: if I am this type of person, and I need to find this piece of information, how am I likely to go about it? Thus, user-centric design allows me to honor one of the touchstones of good design: empathy. And that is very satisfying.