Staying in Touch with What Users Want


As web designers, we build sites for our clients based on our own expertise. And while there are tried-and-true techniques for placing items such as navigation and calls to action, other design decisions are more arbitrary. We often end up implementing features the way we think users will want them to be.

While this is challenging for all designers, it’s especially so for solo freelancers and small agencies. Why? Because we often don’t have the budget to conduct real user testing. If you work on a lot of smaller projects, you might have to venture an educated guess or two when it comes to building a great UX. That can lead to some underperforming features.

Plus, there can also be times when our ego gets in the way. The more experience and success you attain as a designer, the easier it is to think that you know it all. This too can result in being out of step with what everyday users expect.

It’s not-so-ironic that I place myself in both of the above groups. Much of my career has been spent working with smaller clients who generally don’t budget for any extras. And, there was a time when I thought I really did have it all figured out (turns out I didn’t).

As such, I’ve tried to keep an open mind when it comes to the usability of my work. Here are a few things I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about designing with users in mind.

Always Choose the Simplest Path

It’s easy to get carried away with design. Sometimes we implement features because they’re part of a hot new trend or they help us show off our great skills. It’s also quite possible to, no matter how noble our intention, completely overthink the design process.

I think it’s a common occurrence to start of with a basic idea that, on its own, works well enough. But then we start layering on effects in an effort make things “perfect” in our eyes. What we don’t realize at the time is that we may actually be making this feature harder for users to digest.

For example, tweaking text colors until they look amazing could inadvertently degrade accessibility. Or a slick animation in a navigation bar might cause chaos for those using an older browser. Then there is that quest to preserve whitespace, sometimes at the expense of hiding important information.

Even talented designers are capable of taking a good thing and wrecking it. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to keep simplicity in mind. Fancy effects are great, but they should only be used if they actually enhance the user experience. In other words, they call attention to the right things.

The key is in thinking about what it is we want a user to do. What actions do we expect them to take? From there, it’s about creating something that makes carrying out those actions as obvious and painless as possible.

A brick path with ivy.

Get Clients on Board

User-centric design doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes, you have to fight for it. Or, at least plead your case.

Clients have been known to share their honest opinions about the designs we create for them. The trouble is that they, like us, are prone to having the wrong priorities.

We’ve all had experiences where a client insists on a feature being implemented in a certain way or with a specific placement. Sometimes, they hit the nail right on the head. Other times, the result is something that pleases them, yet makes the site more difficult to use.

The easiest thing is to defer to your client in this situation, but it’s not the right thing. This is where you’ll need to use your expert voice in a friendly way.

Explain your concerns as to why you would recommend doing something differently. For example, if the goal of the website is to get users to contact your client, show them the barriers that are getting in the way. Perhaps the call-to-action isn’t obvious enough or maybe contact information is too hard to find.

Quite often, clients don’t see things through the eyes of the everyday user. But once they do, they are usually willing to do whatever it takes to increase usability. It’s just a matter of speaking up when you need to.

A woman and man sitting at a desk.

Consider Your Own User Experience

Odds are that you’ve encountered plenty of good and bad experiences as a user. Just think about the websites you routinely visit (at least, the ones that you didn’t have a hand in building). How easy are they to use? What are the pain points that drive you crazy?

Each site, app or even operating system that you use can serve as a reference point. You can look back at them and say, “I love how that works” or “That made no sense at all.” That can and should play a role in your own projects.

For instance, one of my biggest frustrations is a banking site I visit at tax time. Once logged in, it doesn’t provide a clear path to the particular documents I need to access. I have to click around to various seemingly-unrelated pages before I can find what I’m looking for.

While I generally don’t design for banks, I do work on membership sites. This poor UX reminds me to make account information easier to find.

Of course, as professionals we won’t necessarily see the web the same way others do. But we can still apply our unique experiences in an effort to do better.

Frustrated woman looking at computer screen while chewing a pencil.

Learn and Evolve

Regardless of whether or not we have access to detailed user testing, it’s still possible to improve the usability of our work. Some of it is plain common sense. But it’s also about being in the right frame of mind when putting a site together.

The concept of progressive enhancement should always be at the forefront of what we’re doing. That might mean sacrificing a fancy, portfolio-enhancing effect in exchange for a feature that is easier to use. So be it. That’s what we’re paid to do.

And, even if we can’t perform formal testing, that doesn’t mean we still can’t ask a client, friend or colleague for an honest opinion. While this doesn’t provide the same depth of feedback, it is useful all the same.

Afterwards, we can analyze the results and see how effective our decisions have been. We’ll still make mistakes (even resource-rich companies are far from perfect). The important thing is that we learn from them and always strive for improvement.

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