Read This and Become a Professional Design Analyst

Today I’m going to talk about the holy grail of design, the one element that you absolutely must nail if you want your Web site to be effective and useful for your readers. By the time you finish reading this post, you’ll know what the most important element of design really is, and you’ll also know how to determine the efficacy of any Web site thanks to your keen expertise.

What, then, is the most important element of design, and how can you become an expert after reading just a few paragraphs?

The most important element of design

Design 101Fancy graphics, a complementary color scheme, and artistic flair are great, but at the end of the day, they’re not the most effective means of improving the experience of your Web site’s visitors. The information architecture (IA), though, can make or break a user’s experience. More specifically, the layout of your site is the most important element of the overall design, and anything you can add that facilitates or improves the user’s experience is simply a bonus.

Essentially, the elements that we typically associate with design:

  • graphics
  • logos
  • bells
  • whistles

are all secondary. Contrary to (what I think is) the prevailing school of thought, these elements should all be viewed as facilitators. The layout and the architecture should beget the “design,” not the other way around. Saying that you’ll “just throw this in over here because it fits the design” is a bad answer at best.

An intelligent, meaningful design process (and the only one worth paying for!) looks like this:

  1. Decide what the important elements of the site are
  2. Decide where these elements need to go
  3. Design an “exoskeleton” that accommodates these elements and provides visual clues that enhance the usability of the site

You’re the expert, and I’m betting you didn’t even know it

When a potential client emails me about conducting a re-design, they are generally asking me to work within a framework where the cart has been placed miles ahead of the horse. The bad news here is that nobody wants to be told that they’re not really going about things the right way. The good news is that I’m freely giving up some solid tips on how you can help yourself, without having to rely on an “expert” who you likely think is charging an arm and a leg for some nebulous crap that probably won’t help your bottom line anyway.

Sound familiar?

The Problem

You want to increase sales/conversions/traffic/effectiveness/whatever. Things have gone reasonably well for you despite the fact that you’ve never really given an ounce of thought to your out-of-the-box informational structure, and now you’re ready to hit the big time with a new design.

The WRONG Answer

Naturally, the first thing you do is approach a designer whose portfolio is stunning from an artistic standpoint. “She really knows her stuff,” you think. After exchanging a couple of emails, you’re off and running. Two weeks later, you’ve got a drop-dead gorgeous new site that is based on the same IA that was driving your old design.

Your site has a great new look, but your bottom line hasn’t changed at all. Your visitors have given you some excellent verbal tips on the design (kudos, if you will), but anyone who’s worked in the service industry will tell you that verbal tips never paid the first bill. You’ve invested in a look, but you haven’t made any effective changes for the user beyond that initial “wow” factor.

The RIGHT Answer

Instead of approaching a designer to get that makeover, you need to spend some time wearing the “project manager” hat. Put some serious thought into items 1 and 2 from the intelligent design list, and look at things from the perspective of the user. Prioritize your content based on value, and construct the framework for your new design by offering value to your readers in a clear, logical manner.

This is the most important step of any design process. An artsy makeover gives something to the user for a split second on their first visit, but a well-constructed information architecture provides value on visits 1, 2, and 10. Oh, and did I mention that it also raises the likelihood that there will even be a 10th visit?

Once you’ve covered the important bases, then it’s time to hire that designer to put a good face on your master plan.

An example: think like a user

To illustrate, let’s look at what you’re doing right now. You’re reading/scanning/browsing my Web site, and you’re looking for information that offers you some value. You’re looking for that personal reward for the time you spend here, and once you’ve either derived a satisfactory amount of value or decided that there’s simply none to be had, you’ll probably leave.

And hey, that’s ok by me. I won’t take it personally :)

Based on this information, then, it stands to reason that the less you force users to hunt for value on your site, the higher the likelihood that they’ll actually find some. If you’re running an online business, this means that users will be more apt to buy whatever you’re selling. If you’re a consultant, then you’ll probably come off as more of an expert than the next guy. If you’re running a blog, then you’ll probably see an increase in page views, comments, and even traffic.

Congratulations, you’re an expert

It seems ridiculously simple, and it is. As with most user-centric topics, the very best answers all involve copious amounts of common sense.

In the case of effective Web sites, users are in the habit of quickly scanning your site while looking for anything that is of interest to them. If you haven’t arranged your content in such a way that they can find it easily, then you’re probably not going to make a sale, score a reader, or generate a work request.

Finally, a quick word on value as it relates to your site

Let’s look at this site for a quick example on value and how it relates to the user. In my archives, I have series of posts on specific topics like entrepreneurship, site improvement, and marketing. I also have some content that is basically useless, but it comes with the added bonus of a cheap laugh or two.

So, let’s say I have four types of content that may interest prospective users:

  • entrepreneurship
  • Web site improvement
  • marketing
  • humor

Based on my topics, I’ve constrained my “interest” audience to only the subjects listed above. Yes, my market is limited by these constraints, but you’ve got to be realistic here – the scope of that market is huge. If you could cater to the entire audience in even one of those subjects, you would be ridiculously wealthy.

The good news here is that I’ve taken the first step towards targeting my users and really driving home value for people who come to my site looking for anything related to my listed topics.

The lesson here is simply to define what you have to offer your visitors, and then construct a design around those offerings.

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22 comments… read them below or add one

Ivan Brezak Brkan July 25, 2006

Information architecture is one of the most overlooked aspects in web design, and I have to agree with you on its importance. It’s both funny and sad how probably the most important aspect of a sites sucess is so easily overlooked…


Aaron Brazell July 25, 2006

Naturally, the first thing you do is approach a designer whose portfolio is stunning from an artistic standpoint. “She really knows her stuff,” you think. After exchanging a couple of emails, you’re off and running. Two weeks later, you’ve got a drop-dead gorgeous new site that is based on the same IA that was driving your old design.

How come that sounds worded directly as a swipe at me? Not worried, but it just seems specific enough…


Damien July 25, 2006

Wonderful article, really enjoyed reading it. I’ve been thinking about how I’ll get away from the current K2 theme I’m using, and this post has done a lot to help me with the planning stages. Thanks for the read.

PS: You’ll be getting a trackback from me soon..


BillyG July 25, 2006

don’t forget to validate


Chris P. July 25, 2006


From the looks of your new design, your information architecture and site viewing options are both different from what they were before. That, of course, would land you on the happy side of things as far as this article is concerned.

I am well aware of the planning that went into that, and I would actually cite Technosailor as an example of a site where the IA was addressed before the new design was implemented.

No need to be insecure about your new site…I think it’s much improved!


Jason Brown July 25, 2006

Great tips Chris and I plan on using the ideas you mentioned on my Internet marketing blog,

By the way, how come you never made it to lunch at Qdoba with me and Ben?


Chris P. July 25, 2006

Actually, I just totally forgot about that between deadlines, softball games, travel, and tennis tournaments.

Summer tends to be insanely busy for me.

We’ll have to plan another lunch, but let’s keep the destination the same ;)


Ben July 25, 2006

Heh, no problem. Some day you’re going to get sick of it though.


Jason Brown July 25, 2006

Don’t worry Chris, I stop by there every Thursday and eat one for you anyways.


Aaron Brazell July 25, 2006

Yes but some of the IA IS actually the same, but I take your point.


Rikki July 25, 2006

And don’t make the copy text 14 point, no matter what some websites on marketing my tell us.


jenn.suz.hoy July 26, 2006

*bows to Pearson*

You had me scared at the start of this article, that you were going to be like all the others I have read and say that the holy grail is this particular design strategy, or that particular design strategy.

But no, you cut through the bullshit and got down to exactly what it is. Nothing fancy. It is clearly the underlying structure.

Excellent article. It hits the nail on the head, and I hope it gets read by those who strongly feel that “[insert specific design style here] will change the world!”


jangelo July 30, 2006

And that’s why Pearsonified is the Best damn blog on the planet.

So, I’ve read your post. I guess I’m going to add “Professional design analyst” on my resume now. Heheh :)

Great read, as always. I guess a lot of us have the same sentiments, but just don’t know how (or don’t have the time) to put them in black and white.


Jackie August 10, 2006

These tips were pretty interesting to watch and should be considered by a lot of site owners that use expensive templates that are pretty good but only at the graphics category and not on the browsing. Anyway, nice lesson and good examples and we are waiting for the next one.


Greg September 1, 2006

Icredible Site, Chris! It’s really well structured and I found very helpful tips. Keep it up!


Howard September 1, 2006

It’s a very optimistic tutorial, let’s be real, nobody becomes an expert after reading a blog for 10 minuter. Still it’s a pretty damn good blog. Nice work!


Brad October 24, 2006

So, is this the same as the “funnel”?


Chris P. October 24, 2006

I’m not sure I get what you’re talking about…


David H November 2, 2006

Pretty awesome article! It’s tips have become a turning point in redesigning my ‘online resume’ and turning it into a design portfolio home for a freelance/self employed home business set-up.

However, I once design a website a few years back that had alot of the design elements of the upper portion of your website – the tabs and the way the letters apear to be cut out of the page’s paper. I obviously can’t claim originality as somebody else has no doubt done the same thing…which leads me to ask this question.

How do website designers, or designers as a whole, feel about design trends or little design features being ‘borrowed’? I’m not talking about ripping off somebody’s design, I mean the tabbed browsing thing you have going. I’d like to have something very similar to that.

(by tabbed browsing I mean the link at the very top, ‘Home’, ‘About’, etc)


Alvin September 21, 2007

Great stuff, Chris. I’ve only just started surfing your website but there are a ton of great tips here. You’re not only a good designer but a good writer as well – the value of what you say really comes through.


James February 4, 2008

One of the few articles I’ve read that I whole-heartedly agree with! Great to see so many like-minded designers in the comments, too.

I used to think that the larger and more ‘corporate’ a company is, the more likely they were to ignore this sort of advice, but I’ve realised this just isn’t true: smaller websites (without access to/experience in web design) tend to make just as many mistakes. Still, it’s a shame that larger companies, with all their resources, often can’t produce sites with good information architecture.


Link Seeker December 1, 2011

The layout and the architecture should beget the “design,” not the other way around – I totally agree with this.
Web design supposed to be clear, convenient and user-friendly and only then beautiful


Hoot and/or Holler

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