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 above, 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.