Skip navigation
Help

Jared Comis

warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/vhosts/sayforward.com/subdomains/recorder/httpdocs/modules/taxonomy/taxonomy.pages.inc on line 33.

  

For years you have been searching for it. You hear the question being asked in your dreams as you go on an Indiana-Jones-type-crusade to find the answer. When the answer comes to you, you know that the confetti will fall from the ceiling and the band will start playing your favorite song. You might even get a kiss from that special someone. So what is this question?

What is the secret to Web design?

A tough question and one that might not have an answer. In 2006, Oliver Reichenstein wrote Web Design is 95% Typography. Some people loved it, others were not so amused. If Web design was based that much on typography, then what was the point of learning anything else? All you needed to do is understand the elements of typography and you were good to go.

Of course typography doesn’t mean font selection. With the advent of @font-face and services such as Typekit, Webtype, Fontdeck, and Google Web fonts, your skills in typography won’t improve. You can easily create wonderful designs with one font for the rest of your life if you choose to—they had to do it centuries ago and they didn’t have Photoshop sticking things to guides for them. If anything, more font selection will make things worse for you because creativity and beauty become hard to achieves when more options are given to us.

More toys means more fun though, right? If you want to go that route, then by all means go for it. I love to look at the different fonts being used and admire anyone that can successfully pull off using newer fonts for the Web. However, I’ve seen too many times what can happen when development options are given to the masses, and it isn’t pretty (re: Myspace). Instead of having a user agreement it would be cool if Typekit made you read a book on typography before you could begin using a font—the Web would improve tenfold, if that was the case.

I’m not being sarcastic, saying that is all you need to know for a majority of websites. Try going through all of the Web designs that you love, strip out the images and ask yourself “how would that website look with just text and spacing?”. When designers say “text is the interface”, they really do mean it. The iA site is a great example of that.

Information Architects
Information Architects is based around strong typography.

One of my all time favorite designs is A Working Library. The site is a showcase of text being the interface. The spacing is just right and the typography is on point.

A Working Library
A Working Library by Mandy Brown.

Some people find design like this to be dull and boring, they feel that design should have more pop to it. At the end of the day some extra visual flair might be what separates your design from the rest, but you need to get the first 95% down. The website that you are reading this article on now has done a wonderful job of presenting a visual design that isn’t reliant on images to be beautiful.

Well That Isn’t Hard

It’s possible to create a wonderful design without the use of images at all. I know that sounds crazy, but it is possible. I’m not saying it should be done, but if we can create elegance simply with typography and white space, then why shouldn’t we be able to create greatness when we start throwing in images, videos and other effects?

With the use of images I’m not talking about images that are needed to represent something such as icons, but images that are there for flare. Sometimes a picture is worth at least ten better words than any word you could use, so it’s better to go with an image (but you still need to consider using white space with it).

Here are two more examples of beautiful websites that place a heavy emphasis on typography to control the design. The first is Blake Allen Design and the second is The Harriet Series (both use images to represent their typography, but you get the point).

Blake Allen Design
Blake Allen Design uses images, but with great typography.

The Harriet Series
The Harriet Series by OkayType.

What makes the two designs above so interesting to me is that the typography not only guides you along a journey, but it does so with personality. You almost feel as if the typography is an expression of the person that designed it. Blake Allen uses Helvetica which gives the website a Swiss, clean and structured personality. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Harriet Series website is a bit more playful and experimental—there is beauty in the organized chaos that the typography creates.

For 99% of the designs out there, typography and white space are going to be your underlying foundation. So if you can’t get them right, then the rest of your design has nothing to stand on. Stop worrying about the pop of your design and first worry about how it will stand tall. Once you get that down then you can begin to dress it up.

Clear is a very simple to do list application for iOS devices. While the majority of the excitement around it are the gestures used to control the interface, you will notice that the typography does enough to get out of the way and allow you to enjoy the application. Sure it is nothing more than Helvetica, but what if it was Comic Sans and had bad spacing all around? Great typography doesn’t have to stand out in a good way, but that doesn’t mean it should do enough harm when it stands out in a negative way, either.

Typography In Other Disciplines

Art of the Menu
Art of the Menu is a great website on menu design.

The Art of the Menu does a great job of showing the importance of typography in menu design. While a lot of restaurants like to add images and illustrations to their menus to give them a bit more pizzaz, they fail in providing a decent typographical structure that allows you to easily browse through the menu.

If you are a designer you have no excuse to say you can’t come up with a decent design. When you create a design that lacks a strong foundation, anything else you add to it is just going to make it worse. Too many designers attempt to save their designs with fluff without understanding they are pouring gasoline onto the fire. If a design is not enjoyable to read then it is not an enjoyable experience, no matter how many images, colors or sounds you decide to add to it.

Looking to understand typography a little bit better? Not too long ago Smashing Magazine did a comprehensive overview of some wonderful typography tools and resources.

(jvb)

© Paul Scrivens for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

0
Your rating: None

  

In my nearly two decades as an information architect, I’ve seen my clients flush away millions upon millions of dollars on worthless, pointless, “fix it once and for all” website redesigns. All types of organizations are guilty: large government agencies, Fortune 500s, not-for-profits and (especially) institutions of higher education.

Worst of all, these offending organizations are prone to repeating the redesign process every few years like spendthrift amnesiacs. Remember what Einstein said about insanity? (It’s this, if you don’t know.) It’s as if they enjoy the sensation of failing spectacularly, publicly and expensively. Sadly, redesigns rarely solve actual problems faced by end users.

I’m frustrated because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why redesigns happen, and some straightforward and inexpensive ways we might avoid them.

The Diagnostic Void

Your users complain about your website’s confounding navigation, stale content, poor usability and other user experience failures. You bring up their gripes with the website’s owners. They listen and decide to take action. Their hearts are in the right place. But the wheels quickly come off.

Most website owners don’t know how to diagnose the problems of a large complex website. It’s just not something they were ever taught to do. So, they’re put in the unfortunate, uncomfortable position of operating like country doctors who’ve suddenly been tasked to save their patients from a virulent new pandemic. It is their responsibility, but they’re simply unprepared.

Sadly, many website owners fill this diagnostic void — or, more typically, allow it to be filled — with whatever solution sounds best. Naturally, many less-than-ethical vendors are glad to dress up their offerings as solutions to anyone with a problem — and a budget. The tools themselves (search engines, CMS’, social apps) are wonderful, but they’re still just tools — very expensive ones, at that — and not solutions to the very specific problems that an organization faces. Without proper diagnostics to guide the configuration of tools, any resulting improvements to the user experience will be almost accidental.

Sometimes design agencies are brought in to fill the diagnostic void. And while not all agencies are evil, a great many follow a business model that depends on getting their teams to bill as many hours as they can and as soon as possible. Diagnostics can slow the work down (which is why clients rarely include a diagnostic phase in their RFPs). So, many agencies move to make a quick, tangible impression (and make their clients happy) by delivering redesigns that are mostly cosmetic.

A pretty face can last only a few years, but by then the agency is long gone. Invariably, the new owner wishes to make their mark by freshening or updating the website’s look. And another agency will be more than happy to oblige. Repeat ad nauseam, and then some.

Oh, and sometimes these redesigns can be pricey. Like $18 million pricey.

See why I’m so grouchy?

Forget the Long Tail: The Short Head Is Where It’s At

Whether you’re a designer, researcher or website owner, I’ve got some good news for you: diagnostics aren’t necessarily difficult or expensive. Better yet, you’ll often find that addressing the problems you’ve diagnosed isn’t that hard.

And the best news? Small simple fixes can accomplish far more than expensive redesigns. The reason? People just care about some stuff more than they care about other stuff. A lot more. Check this out and you’ll see:

This hockey-stick-shaped curve is called a Zipf curve. (It comes from linguistics: Zipf was a linguist who liked to count words… but don’t worry about that.) Here it is in dragon form, displaying the frequency of search queries on a website. The most frequently searched queries (starting on the left) are very, very frequent. They make up the “short head.” As you move to the right (to the esoteric one-off queries in the “long tail”), query frequency drops off. A lot. And it’s a really long tail.

This is absolutely the most important thing in the universe. So, to make sure it’s absolutely clear, let’s make the same point using text:

Query’s rank
Cumulative %
Query’s frequency
Query

1
1.40%
7,218
campus map

14
10.53%
2,464
housing

42
20.18%
1,351
web enroll

98
30.01%
650
computer center

221
40.05%
295
msu union

500
50.02%
124
hotels

7,877
80.00%
7
department of surgery

In this case, tens of thousands of unique queries are being searched for on this university website, but the first one accounts for 1.4% of all search traffic. That’s massive, considering that it’s just one query out of tens of thousands. How many short-head queries would it take to get to 10% of all search traffic? Only 14 — out of tens of thousands. The 42 most frequent queries cover over 20% of the website’s entire search traffic. About a hundred gets us to 30%. And so on.

It’s Zipf’s World; We Just Live in It

This is very good news.

Want to improve your website’s search performance? Don’t rip out the search engine and buy a new one! Start by testing and improving the performance of the 100 most frequent queries. Or, if you don’t have the time, just the top 50. Or 10. Or 1 — test out “campus map” by actually searching for it. Does something useful and relevant come up? No? Why not? Is the content missing or mistitled or mistagged or jargony or broken? Is there some other problem? That, folks, is diagnostics. And when you do that with your website’s short head, your diagnostic efforts will go a very long way.

The news gets better: Zipf is a rule. The search queries for all websites follow a Zipf distribution.

And the news gets even jump-up-and-down-and-scream-your-head-off better: Zipf is true not only for your website’s search queries. Your content works the same way! A small subset of your website’s content does the heavy lifting. Much of the rest has little or no practical value at all. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that 90% of Microsoft.com’s content has never, ever been accessed. Not once. But it’s a just a rumor. And you didn’t hear it here.) Bottom line: don’t redesign all of your content — focus on the stuff that people actually need.

You’ll also see a short head when it comes to your website’s features. People need just a few of them; the rest are gravy.

And there’s more. Of all the audience types that your website serves, one or two matter far more than the others. What tasks do those audience types wish to accomplish on your website? A few are short-head tasks; the rest just aren’t that important.

As you can see, the Zipf curve is everywhere. And fortunately, the phenomenon is helpful: you can use it to prioritize your efforts to tweak and tune your website’s content, functionality, searchability, navigation and overall performance.

Your Website Is Not A Democracy

When you examine the short head — of your documents, your users’ tasks, their search behavior and so forth — you’ll know where to find the most important problems to solve. In effect, you can stop boiling the ocean…

Ocean

… and start prioritizing your efforts to diagnose and truly solve your website’s problems.

Now, let’s put these short-head ideas together. Below is a report card for an academic website that starts with the short head of its audience:

In other words, of all the audience types this university website has, the three most important are people who might pay money to the university (applicants,) people who are paying money now (students) and people who will hopefully pay money for the rest of their lives (alumni). How do we know they’re the most important audiences? We could go by user research; for example, the analytics might suggest that these audiences generate more traffic than anyone else. Or perhaps the university’s stakeholders believe that these are the most important ones in their influence and revenue. Or some combination of both. Whatever the case, these three audiences likely swamp all other segments in importance.

Then, we would want to know the short-head tasks and information needs of each audience type. We might interview stakeholders to see what they think (column 2). And we might perform research — user interviews and search analytics, for example — to find out what users say is most important to them (column 3).

Of course, as the good folks at xkcd demonstrate, stakeholders and users don’t always see things the same way:

That’s why talking to both stakeholders and users is important. And once you’ve figured out the short head for each, you’ll need to earn your salary and, through some careful negotiation, combine your takes on each audience type’s needs. That’s what we’ve done in column 4.

Finally, in column 5, we’ve tested each task or need and evaluated how well it works. (Because it’s a university-related example, letter grades seemed appropriate.) You can do this evaluation in an expensive, statistically significant way; but really, enough research is out there to suggest that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money on such testing. More importantly, these needs and tasks are often fairly narrow and, therefore, easy to test.

So, after testing, we can see what’s not going well. Finding information on “mentoring” is hard for applicants. And current students have a devil of a time when they “look up grades.”

Now we’re done diagnosing the problems and can begin making fixes. We can change the title of the “Paired Guidance Program” page to “Mentoring.” We can create a better landing page for the transcript application. The hard part, diagnostics, is out of the way, and we can now fix and tune our website’s performance as much as our resources allow.

From Project To Process To Payoff

These fixes are typically and wonderfully small and concrete, but because they live in the short head, they make a huge and lovely impact on the user experience — at a fraction of the cost of a typical redesign.

The tuning process itself is quite simple. It’s what we used to arrive at the report card below:

If you repeat this simple process on a regular basis — say, every month or quarter — then you can head off the entropy that causes fresh designs and fresher content to go rotten. Thus, the redesign that your organization has scheduled for two years from now can officially be canceled.

Your website’s owners ought to be happy about all this. And you should be, too: rather than tackling the project of getting your website “right” — which is impossible — you can now focus on tweaking and tuning it from here on out. So, forget redesigns, and start owning and benefiting from a process of continual improvement.

Special Thanks – Illustrations

Eva-Lotta is a UX Designer and Illustrator based in London, UK where she currently works as an interaction designer at Google. Besides her daytime mission of making the web a more understandable, usable and delightful place, she regularly takes sketchnotes at all sorts of talks and conferences and recently self-published her second book. Eva-Lotta also teaches sketching workshops and is interested in (something she calls) visual improvisation. Exploring the parallels between sketching and improvisation, she experiments with the principles from her theater improvisation practice to inspire visual work.

(al)

© Louis Rosenfeld for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

0
Your rating: None

  

When users land on your website, they typically read the content available. Then, the next thing that they will do is to try and familiarize themselves with your website. Most of the time this involves looking for navigation.

In this article, I’ll be analyzing the navigation elements of a particular category of websites, i.e. portfolios. Why portfolios, you ask? Because they represent an interesting blend of creativity and development techniques. As they offer an intriguing user interface and interaction, this often borderlines with what is ultimately defined as an enjoyable user experience. Should aesthetics, originality and creativity come at the expense of usability? Can they reside on the same website in harmony?

Portfolio Navigation Main Image

These themes will be explored through a brief analysis of eight portfolio websites, carefully selected by the Smashing Team and, well, scrutinized by me! My critique will encompass a blend of usability and user experience guidelines, as well as personal opinion based on my experience. Please feel free to provide your opinion in the comment section beneath this article. Also, kindly note that the websites are presented in no particular order.

Dawid Wadach

My first impression of Dawid Wadach’s website was “Whoa! Mine-sweeping! That’s surely not good usability!” For those of you who are not aware of the meaning of the term “mine-sweeping”, it refers to the the action of moving the mouse pointer over screen components (usually images) to reveal links. Although children like to mine-sweep in order to find links, both teenagers and adults hate it.

Dawid Wadach
The apparent absence of navigation is the first noticeable thing on wadach.com.

It was only after stopping to read what I was randomly and rapidly uncovering with my mouse that I actually noticed that the hidden parts contained the portfolio of websites designed by Wadach. At this point I sat back and started looking for the website’s navigation.

Dawid Wadach
Hovering over the white area uncovers some of the projects undertaken by Wadach.

To be fair with Dawid, the menu is indeed visible as it’s located in the form of a button right next to his logo. My criticism towards this implementation is that after hovering over this button, I expected it to automatically show all the menu options. This was particularly true because there was no visible change in the menu button, nor on my mouse pointer when I hovered over it. Indeed, you need to click on the menu button in order to be provided with the main navigational elements.

That, in my opinion, is not good practice, and I feel that the main menu could have very easily been rendered visible at all times without altering the visual element of the website. Indeed, that is what Dawid did, although he wrongly placed it in the website’s footer.

Dawid Wadach
The main navigation menu on Dawid Wadach’s website.

On a more positive note, with regards to the hover effects of the main menu, they are very clear. The font itself is large and contrasts very well with the semi-transparent black background. The website also includes utility navigation at the top left hand corner, which is a good location for such navigation. It also includes features to share the website via social networks and to remove the mine-sweeping effect at the bottom left and bottom right hand corners.

Ironically, the links to all these features contain a hover effect on mouse-over (unlike the main menu button), which is a good usability practice. Additionally, the designer opted to change the user interface of the browser’s scrolling. In general, this is not a good usability practice, as it makes it harder for the user to locate and use the scroll. However, in this case the change was only done for aesthetic purposes, and the scroll interface does look like and behave like users would expect it to.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I feel that from a design and development perspective, the website is very well implemented. It makes great use of HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript to provide a smooth and pleasant user experience. It is minimalistic and clean, so the user is not overwhelmed with clutter. From a usability perspective, though, I think that slight improvements to the navigation—especially making the main navigation visible at all times—will result in greatly improving the overall user experience, without affecting the whole look of the website.

Harry Vorsteher

When you’re greeted by a Flash animation explaining to you how to use the navigation (before actually seeing the website itself), well, it’s not a good sign. I personally think that the majority of users would do the same as I have, and close this animation before trying to understand what was being explained.

Users have become accustomed to certain conventions and are never eager to divert from the way they expect things to look and behave. Therefore, introducing a new, complex navigation mechanism was not a very good choice from the website’s designers (from a usability point of view).

Harry Vorsteher
The website greets its visitors with an animation explaining how to operate the navigation.

Upon closing this animation, users are greeted with two groups of navigation links, presumably linking to photo galleries. The reason why they were grouped in this way is not apparent until one clicks and drags the big wheel that lies at the center of the page. Depending on whether you opt to turn it clockwise or counterclockwise, this will scroll the photos to the right, or to the left, respectively.

Harry Vorsteher
The wheel mechanism that needs to be mastered in order to navigate through the website.

Provided that you notice and understand how to work the wheel navigation—as well as clicking on any of the categories as a means to see the photos in thumbnail format—navigation is painful, but bearable. But the excruciating pain comes when you opt to click on any of the thumbnails to see the large version of the photos.

The website background changes from light grey to a darker shade of grey, the photo occupies a large portion of the screen, and the navigation disappears. The mouse cursor also changes to a “left arrow” when you are close to the left-hand side of the screen, a “right arrow” if you are at the right-hand side, and a cross with the words “close” if you are at the very center.

This will enable you to see the previous photo, go to the next photo or close the current photo respectively. Unfortunately for the user, there is too much movement with the mouse cursor changing shape, the photo moving along the y-axis (depending on the mouse location), and an irritating pre-loader for every mouse click.

Harry Vorsteher
Horizontal and vertical scrolling (without scroll bars) is essential for viewing each image.

Moreover, if the user opts to click on the full-screen option, this removes the browser’s chrome, and further complicates navigation. In my opinion, this website basically sums up why Flash has been branded as evil amongst all usability and user experience professionals.

Conclusion

To sum it up, the user interface and the photos present in this website are truly nice and inspiring, as is the capability of the Flash developer. The navigation itself is very interesting and complex to develop. Thus, from a design and development perspective, the website is truly one to admire. However, I personally think this website is a usability nightmare, and it will inevitably lead to user frustration.

Because of its flexibility, Flash allows room for abuse. Unfortunately, several designers are more concerned with showing off their expertise rather than focusing on the user.

I am not particularly fond of the choice of using Flash instead of JavaScript libraries to create the animations for the galleries. Without resorting to recommending a re-design of the entire website, I think that some quick fixes would be to create a conventional menu which could be visible on every page of the screen.

Also, the photos in the galleries themselves should be re-sized to occupy 100% of the screen size (vertically and horizontally), thus removing the need for the users to scroll in order to see the full image. Finally, the images should be of a lesser resolution so as to minimize their loading time (and quite possibly remove the need for a pre-loader to appear for such a lengthy time as each image loads).

Justin Lerner

I love Justin Lerner’s navigation (and yes, it just happens that he also has an awesome name as well!). Joking aside, I think this website proves that usability can indeed be aesthetically pleasing. The main menu is conveniently and prominently placed horizontally, just below the logo. This is the exact place where users are most likely to search for it. It contains just five items, each of which corresponds to the five sections of the website. The font is large and visible, and each menu item changes color on hover.

Justin Lerner
This website adopts a grid approach so as to facilitate navigation.

Interesting too is the fact that the content belonging to each category is rendered more visible on mouse-over whilst highlighting the menu item to which that category belongs. When clicking the menu item or section, it expands in order to show the full content of that section. This implementation enables all of the website to be visible on a single page without cluttering the user interface.

Justin Lerner
The selected section takes center stage by expanding over the inactive ones. It is also highlighted in the second menu at the top.

What I am not entirely convinced of with this website is the need for the duplicate menu that resides just above the main menu. From an aesthetic perspective, it is modern and blends in very well with the overall look and feel of the website. However, from a usability perspective, having two menus with the same content usually confuses users as they try to click on the same-named section in both menus to see if it’s loading any different content.

Still, in this particular case, the smaller menu is doubling up as a sort of breadcrumb in order to show users which section they are currently viewing. Yet again, breadcrumbs have their own, specific usability guidelines, and it is recommended that they are adhered to.

Justin Lerner
The secondary menu (brown) replicates the same items as the main menu (grey).

Conclusion

In general, I feel the designer here did a great job in blending great design practices and good coding techniques to provide an aesthetically pleasing (and generally usable) website. Slight modifications can be introduced to improve the usability without adversely affecting the design, such as removing the duplicate menu and replacing it with a breadcrumb trail (although I seriously doubt that a breadcrumb trail is needed).

Additionally, the website would be better off from a usability perspective if more white space is introduced and the typography is more contrasting, since one needs to hover over the content in order to distinguish it well from its background.

Shelton Fleming

My experience with the Shelton Fleming website was very particular as it started off on a bad note, but quickly transformed into a most enjoyable one as I browsed through it. What ticked me off initially was the first screen that greets you when visiting the website; this consists of a yellow box containing the word “Ideas” in grey, and a grey box placed next to it containing the word “Experience” in yellow.

Shelton Fleming
Visitors are greeted with a splash page-like screen that fails to explain the brand identity in an obvious way.

The apparent lack of navigational elements frustrated me because I mistook this page with a splash page (which is a big no-no in usability since users can’t stand them). It is only when revisiting this page (after spending some more time on the website) that I noticed that the conversion of ideas into experience is actually the company’s tag line. Viewed from this perspective, this makes sense from a user experience perspective, as it emphasizes the company’s branding.

Shelton Fleming
The website’s hierarchy and navigation is clearly indicated through imagery and normal conventions such as highlighting.

In fact, the concept of “Ideas” and “Experience” dictates the website navigation—each section resides at opposing ends of the screen along the horizontal plane. Hovering over each of the two sections reveals a vertical side menu with intuitively-named, visible menu items. Good usability practice is also implemented through the changing of the menu text on hover.

Also, the arrow that appears on hover is a good indication to the user that the content of each menu item will be displayed right next to it—something which actually happens when clicking on the menu items.

Shelton Fleming
Color is also effectively used to indicate hierarchy and navigation options.

Conclusion

Consistent and intuitive navigation, large sans-serif fonts contrasting sharply with their background, unobtrusive imagery, and ample use of white space makes navigating through this website an enjoyable experience. Still, I would recommend removing the splash page-like design that is set up to greet visitors. It offers very little information about how it should be interpreted. Moreover, there is a very strong branding element throughout the website—thus eliciting very little need to have a page at the beginning that risks irritating users.

Chris Wang

This website prominently revolves around the projects that Chris Wang has undertaken. In fact, the first thing that one sees is a list of project titles and accompanying icons that open up in an accordion style when clicked on (revealing a gallery of images related to the project in question).

Chris Wang
At first glance it’s not immediately evident that this is a list of projects undertaken.

The project titles have a sleek orange transition on mouse hover which indicates that they are clickable. One point of criticism would be that the list of projects is not immediately evident as to what they are—the word projects next to the first listed item is a grey barely lighter than the background.

Chris Wang
The accordion effect is coupled with a horizontal gallery of the project being viewed.

Additionally, the website offers a handy keyboard navigation mechanism that uses arrow keys to enable rapid (albeit sequential) browsing of the projects.

Chris Wang
A horizontal dark yellow fill is used to indicate what is clickable.

Conclusion

Overall, the navigation is quite intuitive. It is relatively easy to switch from one project to another, and to drill down to see more screenshots from the same projects. One aspect that can be improved is the ability to close a project after viewing it, since a project always needs to be open at any given point in time. Although this first project will be replaced by clicking on a new one, the project currently being viewed takes up precious real estate that would be better used by showing the list of projects.

Jessica Caldwell

This website makes extensive use of mine-sweeping for the purpose of navigating, effectively breaking all navigation usability conventions. In a desperate attempt to find information about the owner of the website, I scrolled below the fold and located the footer which contains a list of non-clickable items grouped under the titles “Agencies” and “Brands”. The only links in the footer are those for social media and portfolio websites of the website owner (all of which link to external websites).

Jessica Caldwell
Navigation in this website is only visible on mouse hover.

Defying the odds that a user would still attempt to browse the website at this point, I decided to mine-sweep each diamond present in the home page in order to locate basic information (such as a biography of the author and contact details). It is at this point that I noticed that the diamonds contain both items that would be classified as projects done by the author, as well as the website information that I was looking for. In a typical mine-sweeping implementation, there is no apparent hint as to which diamond holds which information.

Jessica Caldwell
One of the projects uncovered by hovering over the diamond shapes.

Clicking on any of the items in the diamonds results in the content being loaded inside all the other diamonds, with the navigation retaining its place on the same diamonds. From a visual perspective, the result is quite appealing. However, this does not improve the usability in any way.

Jessica Caldwell
Clicking on any of the navigation items opens content in the same diamonds used for navigating.

Conclusion

The website offers plenty of white space—something that generally is good for usability. Aesthetically, it’s also very pleasing. Thus, in my opinion to improve the usability, the main focus should be on improving the navigation by placing a conventional menu in the top part of the website (maybe repositioning the logo towards the top left-hand side) and placing a simple menu to its right.

The diamond design for displaying content can be retained, as I think it effectively contributes towards the identity of the author. Still, I would make it occupy less vertical space so that the footer (or at least the top part of it) is visible above the fold. In this way, users will notice that the website contains a footer.

Whether or not to include clickable links inside the footer is something that the author ultimately needs to decide—replicating the top navigation inside the footer is never a good idea. However, converting the items inside the footer into useful, deep links (perhaps to specific projects that highlight the capabilities of the author) will help.

McCormack & Morrison

I personally think that with this portfolio website, the design agency McCormack & Morrison have done an excellent job translating their slogan “Good Old Fashioned New Media” into a visual experience. Indeed, the website has a strong brand identity and an almost retro feel, with powerful, bold typography.

The only links in the home page are the logo and an “About Us” link, correctly located at the top left and top right hand corners, respectively. Although the “About Us” link is disguised as a speech bubble icon, it makes use of the title tag so that it displays the text “About McCormack & Morrison” on hover.

McCormack & Morrison
The company’s tag line is used to create a strong brand identity to greet its visitors.

Perhaps less optimally located (although at least above the fold) is the “Our Work” button at the bottom right hand corner. I say “perhaps” because I wouldn’t classify this placement as a usability failure, since some people will actually look just above the fold of the website in order to locate a footer. Also, the link is in the form of a button—which in itself encourages users to click on it. Missing this button would really be a pity, because this is when you would realize that the website is indeed a one page website—it scrolls vertically to reveal projects undertaken by the agency, and horizontally to see more screenshots of the same project.

McCormack & Morrison
The projects can be viewed either by using the arrow keys or the navigation at the bottom of the website.

When viewing these projects, the “our work” button is replaced by arrow buttons that facilitate the browsing of each project. Although it is not mentioned on the website (which is a pity, really), the fact is that you can easily navigate through the projects using the keyboards’ arrow keys. This enables a very pleasant, yet rapid navigation. Another usability plus is that the website effectively makes use of the screen’s full width.

McCormack & Morrison
The company devotes a lot of importance to branding—hence the reason why each project starts off with the client’s logo.

Conclusion

In my opinion, McCormack & Morrison got most of their usability right. What I would introduce would be the ability to navigate through the projects in a non-sequential manner. While this isn’t a major issue with this website (as it only has four projects), it would be very tedious to have to go through a number of projects in order to reach the one that is interesting to the user visiting the website. Another issue is that there is no hint as to what project will be viewed next without actually having to visit each and every project.

Moka

Argentinian design agency Moka is well aware that its website will attract potential South American, Spanish speaking clients. So instead of offering the standard language changing mechanisms, it makes use of its website visitors’ IP address in order to provide the site in English or Spanish—depending on their location. In fact, manually changing the “/?lang=en” parameter in the URL to “/?lang=es” will yield the Spanish version of their website—this is good usability.

Moka
With an apparent lack of visible navigation, this website had to include navigation instructions at the bottom left side.

However, I would still provide a mechanism for users to know that the website is being shown in this language specifically for them, and provide a facility to change it to select other languages. This is because the user may be visiting the website using a device that is not theirs. Additionally, they may feel more familiar with one of the other languages that the website offers.

Moka
Samples of each project are rendered using the full size of the screen.

Back to navigation. The first thing that you’re greeted with is an abstract design along with the Moka tag-line. Having the company’s tag-line and logo prominently displayed is always good usability practice, because it informs your visitors what website they are visiting. But there is no apparent menu on the website.

Navigation becomes visible in the form of arrows that appear at both ends of the abstract design when one hovers over it. Implementing the website’s navigation in the form of mine-sweeping is never a good usability practice. To give credit to Moka, they do include instructions on how to navigate their website at the bottom left hand corner of the screen.

However, due to the placement (as well as the low-contrast the text has with the background), this is not immediately visible. Then again, if navigation is intuitive, one would not need to provide such instructions.

Clicking the navigation arrows enables the user to browse in a sequential manner through a number of projects undertaken by the company. As previously mentioned, the problem with this type of navigation is that the user needs to go through projects in a sequential manner without getting a hint of what the next project will show.

Also, the project description is barely visible, as it is located at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. If the user fails to see it, then they will not be able to understand what they are seeing.

Moka
On mouse-over, the logo doubles up to show the “About Us” and contact information.

Another usability problem I found is that the logo breaks the convention of being clickable in order to go back to the home page. Apart from the fact that this practice is almost standard today, the website doesn’t offer any other mechanism to go back to the home page other than having to go back sequentially using the arrows.

This is something that is most likely to cause user frustration. Hovering over the logo provides the “about us” and the company’s contact information—not a bad idea in order to keep a clean user interface. However, it is not intuitive enough, since users will normally hover over your logo in order to go back to the home page.

Conclusion

To end on a more positive note, the website is clean, minimalist, provides ample white space, and prominently shows the company’s portfolio—all of these will provide a positive user experience. Introducing the ability to select which projects to view (and to view them in a non-sequential manner) would by far improve the user experience. Additionally, sticking to conventions such as providing better mechanisms to go back to the home page, being able to view the information about the company, and how to get in touch with them, would also be beneficial.

Final Thoughts

Even through a brief analysis of these portfolios, it is evident that a website can be usable while at the same time having a pleasant user interface. While there is still room for even more interpretation, it’s clear that one needs to be very careful to keep in mind that a website has one focus: enabling its users to achieve their objectives—this is ultimately what usability is all about.

In the case of portfolio websites, the users’ objectives may include knowing more about the owner of the website, viewing the projects undertaken by that owner, or contacting the owner. The objective to identify (as well as develop and design) what needs to be achieved is a tough process—but also one that will inevitably lead to a healthy return on its investment.

(il) (jvb)

© Justin Mifsud for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

0
Your rating: None

  

Depending on who you follow and what you read, you may have noticed the concept of “responsive text” being discussed in design circles recently. It’s not what you might imagine — resizing and altering the typography to make it easier to read on a range of devices — but rather delivering varying amounts of content to devices based on screen size.

One example of this is an experiment by designer Frankie Roberto. Another is the navigation menu on the website for Sifter App. Roberto and Sifter are using media queries to actually hide and display text based on screen size (i.e. not rewriting or delivering different content based on context — as one would do with mobile-focused copy, for example).

Having looked at how this technique works, I wouldn’t endorse it yet, because its practical value is not clear. Also, describing this as “responsive” could legitimize what is possibly a less than optimal coding technique. Below are screenshots of how it works on the Sifter website:

Website for Sifter App
Altering the tabbed content in the navigation menu at Sifter. Large view.

How Is This Accomplished?

In this example (and in Roberto’s demo), you’ll notice a couple of things. The screenshots show two versions of the Sifter website at different screen sizes to demonstrate what is happening at two breakpoints.

When you view the website on a large device, the second-last menu tab will show the full label of “Pricing & Plans.” On smaller devices (anything up to the size of a tablet), the label changes to just “Pricing.” This particular example might not be a big deal, but my main concern is that this is being regarded as “responsive text.” It’s not. It’s simply hiding bloated content, and if the content is not important enough to show on smaller screens, then it’s probably not vital at any size.

Does the change in wording mean that information on Sifter’s plans is offered only to users on large devices, or is the “Plans” part redundant? We can assume not, because the tab at all screen sizes links to the …/plans page. This is potentially confusing for users on small devices: they clicked on “Pricing” but are sent to a page that outlines the plans first.

To show and hide the “Plans &” part of the tab, Sifter’s designer has wrapped the element in a span. For a single menu item, this isn’t the end of the world, but good luck going down the path that Frankie Roberto demonstrates with his paragraphs. I can’t imagine what a nightmare it would be to maintain multiple versions of actual page content and then tie them into breakpoints! (Not to mention our earlier question about whether text that is hidden at certain sizes is redundant in the first place.)

Hopefully, we all know to avoid hiding content with display: none !important;. Responsive design is many things; its many little tricks and techniques constitute a wonderful approach to making websites flexible. But hiding elements on a screen in this way should not be one of them.

It’s Just a Demo, Though, Right?

Frankie Roberto’s demo is just that: a demo. He’s clear about that, and he offers a suggestion for a use case. I applaud the effort — everyone should experiment with the Web. The Sifter website is a live website, though — not a demo or proof of concept — and what it has done is being described as “responsive text.”

I’m a huge fan of the concept of “one Web.” If you find you have to hide parts of your content on smaller devices, then you might need to refocus your efforts and write less bloated copy or reconsider your wording of page elements.

One of the joys of working “mobile-first” is having to maintain a sharp and critical eye in order to cut bloat (a capacity we should always exercise, of course). Responsive text seems to be the polar opposite of this approach. You are practically admitting from the outset that too much text is on the page. You are making the dangerous assumption that someone on a small device wouldn’t want to read the hidden text.

Maintenance Problems Will Come Hard And Fast

Frankie Roberto achieves a clever effect in his demo. On a large screen, you see all of the copy. And as the screen shrinks, so does the amount of content (and vice versa, of course).

Responsive text demo on a large screen
Roberto’s full content, on a desktop screen.

Responsive text demo on a small screen
On a smaller screen, the content is reduced.

Achieving this in the demo is easy. A CSS class is applied to the excess paragraphs to hide them.

Some Potential Problems to Consider

  • The copy will have to be highly structured in order for it to be readable when parts of it are hidden on small devices. For example, if a content block has 10 lines, then it should still flow when lines 2, 5, 9 and 10 are hidden on a tablet and lines 2, 4, 5, 9 and 10 are hidden on a phone.
  • The writer would need some mechanism in the CMS for flagging the breakpoints in the content. The method for updating content would end up being rather technical as a result.

If the message you are communicating on a small screen is sound, then there is nothing you could really “enhance” it with. Anything you add would simply be bloat.

Are There Any Potential Uses For Responsive Text?

I don’t think there are. But I realize this is just my opinion, and I encourage readers and the wider Web community to evaluate it for themselves and disprove me with solid examples.

When discussing this on Twitter the other day, I got interesting responses from a number of fellow designers. Many agreed that whatever you display on a small screen should be your content everywhere, because that is the distillation of your message.

Roberto (@frankieroberto) suggests a potential use case for adaptive news content; for example, showing a summary, a mid-length version or the full article depending on the device. This does sound like a useful way to digest news, but in such a fast-moving environment, I can’t imagine copyeditors would thank you for assigning them to write content that adapts so extensively and still makes sense in these different contexts. But it’s something to think about.

Stephanie Rieger points out that producing bloat-free content on a big website can be incredibly time-consuming:

@welcomebrand @froots101 Discussions with stakeholders reveal last round of copywriting took 6 mths End result, hide text on ‘lesser’ screen

No argument there. I’m working on rebuilding a large website, too, and am encountering the same issues. But I’m not sure that hiding content based purely on screen size is wise. If it’s not relevant or worth displaying, don’t simply hide it: delete or unpublish it.

In Conclusion

My interpretation of the Sifter website and what its designer is trying to achieve may be wrong (this is an opinion piece, remember!). Feel free to tell me as much in the comments below. But from my quick look at the design, code and copy, I won’t be embracing responsive text anytime soon, despite it being an interesting experiment and endorsed by some very clever folks.

I struggle to think of a use case that withstands the basic scrutiny that I apply to content for my clients, which is that if all of the content is not good enough to show on all devices, then the amount of content is not optimal. I recognize that this is a harsh stance, so do check out the code and experiments covered here so that you can make up your own mind.

Remember, just because something is “responsive,” it might not be best for your project.

(al)

© James Young for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

0
Your rating: None