Something disturbing is happening in web design. Things we once thought dead and gone are returning, bubbling up from under the surface to haunt us.
Some ten or fifteen years ago, designers ran rampant across the web. The new medium was the design equivalent of the wild west. Rules, norms and best practice were still establishing themselves, while designers with no technical or user insight brought their personal visions to every new website they were tasked with.
In those dark times, usability was something close to heresy. A designer’s job was to embellish, and then embellish some more. The key audience was other designers, and the aim was to make those other designers respond with the ultimate accolade: “Hey, that’s cool.”
I should know. I was one of those designers. So while this may sound like nothing other than a personal rant from a poacher–turned–gamekeeper, it’s two recent pieces of reading that suggest those designer egos are returning from the grave.
The Daily Telegraph Science section recently reported that: “the Internet is becoming unreadable because of a trend towards lighter, thinner fonts”.
Finding he was increasingly struggling to read website text, blogger Kevin Marks thought his eyesight was failing. Further investigation revealed a trend towards less usable fonts and colours across some of the world’s biggest websites. Marks let fly with a scathing verbal assault on designers’ priorities:
“To arbitrarily throw away contrast based on a fashion that looks good on my perfect screen in my perfectly lit office is abdicating designer’s responsibilities to the very people for whom they are designing,”
Unfortunately, too many designers see their responsibilities as ‘pushing the envelope’ or some other bilge. When challenged, you may hear pious rationale like “Let’s give the user some credit” or feedback such as “no–one wants a boring web”. As though users would happily sacrifice the ability to use a website effectively just to be able to marvel at some designer’s ego trip. As though ‘unusable’ was a perfectly acceptable alternative to a perceived degree of blandness.
The uninformed designer believes that visual enhancement leads directly to an improved user experience. A giveaway trait of this approach is designers treating content with contempt – detracting from its worth with inaccessible colour palettes, overly–subtle typefaces and overdone graphic treatments.
A further manifestation of this disregard for content and users is BMS – that’s Big Monitor Syndrome. You’ll have seen the type of website: an image and headline so large it encompasses the whole of your screen, forcing you to scroll before you even get a whiff of relevant content. The reason? It’s almost certainly been designed on a 27” monitor, where everything looks great… to the designer. And to them, sadly that’s the only thing that matters.
Another wake–up call arrived in the form of a report from Go ON UK, detailing that 12 million adults in the UK are unable to complete five basic online tasks. The research gives lie to flawed presumptions that people intuitively know how to use the internet, and they will persevere with unsable interfaces and touchpoints as long as they are visually attractive.
This simply doesn’t happen.
We see evidence daily that superior user experiences are formed through empathy with, and insights into, user needs. Visual design plays a part of this but it remains just one component in a wider requirement. The dark truth is that the sheer desire to look cool is still too strong for some designers to resist.
And that desire is dragging old, misguided attitudes up from the grave, summoned by the lure of sparkly new – and quite possibly unreadable – fonts.