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It's Not What You Think

webreview.com: Web Graphic Design: It's Not What You Think

At a Glance

In designing Web sites, you can't necessarily trust your intuition. Sometimes you have to consult your audience. Their habits can be surprising -- and informative. One surprise highlighted by Jared Spool, usability expert and founder of User Interface Engineering, was this: graphic design doesn't really matter. In fact, from the user's perspective, bad graphic design can really reduce a site's usability.

Usability: Jared Spool Presents Hard Evidence

Jared Spool (arm raised) takes his students out of the classroom and into the Online Lounge for an exercise in usability testing.

At the start of his all-day tutorial, Web Sites that Work: Designing with Your Eyes Open, Spool says loudly, "I am not a Web site designer." He doesn't do graphic design, development tools, multiple browser support, or sets of hard and fast rules for site design. He simply watches people.

Spool studies how people find information on the Web. "The number one activity on the Web is information retrieval." That is: "finding stuff out." If that's the primary use of the Web, shouldn't designers be aiming to help, rather than hinder it? In part of his tutorial, Spool explained his findings on graphic design and users' success.

Most graphics don't matter

"Our work has upset large numbers of graphic designers."

-- Jared Spool

"Our work has upset large numbers of graphic designers," says Spool. Why? Through research, Spool's team found that graphics neither impair nor improve users' success in finding information. In fact, most of the graphics factors studied made little or no difference, including:

  • Total number of graphics.
  • Graphic sizes.
  • Graphic color.
  • Background color.

Photos do matter, depending on the context. In certain cases, the image is the information. Spool's example: Antique quilt collectors use photos in a Web page to judge the quality of the quilt. But what would investment bankers use photos for? On most sites photos are not going to help a user find information. And simply adding images will never improve a bad site.

"But don't I need graphics for branding?"

Plastering the company logo on every page is what Spool calls, "message branding." Repeated exposure to a logo or slogan in print and TV ads may make the brand a household name. But that's really the only way those media can promote their brands, simply by getting their information in front of as many eyeballs as they can.

A more effective type of branding, which the Web can give you, is "direct experience branding." This type of branding happens when you go to a restaurant, visit Disneyland, or enter a Web site. Your association with the brand (the restaurant, Disney, the Web site) is stronger because you're actually there. You get a feel for the place, and the brand. If you have a bad experience, it won't help your opinion of the brand.

"If you have time, go to a relative's house and have them look at your Web site. It's very hard to do without crying."

-- Jared Spool

Giving users the information they seek is one sure way to improve their experience, and to improve their opinion of the brand. Give them no useful information, and no amount of great graphic design will raise their opinion of the brand.

To designers who say, "Graphics make the site more fun," Spool replies that his research has never shown any relationship between graphics and fun. Users don't look at graphics as fun, rather they say, essentially: 'If I find what I'm looking for, I had fun.' In fact, some graphics can directly annoy users: Spool found that they often cover animations with their hands to better see the text they seek.

Download times don't matter, either

When most people are still obsessed with optimizing download times, Spool says that if you give the user the information they want, they don't care how long the page takes to load. If users believe their information will be on the page, users will wait while it, and the associated graphics, load.

Users do, however, lose patience with non-content graphics and start navigating the site as soon as they see any usable links. A designer is out of luck if the most useful clickable images are the last to load. The user will be on to the next page by then.

What's a good way for designers to improve their sites? See the web site as a user would see it. Access each page via a modem, not from your server or hard drive. Designers must ask themselves, "What does the user really see?" If designers were trying to download 30 separate graphics on a single page at 28.8, they'd get a much better feel for the poor experience of the user.

His advice: "If you have time, go to a relative's house, and have them look at your Web site. It's very hard to do without crying."

Web Graphic Design: It's Not What You Think
The Scent of Information
Real Implications from Usability Testing

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