There comes a point for any website when more creativity actually becomes too much, and becomes a negative. In this episode, we discuss a couple of important points to keep in mind so that creativity with your web design doesn’t harm your users’ experience.
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- Original blog post: How Creativity Can Kill a Good Website Design by Rafal Tomal
Jerod Morris: Welcome to Sites, a podcast by the teams at StudioPress and Copyblogger. In this show, we deliver time-tested insight on the four pillars of a successful WordPress website: content, design, technology, and strategy. We want to help you get a little bit closer to reaching your online goals, one episode at a time.
I’m your host Jerod Morris.
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Welcome to Episode 14 of Sites.
Last week, we discussed how to create content that deeply engages our audience.
One element of content that is deeply engaging is, of course, creativity. You aren’t going to capture attention, and keep it, if you’re saying the same thing everyone else is — and saying it in the same way everyone else is.
So creativity is unequivocally a good thing.
But like any good thing — basketball, beer … ballroom dancing — indulging in too much of it can have negative consequences.
This is especially true when it comes to creativity and web design.
Now you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, why wouldn’t I want the most creative web design possible? Won’t that help me break through the noise, differentiate myself, and get much-needed attention?”
Sure … to a point.
The key is knowing where that point is.
Because after that point, additional creativity may no longer be helping your web design. It might actually be killing it.
That is the thesis of Rafal Tomal’s blog post titled How Creativity Can Kill a Good Website Design. He wrote it in February of 2016. I’m reading it here in September of 2017.
And while the post is written to an audience of designers — and you may not consider yourself a designer — it’s still relevant to you. Because if you’re creating a website, then you have to pick a design and tweak it, or you have to hire a designer. And that means you need to have some idea where the line is between the right amount of creativity and too much of it.
Here, now, is my reading of Rafal Tomal’s blog post: “How Creativity Can Kill a Good Website Design.” I’ve adapted it slightly for clarity.
Make sure you stick around after the reading, as I’ll have this week’s hyper-specific call to action for you.
How Creativity Can Kill a Good Website Design
How in the world could being too creative kill your design?
I always thought the more creative someone is, the better designer he or she must be. Then, I started studying design more and realized that it’s actually not all about creativity.
Most of us start as visual designers, and then we grow and learn more about user interface, conversion, user experience, accessibility, or usability.
Your creativity brought you here and that made you interested in design, but if you really want to evolve and become a better designer, be aware that being too creative may actually hurt your design work.
Because we’re designing for users — not ourselves. The sooner you realize this, the better. User psychology is a complicated subject, but one thing is for sure: people by default are lazy and will look for the least-resistant way to accomplish their task.
Layouts that are too complicated, solutions that are too creative, and reinvented wheels won’t make your users’ life easier.
So, how can we find a good balance between a creative, artistic, and original design while still making it intuitive, maintaining usability, and providing good results for the business?
Here are a couple of ways …
1. Start with a prototype in mind
According to Google’s research, users prefer websites that look both simple (low complexity) and familiar (high prototypicality).
People make their aesthetic judgment on your design in less than 50 milliseconds. That first impression can tell them if they want to stay or leave your website or how they feel about your brand and product.
As Javier Bargas-Avila, Senior User Experience Researcher at YouTube UX Research, said: “Designs that contradict what users typically expect of a website may hurt users’ first impression and damage their expectations.”
You’ve probably seen thousands of different websites by now. If I asked you to draw a layout of a blog website, it would probably look something like this:
- A header area with logo to the left and nav menu to the right
- A sidebar to the right with a CTA box at the top
- Then to the left in the body section is the main content area
We could repeat this exercise with almost every kind of website: e-commerce, a doctor’s office, university, portfolio, magazine, etc.
A prototype of a blog website has the content area on the left side and the sidebar on the right side. The sidebar has “widgets” that mostly includes the email sign-up form as the first one.
Does every blog look like that? No, but most of them do and that’s why this is a prototypical image of a blog layout.
When people visit your blog and want to sign up for your email newsletter, their expectation will be to find it in the right hand sidebar. How convenient is it when they find it right there and how frustrating would it be if it’s not there?
I believe it’s always good to start designing with a prototype in mind. Then, you can alter it from there and test different ideas and decide how much you can afford to change the original look.
- Variation 1 might be a special widget just below the header that spans the content area and sidebar with a CTA box
- Variation 2 might be a footer widget with the CTA box
- Variation 3 might be the sidebar flipped to the left side.
Of course, everything depends on your targeted audience. If you’re designing a website for creative people, their expectations may be completely different. Looking at a prototypical website could be too boring for them and they may actually be open to a more creative approach from you.
On the other hand, if you’re designing for a non-specified group of users, you may want to go a safer route and stick as close to the prototypical design as possible. Being too creative here could actually hurt the basic expectations, which would lead to confusion and result in abandoning your website.
So that is point #1: Design with a prototype in mind.
Now let’s discuss point #2 …
2. Don’t make your users think
There are many established web conventions and standards like the placement of your logo, navigation, search bar, or login link. There are even conventions for an icon’s meaning, website element names, (e.g. Home, Sitemap, Contact), button styles, layout and visual hierarchy.
All of these standards will help your users to navigate and find what they need much faster. Try to always stick to some of the most popular conventions and use your creativity elsewhere.
Avoid reinventing the wheel. You don’t want to change your users’ expectations from where the navigation is or make them wonder what that icon means. Remember that users are looking for the least resistant way to accomplish their task. So, simply don’t make them think.
Every website has its own level of user interface complexity and a certain amount of content. The more complex your interface is and the more content you have, the more energy it requires from visitors to explore the website.
There are some exceptions when you may want to break the web conventions on purpose. Maybe you know exactly who your audience is and the goal of your website is to entertain and create an environment where your users are having fun exploring your creative ideas.
You’ve probably seen many clever portfolio websites with an original navigation or a horizontal scroll instead of vertical. It is fun to explore these and I’m sure all other designers enjoy it too. It is OK in this circumstance.
Similar creative approaches certainly wouldn’t work for a local library or hospital website, where many users are older people or less experienced web users and they don’t have time or energy to play with your design.
Again, I would strongly recommend to start designing with the conventions in mind, and then try to alter some elements, after testing them first.
Don’t just trust your own gut – see what your users think. If you can afford to come up with completely new design solutions, then you should be able to afford to test the usability of that solution as well.
So, point #1 is to design with a prototype in mind. Point #2 is to not make your users think … at least, not think in terms of how to use your website. You’d rather them spend that time and energy thinking about your content and your ideas, not how to go to the next page.
Now here’s the final point …
Use your creativity mostly in visual design
So, where is the fun part of designing websites if you can’t be too creative in many of the previously mentioned aspects?
You can be and should be creative when it comes to the visual design. Try different color schemes or interesting font combinations. You can play with spacing, visual balance, and hierarchy. Design original illustrations or clever hover and scrolling effects.
Look for creative ways to simplify your design. Minimalism is not about hiding features or content, but about doing less, just doing it better. Yes, actually simplifying design very often needs more creativity than making it complex.
Help your users to complete the same tasks in a shorter amount time using fewer steps. Come up with creative ways to solve your users problems or to increase the conversion rate by breaking your visual patterns and directing your users right into your call-to-action.
There is so much room for creativity in these areas while still sticking to design conventions, standards and common website prototypes.
Don’t get me wrong – be creative and have fun designing websites. Just be careful how and where you use your creativity so it won’t work against you.
Now stick around. It’s time for this week’s hyper-specific call to action.
Call to action
For this week’s call to action, I want you to think about Rafal’s two big points from this episode:
#1 — Design with a prototype in mind
#2 — Don’t make your users think
I want you to think about them in relation to your website and your audience.
What do your users expect when they visit your website? Are you giving it to them? Consider whether there are standard website elements you don’t currently have. Ask some people who are representative of your audience members to use your website. Do they have to think too much?
Try to identify an element of your website that would be a simple tweak but that would make it conform better to audience expectations and/or make the experience of using your website better.
Any improvement along these lines will make your site easier for users to interface with, which is going to bring them closer to taking you up on your calls to action.
And, as always, please feel encouraged to report back to me on Twitter. What did you learn by following through with this week’s hyper-specific Call to Action? I want to know!
Okay — coming next week, we move on from design to technology. We’re going to talk about plugins. They are one of the greatest elements of WordPress. And they are one of the most worrisome and terrifying elements of WordPress. Let’s discuss now to navigate those two extremes comfortably, shall we? That’s next week on Sites.
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And with that, we come to the close of another episode. Thank you for listening to this episode of Sites. I appreciate you being here.
Join me next time, and let’s keep building powerful, successful WordPress websites together.
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