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Users are Defining the Web

So often it’s forgotten that websites are created for the end user. We’re frequently asked to implement certain design elements and functionality at the whim of a business owner because ‘they like it’. But really, it’s our duty to encourage them to think whether it will truly benefit their users and their experience of the site, as well as to educate them of the importance of this fact.

To really appreciate this we need to go right back to when the web was launching itself into our awareness.

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Remember those dark days when we had to wait five minutes before actually connecting to the internet?  Since then we’ve had providers chomping at the bit to sell us the fastest broadband. This has been led by a user-defined need prompted by our impatience.

Once we eventually got online, we were confronted with text-heavy and garish websites containing flashing banners and flashing text everywhere we looked. Usability was probably not even a word that entered the web hemisphere.

But we must forgive the designers of that era, back then they had nothing to go on. They had to boldly make these decisions and learn from their mistakes as they gained valuable feedback. In conjunction with this the W3C helped the end user out by picking up on what would improve their experience of the web and in 1999 the web content accessibility guidelines reminded all that Blink and Frames were evil.

If we look at more particular examples such as navigation structure, we notice that over the years there has emerged an unspoken standard. For the average small business site we design it consists of a Home page, About us, Services, News, and Contact. With the average user making a decision to stay or leave a website after 10 seconds, it means you only have this amount of time to keep their attention and guide them to the next stage. So simplicity has always been the key, and with most of the web using the word ‘Contact’ for users to do just that, if you reinvent the wheel and call it something like ‘hit me up’, your user may not find what they’re looking for.

The same theory can be applied to colours. An obvious example of this is the use of red for sales. The colour is frequently used online and offline to demonstrate that a sale is ‘now on’ and so is inarguably a retail standard across all channels. When a colour has been so deeply instilled into us as representing a certain thing, we immediately make assumptions on what it’s trying to communicate before we even get to the stage of reading the message. If one retailer were to use a different colour for their sale, they risk the promotion not being recognised quick enough.

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Looking at it from another angle, the steady demise of Flash is seen by some as a result of Apple devices and their lack of support, however Flash has never particularly been user friendly especially when it comes to accessibility standards. With more people wanting access to information on the web, and more website owners not wanting to limit their reach, they have to use the options that will be accessible to the largest number of people.

Instead, alternatives need to be found and developed and that’s exactly what we’re seeing with HTML5 and CSS3. Unfortunately though, as with most new technologies, we also have to wait for full browser support before it becomes a truly accessible solution.

But how do we know what our users want?

Google undertakes extensive user testing. Volunteer testers are welcomed into their offices while they film, track and question them using their web interfaces. From this they determine how and where they need to make improvements to their sites.

For businesses where these methods might be a little out of reach, feedback needs to be requested in different ways and tracking can be implemented through various software to see how and where a site might be failing. Then, changes can be made.

There are always those out there who will dare to be different and will want to try new approaches. Some, users will take to instantly, others, will wither away into the web history books. But without these people the web would never evolve.

Users are leading the way it’s just up to the rest of us to keep up!

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