Balancing Punditry and People
It becomes increasingly clear that a balance between concept-driven and audience-driven approaches must be taken. To do that, it's important to know the concepts of usability, which provides the opportunity to have if not an actual rule, certainly a guideline that can be followed when no audience-driven information is available.
Some of the most practical global concepts in usability include the following:
Keep content concise and clear. Clarity reduces problems with individuals understanding interface and content within individual as well as site pages.
Make it clear on every page where an individual is. (This is referred to orientation in user interface design.) Without a clear idea of where we are within a site, it becomes more difficult to know how to get where we want to go.
Make it clear on every page how an individual can go to another location, including the home page. Remember: Not every user enters from your home page, so constant orientation within the site is critical.
Use Search and place it in a location that is consistently available. Although a Search feature might not be appropriate for every site (especially those that are quite small and not growing per se), the larger and more complex the site, the more important it is to have a ready Search capability to help people get to the information they require as quickly as possible.
Reduce or remove generally known problems such as pop-up windows and excessive banner ads. Pop-up windows and banner ads are two elements we know to be problematic, and yet they persist! If you must have ads, that's understandable, but try to incorporate the ads so they do not detract from the need of your users to get to the content they're after. Eliminating pop-ups is a blessing to all users, as is evidenced by the recent proliferation of pop-up blockers in standalone software and within certain Web browsers.
Keep file sizes small to ensure quick downloading of pages. Of course, this advice has been around possibly longer than usability for the Web has, but it remains a cornerstone of good practices, even for those who have broadband.
Follow W3C standards-compliant markup and CSS for better performance and accessibility. Many of the solutions to the clear structuring of content, ability to serve one file to multiple browsers, and additions of accessibility features come directly from within markup and CSS.
Of course, these are very general guidelines, and at any time, audience-driven concerns may override them. Some of the most practical approaches to dealing with audience issues include the following:
Know your audience! This is the first rule of all aspects of design. You have to know who you are creating for if you want to meet their needs. Failing this critical first rule means potential disaster. If you're creating an on-the-edge gaming site for teenagers, and your designer wants to make it very minimalist by using images sparingly and lots of text content, you will lose the audience quickly.
Audience information comes from a variety of areas: demographic analysis, direct user feedback, and usability testing. Demographic analysis means spending time in planning to ensure that any information about the currently known and future intended audiences are clearly defined. Direct user feedback occurs once the site is up and running. This can be done inexpensively by adding polls and easily-accessed feedback links or pages within the site. Finally, usability testing will be very important for those sites with any significant user base, but costs can be prohibitive, so planning and care must be taken from the outset to accommodate these concerns.
Know the intent of the site. Although understanding the audience must be expressed first, knowing what the intent of the site is matches the audience need one-to-one. If your site's intent is to provide information and resources to individuals suffering from a certain kind of visual problem, naturally you will have to modify your site to fit both the audience and the site's intent. You may have to have larger fonts, for example, or higher contrast pages to assist your audience in getting to the intended information.