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Why Research-Directed Website Design Will Make Your Website Better

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Sarah Horton, author of Access by Design: A Guide to Universal Usability for Web Designers, presents a case for using design research to reach informed design decisions. It's not enough to rely on your own opinions or those of your clients; she posits that instead, decisions must be based on an understanding of real user needs.
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For all the glitz and glamour attached to the word, when you come right down to it, design is simply the process of making decisions. Which means that we're all designers, constantly engaged in the process of design. We "design" our days, our meals, our surroundings, our schedules. The quality of our design decisions directly affects the quality of our lives. Last-minute, unconsidered decisions can result in less-than-optimal experiences—like a hectic, unproductive day ending with a dinner of ramen noodles.

We also make design decisions that affect other people. Since you're reading this article in's "Web Design & Development" section, I assume that you make decisions about websites—how they look, how they work, their features and content—and your decisions therefore affect the experience of your users.

Making Design Decisions

There are many ways to arrive at decisions. We can model our decisions after other people whom we admire; for example, current fashion often guides our clothing choices. Depending on your point of view, you can call this "copying" or "standing on the shoulders of giants," and it's common practice for websites as well as for clothing, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Current trends drive design decisions, as evidenced by the similar design approach used on the websites of many apparel manufacturers. When the designs (and the clothing) are so similar, the visitor can easily lose track of which site he or she is visiting.

Both modeling and learning from experts (such as our Peachpit authors) are effective strategies for making design decisions, especially for people who are just starting out. We often begin something new by modeling and following instructions, before we branch out and try different approaches. Learning and transfer—it's how we learn, and how we move from novice to expert.

But another powerful source of knowledge is research—the process of exploration, observation, testing, evaluation, and refinement. When we start our design process with user research, and we let what we learn through research direct our decision-making, we make better designs that are informed rather than modeled, intuited, or based on our preferences or those of our clients.

Are We Driven or Directed?

Are We Driven or Directed?

You may have noticed in the title of this article ("Research-Directed Website Design") that I use the term directed rather than driven. It's a subtle difference, but an important one, and here's why.

One of the main criticisms of user research is that users don't always know their goals and how those goals can best be met. Think of the famous Henry Ford quote: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." Research-driven design states the case too strongly. It implies that user research is what drives design decisions: user goals, behaviors, preferences. Were this the case, the end result could easily be something that no one likes or is able to use.

Consider higher education, where I work. More user goals show up at our virtual "front door" than can be addressed on a single website. Just a few examples:

  • Current students want to check dining menus. Goal: Eat.
  • Prospective students want to learn about student life. Goal: Select the right college.
  • Media want to find a story with legs. Goal: Feed the media beast.
  • Parents of current students want to know how the college is responding to H1N1. Goal: Keep their children healthy.

The list of important and necessary goals goes on and on. However, designing a college website to address every goal of every visitor would result in a sprawling morass of web pages that no one can navigate. As it is, college websites are complex and difficult when compared with sites that have a more targeted purpose, such as travel and retail sites, which can therefore cater to specific goals (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Hotwire's design is easy to use, in large part because of its focus on one user goal: Finding cheap travel. Visitors to Stanford's website have much more diverse goals, and the design manages to address many of the more common ones without overwhelming the user.

At some point in the design process, the designer takes the front seat, transforming research results into actionable design decisions. This is the point at which Henry Ford takes direction from requests for a faster horse: Using his invention, knowledge, and expertise, and within the context of his situation and business goals, he designs a solution that addresses the goal of getting people from here to there more quickly. This is why I use the term research-directed. If Ford had been "driven" by research, we may never have had the opportunity to drive!

Is It Worth the Effort?

Is It Worth the Effort?

Some time ago I stumbled on an article called "The Loyalty Elephant," by Steve Hoisington and Earl Naumann. [1] Initially I was charmed by the article's title, and as I read I was encouraged by its message. This article gave me a very persuasive way to discuss the importance and potential of usability.

The topic of the article is customer satisfaction, and one of its main arguments is that a positive experience leads to satisfaction, which leads to loyalty behaviors, such as repeat purchases. In the web context, we might think of loyalty behaviors such as sales conversions or repeat visits. The article concludes with this caution:

It is important to remember that customers, like elephants, have very good memories. Customers do not quickly forget good or bad experiences with organizations and will usually demonstrate their satisfaction levels with their subsequent expenditures.

In effect, usability has the potential to make or break an enterprise. As an advocate of user-centered design, it's not always easy to convince clients to focus on user experience for the sake of engendering satisfaction and feelings of well-being. However, invoking the bottom line can help to make the case.

In the end, usable designs are more enjoyable, and generate feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction for those who use them. We all regularly engage with designed artifacts; those we love, we love, and those we hate, we hate. When it comes to defining the quality of our experience, the onus is on the designer. As Henry Dreyfuss points out in his book Designing for People: [2]

We bear in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some other way used by people individually or en masse.

When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the […] designer has failed.

On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.

Usable designs cannot be divined, or derived from our own experiences. Website design discussions often revolve around the preferences of the people in the room—a group that usually isn't representative of the target audience. Design decisions that arise out of this type of internal discussion are unlikely to lead to websites that satisfy users and inspire those nice loyalty behaviors. As designers, we need to look outward, to the goals, preferences, and behaviors of our target users, in order to create sites that make them—and thereby us—successful.

Convinced? Techniques to Come

Convinced? Techniques to Come

In this article, I've made a case for applying design research to website design, as a way of making informed design decisions. I hope that I've convinced you to include research in your website design process. In a follow-up article, I'll describe research methods used in the site-definition process, and how they lay the foundation for the project charter—the cornerstone of a successful website development project.



[1] Henry Dreyfuss' Designing for People (Allworth Press, 2003) was first published in 1955 by Simon and Schuster. Check your library or for this book.

[2] Steve Hoisington and Earl Naumann's article "The Loyalty Elephant" was published in the February 2003 issue of Quality Progress. You can read the article with free registration on the American Society for Quality website.

Further Reading

Further Reading

Already convinced? If you're ready to start using research techniques right now, these excellent texts can help you to get started:

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