by Jared Ponchot

10 Commandments of Modern Web Design

Albert Einstein famously said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." I would argue that a huge part of that genius that Einstein refers to can be found in clarity of purpose and principles.

We all wind up in situations where we're focusing on technical details, implementation and points of process, and missing the bigger picture. I confess I've been there far too often. When we find ourselves in those situations as designers, it's important to have some guiding principles we can remind ourselves of and even share with our team and colleagues. Guiding principles can help get everyone on the same page and make it easier to work through the details of process and implementation. They're no panacea, but they've certainly helped me maintain my sanity.

Below I've documented some of my emerging, fundamental design principles. These principles have helped guide me in this brave new world of a bazillion devices and amazing possibilities. Hopefully they'll be helpful to you as you hone your design process, document your own principles, and face challenges along the way.

1. The mobile web is important!

Secret: 98% of the following three paragraphs I learned directly from Luke Wroblewski. If you need help making the case for a focus on mobile, read his writing, see him speak, get in touch with him!

Why care so much about mobile in our design process? By Q1 of 2012 Apple released numbers that showed there were now more iPhones sold every day than babies born in the entire world (300k babies to 402k iPhones)! That was just iPhones, there were actually 562k iOS devices (which includes iPod Touch and iPad) sold each day at that time. By Q1 2012 we'd also reached 700k Android devices activated per day, 200k Nokia smartphones and 143k Blackberry devices. According to Morgan Stanley Research, by 1990 there were 100M+ desktop internet users. By the early 2000's we had reached 1B+ desktop internet users. Today that number of desktop internet users is only slightly higher than it was in the early 2000's, yet the number of mobile internet users is now 10B+! The number of mobile devices on the planet surpassed the number of humans on the planet nearly two years before Morgan Stanley's research predicted it would, which means mobile is not only ubiquitous, it's growing faster than our expectations.

But wait, there's more! In Q1 of 2012 Facebook announced they were seeing more people accessing Facebook on the mobile web than from ALL of their top mobile native apps combined! Facebook also released data suggesting that mobile web and app users invested noticeably more time on site than all of their Desktop web users combined. In Q3 of 2011 Nielsen US released their research on mobile users showing that of the millions and millions of mobile users across all platforms, significantly more were using the mobile web as opposed to native apps when given the choice (57M vs 49M).

2. Create once, publish everywhere.

Editorial teams need a singular, simple workflow to produce content once that then gets distributed efficiently and effectively to all device types. Editorial teams need to be focused on content quality, NOT things like device level placement, layout and aesthetic style. When developing your content model, model content types on core editorial and business needs, with an eye towards multi-channel reuse. You can then use those building blocks in the design process. This will ensure that editors aren't forced to become "designers by default". Ideas about form, structure and presentation that create new and more complex processes for editorial teams should be viewed with skepticism and caution. Anything that slows the editorial process, without adding significant content value, damages the core value in your product. A COPE approach (Create once, publish everywhere), with a consistent content model and simple data feeds that can be used by web-based widgets, apps, and business partners, helps facilitate rapid experimentation and innovation. It ensures that experimentation can happen at "the edges" without requiring foundational infrastructure changes.

3. Editorial workflow is important!

It's very easy for design teams to become focused on the consumption experience for content on a website, while completely ignoring how said content is created, reviewed, edited, curated and published. Great consumption experiences begin with great creation experiences. Spend time with the authors, reviewers, editors and publishers early in your design process. Watch what they do. Learn about the content they're producing. Gain an understanding of things like volume (how much of it do they produce), frequency (how often do they produce it) and average length (how much content makes up a single piece) for every type of content they're producing. As a designer, you can't create innovative ideas for new components and interaction methods without really understanding the content, and the best way to understand the content is to spend time with the people who create and nurture it.

The second part of this principle is that bad or painful editorial workflows create content problems. Also, eliminating editorial workflow pain points makes happy clients. You may not be able to solve all the problems of an editorial workflow process as a designer, but you can play your part in the process by treating it as important.

4. Release early and often.

"Write drunk, edit sober." — Ernest Hemingway

Always err on the side of the simplest viable product for each release (see KISS principle as well as Getting Real). Make quick decisions, make something, find out how users interact with it and what they're valuing. Discover pain points. Adapt. In a competitive market place we need to iterate quickly and fail gracefully. Failing is necessary for innovation, and we can't fail till we try something. Create a culture of rapid experimentation as opposed to analytical paralysis.

5. Make existential design decisions based on data, 
not assumptions.

By "existential design decisions" I mean decisions about whether a particular piece of content or component should exist on the screen. The basic rule here is don't remove things from a mobile experience because you assume mobile users don't want it. Conversely, don't add additional elements to a desktop experience because you assume those users want "enhanced experiences." Begin by delivering one content model and architecture across all devices, and then let real user data drive device specific optimization and customization.

Mobile users will tell us what they're wanting as they use things (or don't use things). Their interaction patterns, values and preferences can guide optimization and customization, but not until we have them. We need to release something and watch people use it before we form assumptions (see earlier release early and often principle).

Begin with the basic question of "Is this valuable for users?", not "Is this valuable to users on a particular device type or screen size?". While we may make some assumptions about hierarchical discrepancies from one device type to another, always start from the assumption that if it's important to users, it's important to ALL users.

It's worth noting that gathering web-based metrics about the behavior of mobile users is easier than logging and tracking the detailed interactions of mobile app users. The mobile web experience can lead the way for us, providing the data we need to understand user values and interactions. Mobile users continue to defy expectations as to what they will do and want to do on their mobile devices. A common frustration for mobile web users happens when assumptions are made about what mobile users do NOT want or need from a desktop experience. It's extremely important that we not limit mobile users based on these assumptions. Creating tailored experiences with unique content models and components for different devices can create significant user experience problems. For example, lets imagine google indexes the desktop version of a website, and provides links to said content on mobile devices based on a search. If those mobile devices then redirect to a tailored site with a limited content model, editing out the content that was searched against, confusion and user frustration ensues. We must never dumb down or limit a desktop experience and call it a mobile experience!

6. Design from content outward (not device type or display inward).

Focus first on delivering the best and simplest possible experience of a complete content model across all devices. Design should begin by uncovering the most valuable type(s) of content, and designing an experience for those. All subsequent displays and views into that content should follow. For example, a news site could begin by determining the most valuable type(s) of news content they provide to their consumers. A design team can then begin researching, wireframing, prototyping and brain storming around the consumption experience of a representative piece of content from each of those types. Once that is fleshed out, the focus can shift to the various structural channels through which parts of that content type are displayed (e.g. a homepage, a top level category landing page, etc.).

7. Nothing's more important than knowing what's important.

"Design is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order." — Victor Papanek

Design is about helping people understand what's really important and meaningful. That's beautiful. Embrace it! Discover and understand the relative importance of each type of content, the pieces that make up that type of content, and the channels through which that content flows. You can't begin to apply visual hierarchy in design without first knowing the content hierarchy. Design decisions should begin with broad hierarchy evaluations. Develop a components list for each screen (a list of the discreet pieces or chunks of content that exist on the page) and assign a relative hierarchy (e.g. a 1, 2 or 3) to each component in the list. After all that, you can begin to work things out visually with placement, proportion, and style.

8. Design mobile first.

Once again, Luke Wroblewski has shined a spotlight on this and helped me understand it.

Designing "mobile first" means that we embrace the constraints of a tiny screen early in our design process. We evaluate our content model, components list and hierarchy first with that tiny screen in mind. Once we've established that, we then ask if there are ways that hierarchy changes or interactions can be enhanced for users with screen sizes and bandwidth capabilities beyond mobile. The constraints of the mobile screen size help enhance focus during the design process and keep design teams more closely aligned with whatever the core product value is. It's like packing first in a carry-on suitcase to discover what you REALLY want to bring. Often, you'll find that those extra things you put in your larger suitcase never get worn or used.

This does NOT mean that the visual experience can't be impressive. Remember, in many ways mobile devices have MORE capabilities than what's common among desktop devices. Things like device positioning, motion, location detection, multi-touch, gyroscope, and audio, video and photo input are common among mobile devices. Design teams may actually create more innovative and rich experiences focusing on mobile first during their design process.

9. Optimize, then customize.

After we actually make and release something, and have real user data to drive the next round of iteration and innovation, we need a way to prioritize that iteration. When both optimizations (e.g. technical solutions to serve up smaller file sizes or more appropriate ad sizes) and customizations (e.g. ideas about changes or enhancements to hierarchy, content or features) are being considered, optimizations should almost always be prioritized over customizations. Great experiences come from the ease and speed with which users can access, interact with, and contribute to content, and that ease and speed are very important. Mobile users continue to defy our assumptions about what they want to do on mobile devices, but they almost always want to do it faster and with greater ease.

10. Create and maintain a visual language (NOT a myriad of distinct designs).

Design teams need to produce a flexible visual language that can provide stylistic guidance across a myriad of screen sizes. There are some formal processes and design tools that can help you do this (e.g. element collages, style tiles, web style guides), but the core principle is to establish a visual language that can allow for quick design decisions across all breakpoints. This approach reinforces the "release early and often" principle above. Having a style guide and other tools to guide visual decisions, rather than a collection of concrete designs tied to specific device widths and scenarios, means that new experimental designs don't have to chart their own course. A design process that takes a tailored approach, providing a myriad of custom static comps can dramatically limit your ability to quickly respond and innovate.

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