The State of Websites – Design, Development and Accessibility Must Focus on the User

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The internet is moving faster than the speed of light. As we surge ahead into 2020, we can’t help but reminisce on the websites of the past:

a screenshot from wayback machine showing the old oneupweb website
The Oneupweb website in early 2010 – ten years ago, via Wayback Machine.

Yikes. No wonder things are changing fast. Can you imagine if the internet still looked like that? Or worse – the websites of the ‘90s?

But that’s enough of a trip down memory lane. This report is about the current state of websites, not the past. Right?

While the past does dictate the future, you won’t find many web design trends from years past making their way into the websites of today (Flash will officially be dead this year.) Instead, you’ll find an ecosystem of engaging, beautiful websites that strive to be different, all while focusing on the user.

A brief dive into the history of websites …

When websites were first being developed, they were built to fulfill one thing – whatever the author wanted. Blogs were an online journal where people could pour their thoughts to the world. In marketing, the primary concern was making it look good and selling what you wanted to sell.

As we became more skilled in website development, we naturally wanted to try more things. This brought on the age of information overload on the internet (changing cursors, animated text, hit counters – really, the list could go on).

Still, the most simple, plain websites seemed to thrive. Craigslist. Google. Wikipedia.

Think of the San Francisco Fog Cam. The oldest running webcam in the world, it was launched in 1994 for one job: show the fog in San Francisco – and it hasn’t stopped since.

a screenshot of the currently running san francisco fog cam
The San Francisco Fog Camera website.

It seems that the websites that focused on the user stood the test of time – whether a good user experience was their intent or not.

Website design and development has changed greatly over the years, and it no doubt will continue to do so. But now we know better. We know that a good website isn’t really about what you want but what is going to make the user enjoy using the website and return time after time – no matter the current website design trends.

Part One: Building Your Website Around the User’s Needs

A website is truly built – code-by-code, brick-by-brick. There’s an old standby of comparing developing a website to building a house.

If you’re unfamiliar with the expression, it’s based on the idea that you have your domain name (physical address), the hosting (like a plot of land you build on), a good CMS as a solid foundation, and so on. But these days, building a good, solid website is more than attributing the right colors to good design. To account for The User, we must expand on the metaphor.

In the planning stages of building a house, you trust the builder to put your ideas into a cohesive plan. They should be putting the person using the house at the forefront each step of the way.

If the toilet is too close to the wall – that’s a poor user experience. If the living room doesn’t have cable access, that’s a bad user experience. Each detail of the home (website) is carefully curated to provide the best experience possible.

For websites, it’s not always so simple because you’re accounting for the entire world of people who use your website. Even if you’ve created personas, know your target audience and you’ve done your research, you still can’t possibly know who your user is (in other words, don’t put them in a box!). Personas won’t help you actualize what disabilities or disadvantages your users might have, so you need to be prepared for anyone to land on your site.

If this idea seems overwhelming, let’s step back a moment and just keep it simple …

Developing Websites With the Simplest Possible Framework

What does your website need in order to serve the user in the simplest possible way? Start there.

A bathroom in a house needs a toilet, sink and shower. The San Francisco Fog Cam needed, well, a live feed of the fog.

This is where you start. It’s not the end product because we all know a tub-and-shower combination is better than just a tub, and we need cabinets or where will we put our toiletries? But, to start, fulfill the user’s most basic needs and build on that.

If it sounds boring to develop a website this way, you’re forgetting a key component – website design.

Build the website with the simplest possible framework – where the user is the primary focus – then, layer in good design, and together the site tells a story to the user while meeting their needs.

Experimenting with website development trends isn’t off the table.

When you break a website down to its most basic components, it can feel a little dull. Oneupweb is a creative agency, so we are by no means advocating you build your website to look like Craigslist.

If there’s a new trend you’ve been dying to implement, by all means, try it, always while keeping the user top of mind.

Here are some website development trends to try that focus on the user:

1. Micro-interactions and micro-animations

These subtle interactions on a website help the user expect what’s to come and provide a positive user experience while doing so.

2. Voice interactions

Planning for users who require voice interactions on websites is helpful for those with disabilities and those who use voice interactions regularly (many mobile users, for example).

3. Cookie popups

When the EU privacy law GDPR went on the books in 2018, websites everywhere built cookie popups into the interface that prompted users to accept cookie tracking. Now, in 2020, websites are incorporating more engaging and easier-to-understand cookie pop-ups that actually help the user.

When you think of developing a website with user experience first, it’s easy to incorporate any new trend into your work – you just have to make it fit.

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Expanding on the Metaphor – Maintaining and Adapting Your Website

Let’s return to the idea that developing a website is like building a home.

A well-built home is more than a solid place to rest your head. It’s comfortable, inviting, fits with the neighborhood around you and makes sense for the city you live in (beach houses on the beach, condos in a city, and so on).

If you’ve built it well, you might stay there for years. Over time, the furnace breaks, you need a new roof, trends change and your shag carpet doesn’t look right anymore. You can either ignore the problems staring you in the face, or adapt to maintain your home.

Website development isn’t any different. Much like a well-maintained house, a well-maintained website will stay new and relevant much longer than one that hasn’t been touched since move-in.

Regular maintenance is the key to successful website design and development. Without it, your well-built user-focused website won’t function the way it was intended – things break with time, after all. As browsers evolve, new devices are created and functions change, regular maintenance on a website is the only way to keep a positive user experience.

oneupweb developer works at his desk

Part Two: Accessibility Is Integrated, Not an Afterthought

One in four US adults has a disability according to the CDC. That number is a bit higher than the rest of the world population, where research shows 15 percent have disabilities.

The CDC recorded six different disability types:

  1. Mobility – A serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.
  2. Cognition – A serious difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
  3. Hearing – Serious difficulty hearing.
  4. Vision – Serious difficulty seeing.
  5. Independent living – Difficulty running errands alone.
  6. Self-care – Difficulty getting dressed or bathing.

And, these are just the serious disabilities. As many as 45 million Americans have dyslexia,  making many websites difficult to read. It’s also important to have an accessible site for users with disabilities relating to old age, such as hearing loss, vision loss, diminishing motor skills and cognitive abilities.

It’s not that hard to design and develop websites for accessibility. It’s not expensive. What’s expensive is making a website accessible after you’ve already built it. So, designing and developing with accessibility and user experience at the forefront of the process is money-smart.

Accessibility in website design and development cannot be an afterthought, it needs to be integrated every step of the way in order to provide the best user experience.

Why Accessibility on the Web Matters for User Experience

While accessibility and user experience are two different ideas, they are permanently intertwined.

Delivering the best user experience involves getting your user from point A to point B as smoothly as possible. Hopefully, that point B is a conversion, like a form fill or a purchase.

two women looking at a website on a laptop

How to Incorporate Accessibility From the Ground Up

The easiest way to make accessibility a priority in website design and development is to start at the very beginning.

We recommend implementing WCAG 2.1 AA standards into the mockup stage of your new website. Then, as the designs are approved, development can follow suit in creating an accessible website.

If you think of building a website like building a house, accessibility is akin to having wide enough doors, the right-height counters and bright enough lights to see. While a big part of accessibility is providing easier avenues for people with disabilities (installing handicap grab bars in bathrooms, or a wheelchair ramp), the part of accessibility that deals directly with UX and all users is the permanent installation of everyday components.

If you incorporate accessibility standards into your website design from the mockup stage, you’re making sure the layout and feel of the site provides a good UX and meets WCAG requirements.

Again, creating a website without accessibility in mind and then trying to incorporate it at the end is time-consuming and expensive.

Integrating accessibility in the entire website design and development process will help put the user first and expand your audience by having a website able to be used by anyone.

Part Three: The Best Website Design Is Memorable.

What makes a sturdy website made for everyone to use even better? Design that’s clean; user-friendly; and that creates depth, simply.

Using the right website design tools to create depth allows a user to explore your website, find something new and exciting, and stay engaged. The goal here is to delight them, not overwhelm them.

Here are three ways you can use website design trends to create depth and engage your user memorably:

1. Layering of Elements

Layering elements on a web page creates visual depth and dimension in your otherwise simple build. Instead of designing more, design less more thoughtfully.

We get the want for a web page to showcase the coolest pictures, graphics and elements, all at once, but that can be overwhelming for a user who is just trying to reach their goal. Use layering of elements to place a solid color shape over part of an image, or place text over part of an image so that it engages the white space on your site, or, heck, try layering all three in the opposite order.

The benefit to this type of treatment is that it can create a unique look that will grab a user’s attention and lead them through to conversion.

website design trend involving layering

2. Hand-Drawn Elements

The average adult spends six hours a day online, according to research. In all that time online, we are bombarded with ads and brands fighting for our attention. The use of hand-drawn designs gives us something that brings us back to a simpler time and grabs our attention.

When hand-drawn elements are used on a website it creates a unique visual style, not only for the site but also for the brand itself, by quickly conveying its personality. One drawback is that hand-drawn elements should be used in moderation and in a way that doesn’t interfere with the accessibility of your site.

3. White Space

White space is often thought of as a crutch for website design, but, when used effectively, it helps a user focus and move through a page more easily.

White space isn’t actually just white space on a page; it’s the effective use of negative space to lead a user’s eye where you want them to go. Websites featuring well-designed white space highlight a CTA, create balance on the design of your site or generally help the user navigate the layout of a page.

For example, if you have a text-heavy scroll on your site, you might balance it with white space to give the user time to pause and comprehend the website better.

Don’t Fear Change – Embrace It!

Let’s face it, people have been trying to figure out how to effectively integrate augmented reality into website designs for years and, so far, it’s been more of a gimmick than anything. Like with most website trends, AR hasn’t been effectively leveraged for the masses.

But the key to capitalizing on recent trends and effectively using them is to return to the same basic principle: how will it help the user?

By putting the user first, you’re off to the right start because you’re concerned with how it will be used, not just if you can do it.

As AR technology is getting better and users are becoming more familiar with it, it is becoming a sales tool. For example, a good AR user experience is Google Translate.

Google Translate translates text in any language to text in any other language. But with the use of AR, users can now point their phone at something to get it translated, instead of needing to type it in. This is a great example of how capitalizing on a technology trend (like AR) helps the user have a better experience.

What Good Design Creates for a User

When you focus on good design instead of gimmicks for website design, you’re able to focus on the user’s needs and fulfill them.

When the rest of your website is simple, clean and concise, you want your design to have visually interesting characteristics. Designing with visual depth in mind allows you to center on the user while delighting them with the overlapping of simple elements already on the page.

Conclusion – Do You Want to Be Discovered or Desired?

Any business’s primary goal is to sell whatever it is their selling. And the best way to do that is by giving the user what they want (which, again, is hopefully your product). Make it easy for them to get what they want and you’ll have happy users.

When websites first were created, everyone was just sort of stumbling around the internet trying to find things that interested them. While there were a handful of search engines that cropped up in the early days of the internet, people weren’t using them the way they do today.

Websites today have become a hub, a place to start from; where users know they can find useful information and, hopefully, a unique experience.

There’s something to be said about the user who comes right to your site. It means you’ve done a great job providing them with what they need and want. Maybe they’ve bookmarked your page. Maybe you’ve built a successful community around your business and users are eager to see what you’ve created for them each day.

There’s still something to be said about being discovered. That was the hope 20 or 30 years ago – if you’ve built a website, someone will come to it. Only now it’s actually true. User’s search keywords hoping to find relevant websites to fulfill their needs.

When they find yours, it’s up to you to fulfill their needs efficiently and memorably.

So – do you want your website to be discovered or desired?

Call Oneupweb when you want both.

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