Recently someone asked me what websites I like from a user experience design perspective. I couldn’t think. My mind went blank! Which struck me as weird, given that I use websites all the time and I’ve worked in web design and development for around 15 years. Surely some websites should stand out as being well designed, as being inspirational for having a great user experience?
Reflecting on why nothing stood out in my mind when I was put on the spot, I remembered a famous book by Don Norman. In ‘The Invisible Computer‘ Norman argues that good technology design should be invisible to the user:
The current infrastructure for personal computers has outlived its usefulness. Although it was well designed for the problems and technology of the 1980s, it no longer works when faced with the problems and technologies of the 21st century. Moreover, the technology of the personal computer gets ever more complex every year. There is no way out, for it is caught in the tyranny of its own success, of its own marketing, and its business model that demands ever more features every year, thereby ever more complexity.
The only way out is through a disruptive technology, through a break with tradition to a technology that becomes invisible, that starts off focusing upon simplicity, joy of ownership, joy of use: a human-centered development philosophy.
So rather than thinking about websites and web applications I admire for good design or inspiration, I reflected on five of the sites and applications I enjoy using and thought about what makes them a pleasure to use. Just as Norman proposed in ‘The Invisible Computer’, the fact that some websites are simple, and a joy to use, indicates they are well designed and a user centred design process is key to the success of the design.
I once thought “what’s not to like?” about Google Maps. It has some great features and a very clear interface. Street view is particularly cool and I can get lost for ages looking at random pictures. Using the ‘directions’ functionality is easy and flexible, suggesting the quickest route but allowing you to drag routes around on the map and choose other options or add additional places en-route. It’s easy to print add edit your maps. I also enjoy creating my own maps and using the API, Google Maps also integrates well with open source platforms such as WordPress. These days I tend to find myself using Bing Maps quite a bit, for the Ordnance Survey Maps and Birds Eye Views which are sadly not included in Google Maps.
In terms of house hunting Rightmove stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ok it has some quirks, but the home page is nice and clear, the search works well and the details and photos are laid out clearly. In terms of personalisation, I love the draw-a-search feature which combined with alerts and saved searches work brilliantly and makes house hunting a breeze. The mobile version of the site also works very well.
The John Lewis website is a stalwart of e-commerce sites. Faceted search that’s been configured to work well. Nice clean design. Good information. A bit like a visit to a physical store.
I’ve always liked the current Guardian website. Especially the fonts. And the colours. I don’t know why, but I do. I also like the mouseovers on images, the ‘in pictures’ feature and the way that live news has been developed. The Guardian satellite sites have a good visual tie-in with the main site, so you never feel far away from the ‘mother brand’. I particularly the Guardian data store and some of the excellent data visualisations.
UserVoice is an ingenious social tool which has a variety of uses. Originally designed to enable a website or software user community to suggest changes or new features and vote for them, the tool has adapted well to being used for civic engagement or to generate ideas or concepts when collaborating with other people on projects.
So in summary, I found there are websites and web applications I admire from a user experience perspective, because as a user I enjoy using and interacting with them. They minimise frustration and maximise the experience of finding information, carrying out particular tasks or sharing and communicating with other people. Thanks to Don for that bit of much needed inspiration.
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