Why Great Design Begins With the User / by Ryan Davidson

The New York City Transit Authority signage is incredibly functional and visually pleasing. The design is so clean and appealing that replicas are sold as wall art, but it’s more than beautiful. It has stood the test of time and solved a core problem. Why? Because the designers started with the users. 

Through studying how users interacted with the existing product, Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda created a simple, consistent & intuitive design system. If you’ve ever visited New York, you know that the subway system is very intimidating, but thanks to this design, the system is functional & easy to follow. Vignelli and Noorda knew their audience and understood what they needed from the product. 

How can web designers attain the same harmony between visual and functional? The key is understanding your users: who they are, what they expect, and what their experience levels are. As the story is told about the history of the NYCTA Graphic Standards Manual, the designers “began hanging around subway stops, watching the flow of people and trying to pin down their points of confusion and decision.”

The designers identified the problem, the needs, and expectations of the users. They took this information and perfectly balanced aesthetics and functionality. Your user-base can be extremely specific (like high school seniors looking for colleges) or very broad (like subway riders.) You must also be able to empathize with your user and understand how they expect the product to work. But how can you find these things out?

The Process

The truth is, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all user-centered design process. There are many different methods to achieve a great user-centered design.

First, you need to ask “why,” and then ask “why” again, and again! This will help you identify the root of the problem. Your client may say they need a new website, when what they really need is a better way to tell their brand’s story. After identifying the problem, you can then develop personas, use data to see how users are interacting with a product, conduct user interviews, and create prototypes to see which features produce a better conversion rate.

We recently redesigned a website for a client that had a very specific user-base. They were very distinct in age, experience levels with technology, and they had a very clear expectation of the website and how it should work. We could have created a modern UI with parallax scrolling, floating-action-buttons, and a minimal navigation menu, but that didn’t make sense for this project. Those features would not have met the user’s expectations, and it would have confused them and created a bad UX.

Instead, we created a user-interface that was intuitive for their existing user-base and any new users. It was streamlined and simple, but still familiar. Familiarity was key—these users were accustomed to certain features in certain places doing certain things, even if it wasn’t the most efficient way.

We couldn’t just throw the whole existing site map and design out the window. Instead, we used the existing knowledge of the user-base, personas, and research to make it better. We designed and implemented a cleaner layout with a less intrusive design, which made it easier to find the information users needed. We made clearer CTAs and a more streamlined navigation. We also cleaned up user flow, since there were features that served the same function but appeared multiple times on a page.

We knew these features were most important because we started with the users, and made design decisions from there. 

On another recent project (a higher education website), we used our user knowledge to help the site drive more admissions and keep users engaged. We used Google Analytics to see what parts of the site were not getting the attention they should be and made design choices based on that data. We knew our user-base was teens & young millennials, so we used modern web trends (like standard iconography). The goal was to make the pages easier to navigate, and create an intuitive interface. We started with the users, and set about solving their problems. 

Let’s Sum It Up

What happens when we don’t design with the user in mind? Bad design is everywhere. It confuses people, drives away customers, and it can even cost people their lives (really!) By leveraging user and analytic knowledge, designers can create intuitive, meaningful experiences for users, and those  experiences make their lives better. We’re all users in one way or another, so in the end, that’s better for us all!