A Secret Weapon of Successful Designers: Predictability

predictability
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Have you ever worried about a situation where a client of yours is not pleased with the site you’ve just finished designing for them because it’s too simple, and not flashy enough?

I mean, it seems easy to bill someone for a site that looks like a digital painting and contains some interactive menus, sliders, and other eye-candy like stuff.

It doesn’t seem easy, though, to bill for a minimalistic site that incorporates a well thought through layout with just a handful of different elements.

This is a “my-client-doesn’t-know-any-better” type of a problem. It happens when you want to provide your client with the best solution possible, but at the same time you are afraid that they might not be able to recognize it.

You’re thinking of creating something “clever” just for the sake of it (and the sake of your wallet). However, settling on this idea is sometimes a lose-lose situation.

The truth is, no matter what you’re designing, predictability is always your friend.

What is predictability?

What I mean by predictability is simple: you want the site you’re working on to be as predictable in use as possible.

A site that’s well designed is one that doesn’t need a word of explanation on how to use it – this is what predictable means.

We’re going to get to the “how” in just a minute. But first let’s take a look at some of the most popular sites on the internet (three, in particular): ProBlogger, Copyblogger, and TechCrunch.
There’s absolutely nothing fancy about these sites. Every designer, and I mean EVERY, has the skillset required to design such sites. Even if you’ve been designing sites for only a couple of days I’m sure you’re going to figure out how to create all those graphical elements in Photoshop.

Only you won’t…

Because those designs have a hidden friend working for them full-time. They are incredibly predictable, and that’s what makes them so great.

Kill your darlings

A cliché, I know, sorry ’bout that.

But like I was saying, there’s not one fancy graphical element on those sites. The most fancy things there are the banners.

So what were the designers paid for, then?

Two things, in my opinion: (1) their skill and experience on creating simplified, predictable and highly usable websites, and (2) their courage to kill their darlings.

Every designer is essentially the same. There are no designers that don’t like to create some fancy elements every now and then. Like there are no guitarists who don’t like to play a wicked solo every now and then. If you have the skills you like to show them off – it’s simple.

However, the best guitarists and the best designers can hold back and not be showing off round the clock. For a guitarist, 15 seconds in a 5 minute song is more than enough. For a designer, one button is enough for an entire website.

The remaining elements simply need to serve their purpose and be predictable to the max.

The “how”

Let’s get back to Problogger, Copyblogger and TechCrunch for a minute.

Of course, I wasn’t involved in creating the designs of these sites, but I can only imagine that the main goal was to put the most focus on the text content itself. With such a goal in mind there’s not much you can do in terms of fancy graphical elements. What’s more, predictability becomes the main indicator of success.

So I guess the first step is defining the main goal for your design … as always.

Then you have to think about what predictability means for your goal.

For example, if you’re designing an online store, predictability in such a situation means that everyone can go through with their shopping without any hesitation on what they should do next. The placement of your shopping cart needs to be predictable. The category layout needs to be predictable. The Product page needs to be predictable and present all the important elements in the most predictable places possible.

This is just one example. But you can create a similar set of requirements for all kinds of sites.

I’d say that the starting point after you have your goal should be at: (1) defining the ideal visitor to the site – their profile, and (2) recreating this ideal visitor’s path on the website. Where do they go? What are they searching for? What they EXPECT to see in different areas of the site.

Now, when you’re designing the site and a darling is born just ask yourself “would the site still be predictable if I let this darling live?” if not, well… the darling dies.

Why predictable sites are better

Predictable sites simply work and serve their purpose right.

If you’re creating a news blog like TechCrunch then a predictable design will get the articles read. In an online store a predictable design will sell the products. And so on and so forth.

Now, a final question to you: can you recall any truly popular sites that are beautiful graphically, yet extremely complex and unpredictable at the same time?

Just a hint: there are none. Take a look at top 10 sites by Alexa: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Baidu.com, Blogger.com, Live.com, Twitter, QQ.com. There are two Chinese sites on the list, and even though I have no idea what the text says I can still see that they’re probably pretty predictable too.

Now over to you!

What’s your opinion on predictability in web design? Is it really that important or am I wrong? Finally, can you make a site too predictable? Leave a comment on this post and let me know what you think!

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About Karol K.

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at codeinwp.com. Check us out if you don’t like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we’ll take good care of them for you.

 

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About Karol’s business: Karol is a freelance writer working with codeinwp.com, The top-notch PSD to WordPress service. YOU DESIGN, THEY CODE. As simple as that.

Comments

  1. I agree, Karol. The most beautifully designed website is useless if it has no functionality, or if the users get frustrated and leave. I think you really have to look at your audience to determine what is predictable to them. While many sites share the same general principles, I think if your design and layout will be altered depending on your core audience – kids, retirees, savvy web users, etc. What are they used to looking at? What is most important to them? How quickly will they give up?

    I think this (and the darlings) also play into the hierarchy of the site. What do you want your audience to focus on? Where are your eyes drawn? Can you read the text without being pulled away by the annoying yellow sidebar?

    Sometimes simpler is better, and the real challenge is making simple look great.

    • Preston D Lee says:

      April, nice comments. I agree completely. There has been a theory rolling around in the web design/web marketing community lately about a “one purpose” page. You have to decide what the ONE action you want your site visitors to take once they’re on your page.

      Sure, there’s more to do, but if they only do ONE thing (which many times they do), what do you want it to be? A fascinating theory.

    • I agree completely with what both you and Preston are saying. Predictability is never a constant element for everybody. It all depends on the audience.

      About the one purpose page theory. Essentially, every page is a one purpose page. You can’t do more than one thing at the same time. Of course, you can always hit the back button and then do something else, but this rarely happens for the majority of visitors.

      • Preston D Lee says:

        Interesting idea, Karol. So essentially, every page should have a primary action, followed by other, less necessary actions. I like it.

  2. Imagine walking into a shop to buy a pair of pants and all the clothes are put away in drawers and you have to find what you’re looking for by searching through the drawers and then there’s this guy in a monkey suit who chases you through the store yelling at you to buy a shirt. How long would you stay in there for?
    So why have so many web designers thrown simple good design out the window and replaced it with pure visual noise?
    Flashing signs and brightly coloured buttons scream at you and distract you from the original purpose of being on the sight in the first place. Remember that every visitor to your site has a reason for being there. The goal is to help them fill that need as easily as possible. If their train of thaught is broken for even a moment you may well lose them.
    I loved your guitar analogy because rich chords and good rhythm make the song.
    Great article!

    • Preston D Lee says:

      Adrew, I loved Karol’s analogy too of the Guitar chords. I also LOVED your analogy. Way to go. Thanks for commenting.

    • Thanks! I see I’m not the only one who hates those kinds of sites. I guess it all comes down to the fact that we love for someone to help us buy things, but we hate being sold to. So the point is to create a predictable design that helps, not sells.

  3. I’ve started design in 2002 so I have 10 years of experience. I love working on ‘complex’ designs and I did some amazing ones back in the day. But now I started liking simpler ones too. My blog was ‘fancy’ when it started, now it’s simple and clean. And my clients seem to also favor a more predictable and simple design, so I started designing these for them too :)

    • Preston D Lee says:

      dojo,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. I am the same way. I think people just started getting tired of overly flashy sites. Best of luck in all!

    • Flashy websites are so 2008 ;) … sorry, I had to say this.

      Anyway, you are of course right. The trend for simplicity and predictability is one I actually enjoy very much. Sites that have a clear message that’s visible within the first 5 seconds of looking at them are truly great (and friendly).

  4. You defined predictable web design in a unique way, it completely changed the flavor of the article. I am a professional web designer & completely agree with your view. You have asked if you are right or wrong! – You are absolutely right according to me.

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