Designing for Optimal UX

Content may be king, as the saying goes, but if you fail to give sufficient attention to the user experience (UX), far fewer people are going to be seeing your content. This means it could be considered that UX is a necessary vehicle in the delivery of content. Understanding the relationship between UX and content is important, because many websites fail to properly account for this (and therefore fail outright).

Small internet businesses often have the design and content portions developed by the same person, or by different people within the same team having interchangeable roles.  Larger web businesses are more likely to split the task between content writers and website designers. Either way, the stage is often set for failure right from the start, because these components are not developed in the correct order.

Content is always more important

Everything about content is important.  It’s the primary consideration for Google (and similar services) when they are indexing your site, and it’s the primary consideration for users in deciding whether your site meets their needs or not.  Design, on the other hand, is far less important, because design only determines how appealing the content is.  In fact content can be delivered without any design at all, if the content is good enough to capture and retain somebody’s attention all by itself.

Because it is so important, content should always be created first.  Yet you’ll frequently see businesses developing websites from templates and then trying to shape the content to fit that design, which can be quite a bad idea, depending on the template’s characteristics.

No matter how flexible a site template is, the content should still be created first, and it should be created by a professional content writer. When the content exists first, a talented designer will be able to draw inspiration from it and will know intuitively the best way to design a site that works with the content. That part must be done by a professional site designer.

A truly great designer will produce a design that reinforces the written or spoken message. For example, if the message of the site is warm and earthy, then the design out to be too. When the design and the message are not complementary, it won’t feel right.

Content is not separate from the user experience

Too many people are talking about UX as if it is somehow distinct  from the content, when in fact the content is an integral part of the UX, and as was just discussed, it’s the most important part.

Factors within the content that can detract from the UX include:

  • Using wrong words (eg: “That’s you’re opinion, I’m sorry but your wrong!”)
  • Using word choices that are not appropriate for the audience
  • Being too concise (abrupt), or not concise enough (tedious)
  • Serious errors in spelling and grammar
  • Not paying attention to text balance
  • Incorrect white space
  • Poor text flow

Users will normally forgive occasional minor errors like accidentally typing “alot” as one word. It’s annoying, but not enough to make you lose a typical user’s confidence. But if you make the same mistakes frequently throughout the content, that will cause you to rapidly lose points, eventually resulting in a negative UX.

Word choice should always be tailored to the intended audience.  Some people feel that it’s best to make all content readable at 8th grade level, but of course this is an absurd notion.  Some sites are intended for much younger audiences, and 8th grade vocabulary would be too challenging.  A site created for adult scientists could feel patronizing if it talked to its audience as if they were teenagers. So it’s important to determine who the intended audience for the site is going to be, and tailor the message to that audience.

When your language is too concise, important context can be lost, and users can feel that the language is too abrupt.  When you’re not concise enough, the content can feel like it’s rambling.  Every individual has their own limit for how much they’re willing to endure. One thing we can be sure of is that research results are not reliable, because user testing does not take into account how much the user wanted to read the content before attempting to. So the right amount of brevity is actually the amount that feels right, not the amount that “nine out of ten experts recommend.”

Serious errors in spelling and grammar won’t be forgiven if you’re a repeat offender. There really isn’t any excuse for spelling mistakes (except intentional ones), because spell-checking software will pick them up for you.  On the other hand, if you’re an editor and you fail to understand when to leave in intentional mistakes, you’ll ruin the content writer’s intention and make yourself look silly. Grammar is a lot more tricky, but when in doubt, there are plenty of resources online to help you find the right answers.

White space, text flow, and text balance are all inter-related.  For an example of text balancing, see the bullet list above, where the list items are shaped. If the items were not listed in this way, it makes the list more difficult to read. Issues with text flow include broken lines, bad line wrapping, and forgotten punctuation.

Design issues that need attention

Once the content has been honed to perfection, which is actually the most difficult part of the whole task, you can turn your attention to ironing out any pesky design bugs that crop up.

The most common UI problems that are encountered include:

  • Delivering high bandwidth items with insufficient reason
  • Failing to optimize images for online display
  • Pop-ups, pop-unders, and nefarious redirection
  • Not making clickable elements appear to be so
  • Making a non-clickable element look clickable
  • Invisible layers that overlap clickable elements
  • Improper column collapse on responsive sites
  • Design that ignores what is said in the content
  • Ads that encroach into main content space
  • Nag screens that take over the viewport
  • Faulty scripts

Many sites include high bandwidth items, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it is part of the site content (although there is a caveat on that). When high bandwidth items are associated as elements of the design, however, that is definitely a bad thing. Users will normally resent this, and it’s understandably frustrating.

The caveat on high bandwidth items as content is that it must be opt-in, and should be justified.  For example, if you look at how Wikipedia delivers images, they first show a small image within the page content, which the user can then click through to see an enlarged version, where they may be presented with several options for viewing, including the ability to see the image at its original resolution.

Quite a lot of designers simply don’t care that their designs feature huge images that are included for no other reason than their visual appeal.  In other words, the inclusion of those images—and in some cases, even videos—is not intended to be for the benefit of the user. It’s intended to make the designer look good.  And that’s not a good reason for causing frustration to the users.

It’s more than obvious that pop-unders have no place on the modern internet.  Did you hear that TripAdvisor? Nobody should need to be told this. It’s common sense.

Interface elements can be problematic when it’s not clear if users can click them or not. Another thing to watch out for is when the boundary of a layer or screen element overlaps a clickable area, thus rendering that area unclickable.

A common mistake with responsive sites is failing to check how they actually respond to changes in resolution and geometry.

It can lead to unintended effects and poor design integrity. This is related to the problem of designers ignoring preposition references in the site content, such as “in the image to the left”, where the image may no longer be in that position if the site is viewed on a mobile device. This needs to be sorted out with CSS and JavaScript, as it’s detracting from the UX.

Ads should never encroach into the area where the user is trying to view the content, unless the content is the ad (this means the user came to the site specifically to see that ad). It includes nag screens, such as those imploring the user to subscribe to your newsletter before they leave your site. These are UX suicide, and whoever suggested you ought to have a nag screen should be fired immediately. If you got the tip from a book, you could consider burning that book and never buying another one from the same author.

Finally, any scripts on your page should be there for a definite purpose, and they should work faultlessly. If the script interferes in any way with what the user is trying to achieve, it is detracting from the UX.

header image courtesy of 

Emma Grant

Emma Grant is a professional freelance content writer from Ireland. Over the past three years she has travelled the world while running her business from her laptop. You find her at www.florencewritinggale.com

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