Design lessons I learned on holiday

While on holiday I actually learnt some things.
My wife and I recently went on a holiday through Europe, with a short stop in Korea on the way home. What I got from this holiday was more than a collection of amazing photos and delightfully tacky souvenirs – I also re-learned some very fundamental lessons in usability design. These are lessons which I’m sure everybody knows, but are often overlooked for a variety of reasons – such as deadlines, ego and convenience.

The best restaurants didn’t try to convince me with gimmicks.
The moral of this first story is that customers will feel more welcome if you put their experience before trying to make your business look impressive.
To find a nice restaurant in Italy (well, Venice especially), my wife and I had to wade through many tourist traps. They became easier to spot as time went on: set menus, flyers with maps on them, overly friendly waiters outside. None of these things made the food better. Quality and authenticity are universal ways to make a customer feel comfortable.
In a similar way, greeting a website’s visitors (ie visitors, not ‘traffic’) with a visual assault of how impressive your company thinks they are, is surprisingly enough, not all that welcoming. Show your visitors that you value their experience by not overburdening them with gimmicks, and give them a smooth experience.

A homepage is like a tourist brochure.
A website’s homepage is not the same as its content pages. Its purpose is to point you at these content pages in a meaningful way.
How great are tourist maps in a new city? Accurately displayed streets, with big illustrations of points of interest. You can carry them everywhere, and refer to them to find where you are, and where you would like to go next. The point here being that maps are the guide, not the destination. My destinations were places described on the map, not more pieces of paper.
I’ve long been of the opinion that far too much overall design time goes to a site’s homepage. While a homepage is still an incredibly important part of any website, to me it is merely the place on a site where a user decides which bit of the site they want to focus on. The real bits of a site which people use are almost always deeper level pages – but sadly these pages are all too often watered down versions of the homepage. The deeper pages are the site, and it is the job of the homepage to give them a welcoming introduction.

How delightful…
I don’t think that there’s any denying the fact that a website has truly succeeded if it can delight its visitors.
This idea had always made me think of the delightful experience being achieved in a more obvious way – such as a barista taking the time to finish every cup of coffee with an impressive bit of cocoa in milk foam artistry. I found a new kind of delight every time I opened luggage, which to the observer looked to be a plain black dufflebag. Inside was bright orange, subtly patterned and beautifully stitched together. It gave me a feeling that the company really thought of the end user, and even though the outside of the bag is pretty, they saved the coolest part of it just for me to see.
This connection I find to a mass-produced product is something that I think is possibly even easier to achieve on a website – especially if the user has an account. Why aren’t more sites trying to make people smile?

Websites should always wear sexy underwear.
I’m starting to think that a classy high-end website is one that when things heat up, or unforeseen things should happen, the site still looks good. If a user somehow navigates to a 404 page, if a site is overloaded with traffic, if an image on a content page is missing… In short if a website is caught with its pants down, the user needs to see that at least the site was prepared, and emerged looking good!
I’m afraid that there are no exciting risque stories tied to this lesson. It’s more a product of the story to follow, combined with walking through street markets in Korea later in the trip.
We are living in an age where it is becoming reasonable to judge a business by how much effort they put into making an online environment for their customers. If it is human nature to judge a person by how they behave under pressure, then why not a website? After all, it is a reflection of the people who made it. Spending time on these details which aren’t even intended to be seen shows visitors that they are hanging out with a classy, and sincere website – one which actually strives to please them.

Understated extravagance.
It seems a strange idea, but understating a detail can often really make it all the more striking.
In a museum in Berlin, I saw an enormous, and beautifully intricate Christian triptych. Like most of the other triptychs, it was open, showing it had a center panel, and 2 hinged doors. The exquisite carvings and paintings inside must have taken a very long time for a ridiculously talented and inspired team of artisans to complete.
I listened to some history of the church which commissioned this triptych, while walking around it, and I saw the fronts of the doors, which were very plain compared to what lay inside. What I heard next really surprised me. The doors apparently were only opened on special feast days. Meaning that for the majority of the year, the simple decorations on the front doors completely hid this amazing masterpiece inside.
For some reason which I couldn’t put my finger on at the time, this really impressed me. This, I thought was the very definition of understated beauty. People would have attended a mass service, and for at least some time between their prayers of devotion, would have looked up at the plain, closed triptych knowing the beauty that lived inside. Going back to my previous point, this triptych was wearing.. well.. very devout but fancy undergarments.
What is wrong with a beautifully minimalist website, which has some discoverable pieces of more elaborate design pieces for your visitor to find? It could be as simple as rollover states, or active field states in a form. Or having the user’s account area being akin to the inside of the triptych?

Gaudi designed inescapably intuitive door handles (amongst other things).
One of the most intuitive things I have seen is the range of door handles which Gaudi designed and used in his apartment building in Barcelona. During a visit there, I saw several different handles, some that needed to be turned, some which were simply pulled on to open the door. While there was nothing to stop me from holding these handles any way I wanted to, they had been designed so heavily with the human hand in mind that there was always one particular grip that each handle suggested.
There was once a time when mankind was the measure of all things we made, but somewhere along the lines our behaviors were changed to fit in with an electronic box we created for ourselves. With the current explosion of touch devices, there is more room to play with the physical scale of people’s fingers and hands. While touch interfaces can recognise gestures, the actual point of contact still feels a bit like one’s finger is behaving like a cursor.
Dragging and pinching on touch devices is certainly a good start, but when you are dragging and pinching flat images the intuition is only there by means of convention. Sure, I’ve seen buttons which want to be pushed, but where are all the other metaphorical handles which want to be pulled and twisted?

The most comforting things aren’t always those you expect to see.
Surprises don’t always throw a visitor off the task they came to a site to achieve, the trick is to make sure that you surprise people by being more helpful than they were expecting, as opposed to just being different.
In a ‘peak-hour, running late to meet someone’ rush, my wife and I were relieved to see a train ticket vending machine with no line. What delighted us was what came out of the vending machine: a small colourful box. The box contained a subway map, a brochure containing a bit of local history, a few recommended sites to visit, some discount coupons, and the uninteresting card which was all we were originally expecting.
These nice little surprises will always make visitors smile more than getting exactly what they were expecting before coming to the website. Over-deliver on helpfulness, just don’t get in their way with gimmicks. That’s for shoddy restaurateurs to do.

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