And your mother always said cussing makes a bad impression — well, not always true.
I’m not talking about the O’Reilly f-bomb or anything like that; believe it or not I’m talking about information architecture and design. Learn how to C.U.S. properly by following these three steps: Cut to the core, Unify the pieces, & Stick to the plan.
Cut to the Core.
Stripping your site to the bones may not sound appealing, but it’s always necessary. Easier said than done, right? The key here is to analyze and thin your content in order to reduce redundant clutter and pave a clean path for your users. Thinning and organizing your content will help users take action quickly and avoid mistakes.
This is the approach Robert Hoekman Jr. suggests in Designing the Obvious. Hoekman says, “To create a focused application, stick to building 20 percent of features that are essential, and you’ll take care of 80 percent of the user’s needs.” Only 80 percent?… lets face it we’re never going to fulfill every need of every user.
He’s basically saying stick to what’s essential and cut the crap. Sometimes the client thinks everything is essential, but the truth is it isn’t. As information architects we know that the most essential aspect is that the user can actually use the site. What’s the use of having information up on the web if people won’t be willing to stick around to see it?
This is where it can get a little hairy between the client and designer. For example: I have people pleasing syndrome; I like to make people happy, so for clients that means giving them what they want, right? Wrong. Clients don’t always know what is best for their website. They have incredible insight on their business and a rough idea of what should be represented, but are by no means qualified to dictate your IA process. That’s why they’ve come to you for help in the first place.
I’m not saying you should go around screaming in client’s faces, especially if they’re Lou Ferrigno. Be nice to clients, but show them tough love too. Simple, clean functionality has top priority over content because if the user can’t understand, get to, or even see the content for all the crap on the page it might as well not even be there. Negotiating content type and amount will be a never-ending battle, I promise. The client will always try to slip in more content.
Overall, cutting your content should involve eliminating features, text, & design that doesn’t directly serve the activity and purpose of the site. In turn you will de-clutter your site and provide a better experience for your users. It’s hard to let go of the wicked cool features but most of the time, for the sake of the design and the user, they should be tossed. Clear a path and remove anything that could get in the user’s way. Your client will thank you in the end. Here is a little more incentive from Hoekman: “The difficulty of accomplishing tasks in your application means that users don’t stick around to fight their way through it, and they don’t bother coming back.” So harsh, but so true.
Unify the Pieces.
Unity throughout design is a huge deal! It helps sustain the users comfort level as they browse or search a site. Avoid confusion by keeping a consistent font family, synchronizing font weights/styles and color emphasis, and lining up similar interface elements.
Take a huge leap towards unity by keeping instances of color and text in sync throughout your design. Use color to help the user create a relation between different pieces in your interface. For example: if you use a darker grey on one link, use it on all links throughout your site. The same goes for text, If you bold the text on a button once, do it on all those buttons. It’s little similarities like this that will pull your site together.
Maintaining font consistency throughout your site is kind of a big deal, not only with links or buttons, but in text blocks as well. Using more than two fonts in a site design can be annoying to the user. They may not realize what is annoying them, but if you’re using Comic Sans for one text block and Papyrus (gag) for the next, the user will notice something is off. Users want to be able to smoothly transition from text block to text block without thinking about why there is a difference between the two. On the other hand, different weights and styles within one font can help you emphasize different elements such as block quotes throughout your site.
Unity isn’t just in the small things, in fact, it can pose a huge problem on a much larger scale. Carrying header and footer elements over to all pages lets the user know they are still on the same site. The placement of interface elements is also very important. If you have a navigation running along the bottom of your header and move this same navigation to the side bar on the next page, this will trigger the user to actually think! Now, we don’t want to disappoint Steve Krug do we? Keeping placement sustains unity but so does lining and sizing up related elements. This includes lining up text blocks with subheads, keeping form fields aligned, and properly spacing navigation tabs.
Focus on unifying your interface elements and your users will be much more willing to stick around.
Stick to the Plan.
The last step will ensure that the customer receives the site they’ve requested and the user finds what they are looking for.
Collecting a list of three main site goals at the beginning of the information architecture phase is a must. These goals should become a foundation for the rest of the project and should be in the back of your mind throughout every step of the process. This will help tremendously with cutting to the core of your content. With each feature and element ask yourself if it is absolutely necessary to accomplish the goals of the site. If it is, it’s safe until the next round of cuts; if not, chuck it. Treating your features like they are soccer players trying out for the team may sound silly but it’s a good way to focus on what really is or isn’t necessary.
Keep in mind, C.U.S.ing is an art and requires practice. Don’t expect to just start C.U.S.ing and be an expert like O’Reilly. The next time a big design project rolls in don’t forget to Cut to the Core, Unify the Pieces & Stick to the Plan.
Tony was the proud owner of OnWired, the web design agency he’s raised since birth in 2001. A designer-entrepreneur with a nose for trouble, he keeps his peeps on their toes and his sights focused on what’s next.
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