Over the course of my career I have designed A LOT of big, intricate, transactional, multi-lingual web sites and inevitably after you launch the site there is some piece of functionality that isn’t performing as well as you had hoped or isn’t being received the way you thought it would be by the end-user of the site. When that happens you are faced with a really difficult decision on what to do with that part of the site: Do you panic and change everything? Do you just ignore it and give it time? Do you continue to try different options in a desperate attempt to hit the right combination? How do you fix it?
Over the years I’ve found the best solution to this problem isn’t found in the answers to any of those questions because too many companies and designers think that when something isn’t performing the way they had hoped that they need to run off and do a re-design. I have found that if you take the time to really understand the problem before you do anything drastic because you might have the functionality or the tools that your audience is looking for when they come to your site but they aren’t able to find it or understand how to use it. It is a natural process that as you work on something like a design or an interface you start to become blind to some of the details and problems because you have a different perspective of that work than someone who is seeing it for the first time. I try to get my designers to develop short-term memory loss so this doesn’t happen to them in their work but it is a hard process that takes time. Until that skill develops show your work to as many people as you can in your studio or your family to try to get a fresh opinion on things and see if they see what you want them to see.
If you go through the process of doing this informal testing and you don’t get the results you hoped for then don’t rush to judgement until you understand why it’s happening. Think of it like a product in a brick and mortar store that isn’t selling and to change that you need to re-merchandise that product with better store placement or signage so people pay attention to it. So translating that into interface design you need to use the same techniques and your answer could be found in better messaging so people understand how to use it or it could be taking the content out of that drop down and putting it into a list to expose it. These simple changes can have a huge impact and get people to finally understand what you were trying to accomplish.
The other technique that I use a lot to re-merchandise interface functionality is the concept staging. It is exactly the same as what they do in movies and theater where after the stage is set with all the actors you need to coordinate how they move to help tell the story. It is something I brought with me from the days I did special effects animation and broadcast design when I realized that I could use motion to control the viewer’s eye and where they looked on the screen. It works so well because a viewer’s eye will naturally be drawn to motion. If you have a screen that is still then when something moves your eye instantly jumps to the movement. You can use that to your advantage in interface design. Use motion to get the user to focus on a specific area of the page or even walk them through the interface without ever using a single word of copy.
This technique of staging was something we used with great results on the redesign of Westin.com. We had a minimal, clean design we loved but there were three critical areas of information the guest needed to see and understand how they interacted with each other. We did about 100 combinations that tested how we could get guests to understand those relationships by using motion to get them to see the first critical menu and then we worked on the staging so they would understand the consequences of their decisions. It took a while to get all of those things right but we were able to get it working really well and we did it without adding a single word of explanation.
So next time you find your site not performing the way you hoped take a little time and due diligence to really understand the problem. It could be that a simple change could make you a hero.