Design principles

There are many different ways in which to design a website. What follows are sort of the rules that I try to adhere to when it comes to my own designs. I figured making these rules clear would help the interested reader in understanding some of the choices made here.

Agree or disagree? Be sure to let me know.

The user comes first

A website is created not for the owner’s pleasure or to showcase the skills of a designer or programmer. A website has a simple function: to provide information to the user, i.e. the person visiting the website. As such, a website should be as user-friendly as possible, with clear navigation.

This also means that under no circumstances should you remove control from the user. All too often, designers add interactive elements to websites such as animated sliders. But research has shown that sliders don’t work: most users don’t navigate from slider to slider and none of them have the patience to sit through the slideshow. Users want information as quickly as possible, so make sure they can find it when they want it.

You could even apply the Golden Rule here: do unto others as you would be done by.

Don’t obfuscate information

This is another user-experience issue, but one that’s important enough to list separately. It boils down to always presenting as much information as you can, without hiding any of it. A good example are dropdown menus: few people like them. You have to hover with the cursor over them before they show up and if users accidentally move away from the highlighted box, the menu disappears.

With my own websites, I essentially design every webpage to look similar to a page in a book: all of the information on the page should be readily visible, without the user having to have to open accordion menus or clicking through tabs. Certainly, there are instances where an accordion or tabs might be useful, but for the most part I would say these elements can just as easily be avoided. (Though I do admit that a mobile-style slideout menu can be elegant and useful, and since many people are now used to them, there’s no reason to go out of your way to avoid them.)

Furthermore, there is no reason to hide information based on the type of device that the user is browsing the internet with. If users have access to e.g. a sidebar when they view the website on a large monitor, there is no reason to hide (remove) the sidebar when they next visit the same page using a smartphone. In other words: make sure that the desktop and mobile versions of a website offer the exact same information.

Avoid unnecessary JavaScript

JavaScript is a great tool that can help enhance websites, but there is a tendency among some developers to go a bit overboard with it. I use JavaScript (especially JQuery) only when there is no other option available. Otherwise, if I can get the same effect using plain old PHP or some CSS3 magic, I’ll go with that instead.

JavaScript is used on this website for some form elements (e.g. the filter on the Museums page) and for Lightbox (used for the galleries on separate museum pages). If the user has JavaScript disabled, those features might not work, but it’s not going to impact the user experience too much. They may at most just have to perform an additional click.

Keep it simple

If you read the previous sections, this shouldn’t be a surprise. To me, simple comes down to robust: the fewer moving parts there are to a website, the smaller the chance that something, somewhere, will break. In this, I am always reminded of a passage from the third chapter in Antoine de Saint Expupéry’s book Terre des hommes (pages 51–52 in my 2016 Éditions Gallimard copy):

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.

In English, it’s often summarized as “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” De Saint Expuréry was writing here specifically about the evolution of the airplane, which in his mind was refined by craftsmen over the course of time, until perfection was (close to being) attained for this type of machine. That led him to write down that perfection is reached when there is nothing left to remove.

I like the quote, because I often catch myself making a particular feature more complicated than is strictly necessary, adding various bits and pieces that I eventually end up scrapping again in an attempt to keep things simple, straightforward, and easy to use.

In other words: don’t overdesign things; keep it simple.