Archive | June, 2011

Why we should appreciate invisible design

17 Jun

Recently I read the excellent Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. One of the key points Krug makes is that a good website should be invisible. A user has a goal to reach and that is their focus. The website is a pathway to their goal alone. This reminded me of an article I read whilst undertaking my Visual Communication degree – The Crystal Goblet also known as Printing Should Be Invisible by Beatrice Warde.

Wine Glass

Warde uses the analogy that a true connoisseur of wine would chose a clear, crystal, wine glass from which to drink their wine because this vessel has been specifically designed to hold the wine in such a way that it displays, and enhances all the wines qualities; the colour, the smell, and the taste. Its own beauty does not hide that of the wine which is the thing that we wish to consume. In the same way a website should be designed specifically to display and show the information that the user requires from it. It should not hide the information with needless flashy graphics and images.

Krug states that a good, clear website design is one that does not make the user think, it guides them clearly and quickly to the information they seek without hindering them in any way. The designer, who keeps their users’ needs at the forefront of their mind, is the designer who will produce a website that will function so perfectly that the user will not notice they have taken a journey at all.

Too cool to be called for

‘Without this essential humility of mind, I have seen ardent designers go more hopelessly wrong, make more ludicrous mistakes out of an excessive enthusiasm, than I could have thought possible… It is not a waste of time to go to the simple fundamentals and reason from them’.

Warde, B

Sometimes, in the quest for innovative design, the true purpose of our project can become obscured and forgotten; this purpose being the need of the end users. We often spend more of our time worrying about the ‘wow’ factor and how to make a website really stand out, than focusing on how we can achieve what the consumer needs in the most efficient, and effective way. Many users will not appreciate the skill of a great designer, as the design works so well it is invisible, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted. The majority of the time we only seem to notice when things are wrong.

Look for the invisible

If we spent our time looking for the things that make a website good, and appreciate them more regularly, we would be able to learn from them and use similar principles in future designs. The next time you use a website for the first time, and get straight to the information you need, try and actively remember; note down what made it easy for you to use and how this was achieved, and consider it the next time you work on a design.

For Beatrice Warde’s full talk on the importance of good typography and invisible print click here;



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Samantha Harvey

About Samantha Harvey

Sam recently graduated from Visual Communication. She joined our team in April 2011 and has been conducting user research and has been making sure our user interfaces follow good design principles. She's keen to point out our poor selection of fonts... er I mean typography (sorry Sam). Follow Samantha on twitter @samharvey_ux

Avoiding human error with good design

3 Jun

Recently we designed some shiny new business cards to go with our new website brand that we will be launching soon. So when the new cards arrived, we all crowded round in anticipation as the box of new cards was opened.

Spelling mistake business card

Spot the spelling mistake


With an ‘ooh’ and an ‘aah’ we were all pretty happy with the design, until someone spotted that we’d spelt architecture wrong in ‘information architecture’. We all proof read them before sending them to print, but we all missed it. Gutted, we had to go back to the drawing board to create new cards and get them printed again.

Our mistake could have been easily avoided if Adobe Illustrator had a spell check feature which highlighted errors as you type. Sure this may get annoying and not everyone would want it, but how much more annoying is it when your new poster, website banner, leaflets go live with a whacking great spelling error that other people had missed?

It’s a relatively small inclusion in terms of design effort on Adobe’s part, and how many times would it save a designer from looking like he should have paid more attention in those spelling lessons back at school?

The fact is that as humans we will always make mistakes; ‘to err is to be human’ as the saying goes. The trouble is that most designs are pretty unforgiving when it comes to human error.  We’ve all seen harsh error messages blaming us for our stupidity, undecipherable error messages, and error messages which are hidden in obscure places in new technology. It’s the designer’s role to make the user feel confident and in control at all times, not to make them feel stupid.

Error message

Unhelpful error message

Helping users recover from errors is important in design. Making them aware of the issue and the steps they could take to overcome them is fairly easy with just a bit of thought and anticipation. What is much more difficult, but much more important, is to avoid human error in the first place.

Some time ago it was my job to help avoid human error from occurring in air traffic control. I worked in a team whose sole responsibility it was to spot potential human errors and avoid them through design and procedures. We also looked at errors that had been made and interviewed air traffic controllers to understand how the error occurred and what we could do to fix it. Although designers may not always have that opportunity, the philosophy of that approach is fairly simple: Any human error could be avoided through good design.

Petrol pumps

Petrol pumps all look similar

Let’s take a couple of examples.

A fairly familiar mistake to some is accidentally putting diesel in a petrol run car. Anyone who’s ever done this will know that this is not good for your car! What can be done about that error? Well you could label all the people who do this as merely stupid, and not do anything. Or you could have a bit more compassion for people who are tired, stressed, with lots of things on their mind, who might have accidentally chosen the wrong coloured nozzle at the petrol pump and design errors out of the system.

When you accept that design can help remove the error in the first place, plenty of solutions reveal themselves; different shaped nozzles for petrol and diesel that only fit in the right car, redesigned petrol forecourts to separate diesel from petrol cars and so on. Of course the only thing is many of these are quite costly solutions with some practical issues.

Google attachment alert

Google’s clever error avoidance pop-up

The great thing about software, apps and websites is that small design changes can be implemented relatively quickly. How many times have you sent an email without an attachment, only to receive emails back asking ‘where’s the attachment dumbass?’ Well, thankfully Google took the steps to tackle the problem by alerting users before the email is sent that they had mentioned ‘attach’ in the text but hadn’t actually attached a file. It’s a wonderful example of spotting human error and avoiding it from happening.

We can never stop humans from making mistakes, and some mistakes contain fantastic learning opportunities for us. But there are plenty of small mistakes people make when using your website, app, or software that could be avoided. Let’s empower our users and make them feel great using your service, rather than make them feel stupid. All you need to do is take the time to anticipate potential errors, help users recover from them, and best of all help them to avoid errors completely.

How could better design have avoided errors you’ve made recently?



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Damian Rees

About Damian Rees

Damian has worked as a usability and user experience consultant for over 13 years. He has worked in senior roles within companies like the BBC and National Air Traffic Services where he has researched and designed for users in a variety of different contexts including web applications, voice recognition, and air traffic control interfaces. Follow Damian on twitter @damianrees