In the design trade, we work with several basic levels of tailoring the end product for the user, whether we are creating a web application or a chair.
- Elementary level: functionality and usability. The designer must make sure that the end product will do what it should do, and that it will actually be usable by an individual. It must be ensured that users will successfully be able to obtain it, make it operational, control it, and that it will produce the desired effect. That the chair will stand firmly on the ground, and that it will be suitable to sit on; that a web page will load in browser, and that will show the required information.
- Middle level: usability and ergonomics. On this level, the designer makes sure that the user will not only be able to use the product somehow, but do so in a meaningful and reasonable manner, and not to any detriment. That it will not waste their time, give them headaches, that it will not ask them to read instructions and learn how to use new technology, that it will not cause health issues or other problems. The chair will not make their back ache, and they will be able to manipulate it with comfort. The website will be intuitive and easy to navigate, and its design will not strain the eyes.
- Top level: user experience (UX). In other words; emotions, experience, aesthetics. Essentially, this is an optional superstructure on top of an already usable product ensuring that the product goes above and beyond basic usability – how much the product will appeal to the user, if they will enjoy using it, share their experience, recommend it to others and so on. The chair will be nice and soft, comfortable, with pretty upholstery. The website will be witty, entertaining, and its visuals breath-taking.
The designer must never add to the higher design levels at the expense of the lower ones. Each step up is only an optional extra, which must extend and improve product capabilities, not curtail them. Looking at all three levels in greater detail, it will strike us that the lower levels are always a pre-requisite of the levels above them. It follows that a product that does not work is not usable; there will be no ergonomic aspect- it won’t even come to that. And the user experience of a product that is awkward to handle, bothersome, incomprehensible, or only half functional, is without a doubt poor, no matter how beautiful or entertaining its packaging. If we cut down on functionality or entirely exclude a class of users from using the product in order to achieve a better and more exciting experience, we have committed a schoolboy design error. Therefore, each and every design must be built from the ground up: elemental functionality and accessibility – for as high a share of potential users as possible – must be designed first. Subsequently, we optimise such design, so that it can be used well, efficiently, and ergonomically – without decreasing existing functionality and accessibility. Only then can we beautify, refine, polish, weave through with experience, and decorate with emotions – but again, taking care that in doing so, we will not encroach on usability and ergonomics, or indeed the elementary level of functionality and accessibility.
And so, from the very beginning, while going about inventing the website’s basic features, we must always keep in mind its future users, and whether they will be able to use everything we come up with. A designer is usually automatically mindful of the majority of users – no-one would devise anything obviously useless and pointless to most people. All the more reason to be especially conscious of minority users. A good designer must think all sorts of peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, even oddities users will bring to the website; their various limitations, their personal, social, or technical condition, all their predispositions and “anti”-dispositions, and do her utmost to accommodate them. Or at the very least, try not to create barriers for such limitations to hit.
Always informed and thoughtful
But first we must distinguish between two things: unwitting and needless disregard of limitations and specifics of certain user groups out of ignorance on one hand, and disregard that is intentional, deliberate, and informed on the other. The latter saves us time and saves the client money, when we deliberately decide not to support a particular minority groups of users. We do so by setting a technological cut-off point, which means defining a certain small sub-group of potential visitors, for whose special requirements it would be overly difficult and not very efficient to cater, and deciding that for them, we will simply offer no information or simplified information only. If such a technological cut-off point is well judged, and only leaves a small minority of unhappy customers out in the cold, it is something extremely desirable, indeed necessary.
The former, on the other hand – disregard that is inadvertent and unintentional – can mean a lot of harm: needlessly missing out on visitors, possibly causing financial loss for the client. Having done so unwittingly and out of ignorance, we do not even know how big the pool of users for which we have made using the website harder or impossible is. Is it only a negligible handful of individuals, or an economically significant or influential group? Yet another reason why we must pay so much attention at the very beginning, during the project specification drafting process, in order to arrive at the most precise and detailed description of target groups, all their parameters, peculiarities, limitations, and requirements. And if needed, also create personas, exemplar user characters that we can then use to tailor the website’s design for the real-life users, and make sure they are as accurate as possible. A persona, when ideally prepared, will immediately reveal the user’s limitations and peculiarities, and as such, we occasionally happen to work them into our design automatically and subconsciously.
If a web design hits unexpected user limitations, we must have overlooked and neglected something when defining target groups and creating personas.
There are countess peculiarities and limitations among target audiences, ranging from almost negligible to really serious, which make it very complicated or even impossible for them to use our website. The key ones that need mentioning are socio-demographic and technical limitations, disabilities, or temporary user constraints.