Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Design



Design for the web involves much more than simply styling what has been prototyped with images, colors and fonts. It is also more than selecting a fashionable template that fits with current visual web trends. Design is a process that continues to build upon decisions made in the prototype, focusing on how the visual presentation reinforces the purpose of the website while also clearly communicating the character of the brand. Beginning with a discovery stage that combines the personas created in planning with other critical information, like existing brand standards and marketing campaigns, positioning documentation, and other feedback we gather, the design phase then proceeds with the creation of mood boards and lastly, the template-specific layouts.

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Website Mood Boards

moodboard.jpg Creating mood boards for the web is like visual prototyping. Like traditional mood boards, web mood boards compile inspirational elements, color palette, typography and texture in a context that emulates the screen but is not page-template-specific.

At this stage in the design process, it is more important to make bigger-picture design decisions than to consider how specific pages of the website will look, down to the pixel. In other words, mood boards establish a site's look and feel in the same way that a brand standards document specifies how a brand is represented in various contexts. Rather than including the actual layout of a products list page, it will specify which type styles, sizes and edge treatment of images, and other details, such as buttons and spacing, are used in lists throughout the site. Once the mood boards are approved, the design of site page templates is a much more efficient process since the more personal issues that tend to stall design decision making have already been made.

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Because the mood board is not concerned with specific page template layouts, it can be developed concurrently with the prototype. This keeps design-related discussions from interfering with the prototyping process, but also engages the client in design thinking early in the process. Being able to see the look and feel take shape this early is often encouraging and motivating to the client--a good thing since maintaining pace is critical to keeping the design phase on schedule and budget.

 

The Narrowing Funnel of Decision-Making

Like any other design process, foundational decisions support and enable other, more detail-oriented decisions. Since the mood board has already worked out the valuable thinking that goes into the design, the subsequent articulation of that design can be a much more streamlined process. Beginning with the basic arrangement of elements within the layout, decisions in this phase should become more narrow and focused, ending with less consequential issues, like what particular stock image is used in a promotional area far down the page.

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Violating this funnel can be quite costly. If the entire color scheme is called into question several weeks into the design of page layouts, or even after the mood board has been approved, the entire team would have to consider the cost (in time and resources) of going back to the start of the process. Something so foundational will naturally have a broad, sweeping impact upon other design decisions, which, in and of themselves, are less significant.

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arrow.jpg In this example (click image to enlarge), 3 versions of the homepage we designed for Tracks & Trails are represented. At first glance, all three look quite similar. However, first revision contains changes in proportion, specific type styles and icons used, the location of the global navigation, and the logo. In the final version, the size of the "vacation types" box changed, as did some of the specific images used in promotional content areas.

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Before the layout design process is complete, it's important to do one last review to make sure there are no remaining inconsistencies with the prototype, that the correct fonts are embedded, and that any stock imagery used has been accounted for and purchased. Once the design is approved, the designer can pass them (ideally, in layered and labeled Photoshop documents) on to the developer to apply to the site, which should already be in progress.







Comments

Justin | February 2, 2010 11:04 AM
Chris, Great post! Nice to see our process so well articulated. Perhaps this will help dispel the myth that we have an extra button on our keyboards that simply says, "Make Website."
Chris Butler | February 2, 2010 12:59 PM
Justin, Shhh! Don't let that secret get out. Otherwise, what would I write about every month? ;-)
Joanne Cirillo | February 2, 2010 2:08 PM
I watched your webinar on Personas and found it very instructive. Is there an application for this process if you're already way down the road on your web site development?
Jeri A Hastava | February 2, 2010 3:02 PM
Great post, and I would love to see the same post with the addition of content strategy - gathering, analyzing, and planning for content today and into the future - at the very beginning during the planning phase. Planning, designing and developing in the absence or "real" content can result in content that simply doesn't "fit" the site, or fails to convey the message - not to mention frustrated customers. :-)
Chris Butler | February 2, 2010 3:09 PM
Joanne: Definitely. In fact, I was speaking with one of our project managers just this morning about planning for persona development for a client that has been using their site actively for almost two years now. Specifically, this client does a lot of television advertising but has not yet focused their website on a particular segment. As a result, they don't really have any content strategy at all and are assuming that the same people that respond to a television ad are their web audience too. Our hunch is that assumptions is incorrect. The value of identifying personas is there, really no matter when you do it. It's always going to provide some insight that wasn't available beforehand.

Jeri: That's a good point, which is why the persona stuff is so critical. If you don't identify who you are speaking to with a site, you won't have any significant or accurate model for content. I'll be covering content strategy in the second part, not because it's secondary, but just because I wanted to deal with the fundamental/mechanical stuff first.
Robert | February 2, 2010 5:27 PM
Nice post, and when did you guys do the redesign? Looks great! Just curious though on the choice for navigation, use of images and a table? Seems odd, surely that could have been achieved with plain text and css. Just curious if there was a good reason for it.
Jason | February 2, 2010 7:11 PM
I see the value of having the project managers create and implement test plans. Being the most familiar with the spec makes them the most qualified to assess whether the project measures up. But what about the code itself? Who does a QA review of the code for security issues, leanness, web standards, etc.? I'm not a big shop like you all, so the biggest problem I've had has been with working with freelancers in the past and not having a way to ensure code quality, so even if a site looks great when it's first launched, it degrades fast. I've learned a ton as a result about how little I really know about code ;-) So now I depend upon other programmers to check the work in addition my own review.
Chris Butler | February 3, 2010 9:27 AM
Robert: We went live with our redesign on January 12. You can read all about the process in a blog post I published that morning called How We Redesigned Newfangled.com. As for your question about why the navigation is programmed the way it is, I'm going to let the developer who built it, Dave Mello, answer. From my point of view, the new site is significantly faster than the old one, which makes me happy!

Jason: You raise a good point. I neglected to mention developer code reviews in the QA part of the article. I can only fit so much in, but it is definitely a critical piece of the QA process. Right now, our developers have a code review prior to the site going live with our Lead Software Engineer, who evaluates their work from the perspectives you listed out. We were actually discussing this just the other day, and are going to move to a new model of having developer code reviews every two weeks- on a schedule independent of specific projects- to make it more of a developer department culture thing, rather than just a step in the project process.
Dave Mello | February 4, 2010 9:30 AM
Robert: Thanks for the feedback! In rebuilding the new site, we drastically reduced our use of images *and* tables. The result is a must faster load and rendering time. In the case of the main navigation though, I chose to stick with a simple table/image structure for a couple of reasons.

Since the menu system is dynamic, I wanted to utilize a little bit more control of how the columns appeared if the ordering or placement changed at all, particularly in older browsers. As for using graphics, since the menu actually serves as one of the main visual elements, I wanted it to be as consistent and attractive as possible, particularly in cases where no browser/os induced anti-aliasing was taking place. You are correct in that the same structure could have been built using only CSS, but I made the call to take the minor trade-off in performance to ensure consistent design. We are also using ALT tags in the image itself to avoid any SEO issues.
Chuck | February 4, 2010 5:43 PM
I read something good in another article about website mood boards from WebDesignerDepot - "Words fail miserably when trying to translate design concepts... Visuals communicate things words cannot." It's true. Why try to pitch a visual concept in a written form to get your client to buy into the design you haven't created yet? So mood boards are great at getting to the point faster. But I like how you emphasize that the strategy happens with mood boards and the production happens with the layout iterations after. Most desigers try to do both in layouts and end up redoing their work over and over again. In the WebDesignerDepot article they talk about when clients don't want to pay for mood boards. How do you handle that? Do you breakout the costs and let them choose?
Chris Butler | February 5, 2010 2:40 PM
Chuck, That's a good article you linked to- thanks. Our process always includes mood boards. We don't break out the price and allow clients to choose a path. The only time we wouldn't do mood boards is if we decided to not include them in the process for some reason- perhaps to keep the scope narrow and work within a lower budget. But in that case, we would have very specific contractual language to keep the scope of the design phase as limited as necessary.
Jessie Nunez | March 27, 2010 2:28 AM
Wow! I skimmed over many of your articles and plan to read them in depth. Great writing and content. By the time I'm done, I'll have a UI degree (of sorts).

I primarily focus on visual design for smaller businesses. These businesses generally don't have large budgets. However, I believe that best practices should be the rule and I ask lots of questions to help my clients think beyond "We need a cool web site with such and such bells and whistles".

I would appreciate any advice on how to implement and maintain good UI principles when the budget is under 10K (way under 10K).

Great work and much continued success to your firm.
Jann Mirchandani | December 20, 2010 4:39 PM
Chris,

Great article. I love seeing the process from a large shop; gives some perspective to what we're doing here; ways to improve and validating what we're getting right. Thanks!
Joel Milne | January 28, 2012 7:03 PM
Interesting idea, I like the concept of a more specific way of profiling users instead of just borrowing the traditional marketing plan approach to forming target profiles.
Adekunle | March 22, 2013 12:59 PM
Wonderful article.! Looks like mood boards breaks down the process into small bites for any design project. Thanks!

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