At this year's Web Directions South UX conference in Melbourne, Robert Hoekman Jr, the author of Designing the Obvious and Designing the Moment gave a presentation titled — "The essential elements of Web application design". During the presentation Hoekman explained seven key design principles that should be implemented when designing Web applications.
1. Understand Users, then Ignore them
Hoekman argues we need to stop asking people what they want and concentrate on what they need. To figure out what users need, we should observe their behaviour rather than ask them, because people often don't know what their needs are or do not communicate the right information.
Furthermore, developers need to focus on the activity, not the audience. For instance, a photo-sharing website supports one activity, but has a wide audience.
2. Build only what's absolutely necessary
Simple applications are the most useful; as they let users concentrate on the goals they need to achieve. Senduit is an example of a file-sharing application that is very easy to use.
It is simple because no account is required and the focus is on the main task — sharing your files. Logging in and managing an account, such as changing your preferences would be unnecessary and make the application more complicated to use.
Just because a software has many features, doesn't mean that it's useful. The extra options could interfere with the work flow.
3. Support the user's mental model
A mental model is a representation of a real-life action. For instance, a trash can icon, makes it clear what the function is without the user having to understand the inner workings of the operating system.
4. Turn beginners into intermediates immediately
You should make it easy for the new users to get accustomed to the application quickly. This means clearly showing what the website is about and what users can do on it.
The website should be intuitive, so the user always knows what is happening and what their options are, because people don't like making mistakes.
5. Prevent errors (and handle the rest gracefully)
Task flow and interaction can be designed to prevent mistakes from happening. Hoekman says he has never made a mistake using http://www.backpackit.com/. The application is simple to use and gives the user the freedom to do whatever they want to the extent of not even having a spell-checker.
Squidoo.com, on the other hand is messy and does not clearly reveal what its purpose is.
The designer should implement the poka-yoke concept to "mistake-proof" their website. An example of this would be not allowing the user to add a product that's not in stock to the cart.
6. Design for Uniformity, Consistency and Meaning
Hoekman showed a screenshot of the new and improved Squidoo.com with tags and a slogan "Share your knowledge. Make a difference" which at least attempts to communicate what the website is about.
He then talked about the well-known "fish story".
These examples illustrate the importance of designing coherent websites that convey the right meaning.
7. Reduce, reduce, reduce (and refine)
The final point ties in all the principles above. Hoekman strongly believes in minimalist design, that is only including those features that are necessary.
His final word of advice was to ensure you build a clear and concise website that communicates the right message to the user.
The points Hoekman raised gave a great insight into what makes Web applications usable. Take his advice on board and start building better Web applications.