The debate between usability and design can at times pin designers and developers on either side of the fence. Most designers appreciate aesthetics and visual balance, while developers hold complying with accessibility and web standards as their focal point to a site. Often times, the battle between these two ideologies will lead to watered down designs, lack luster usability, or pasting things on after the fact just to fit things in there.

Enter the new breed of designers. Those who have the technical understanding of what’s possible and the visual creativity to make it look good. As a rule of thumb, if you graduated from college pre-2005, you probably didn’t get much, if any, technical training in college. You might have had a Macromedia dreamweaver course or maybe an entry level flash course, but chances are you were taught that design was design, on print or on screen.

In a world where content is king, building a brand based website is becoming less important than building a streamlined content delivery site. Where is the room for crafting a well designed website that meets the needs of SEO, complying with web standards, flexible enough to work in a CMS, and ALL the other roadblocks that make designers life’s a living hell?

I’ve put together a list of questions to ask yourself (if you’re a designer) when designing a website to help you design sites that are flexible enough for todays development.

 5 Questions to ask yourself to have a better web presence.

1. What do I need to make room for?

Years ago, as a college student, I listened to Stefan Sagmeister speak at an AIGA conference. He left me with many good lessons in design, but the one that I hung on to the most to was to never start with the computer. That the computer is just a tool and leaning on it too much would kill creativity. Taking this lesson into website development means not starting with designing the site. Instead, start with a wireframe. What content needs to go where? How much room do you need for a header, do you EVEN need a header? If you don’t start with a wireframe, you’ll just be going through the same motions. Starting with a wireframe is the blueprint to give you the guidelines to design.

2. How is my website being used?

Look at flat squeeze mayo. Some brilliant industrial designer specializing in mayo saw that their users were using mayo for 1 thing. Sandwiches. To put mayo on a slice of bread, you have to open the jar, get a knife, and slather it on. You’re left with a unneeded steps and a dirty knife. With flat squeeze mayo, you just open the bottle and squeeze away. Making it easier to use their product. But it took their designers having an understanding of how their product was being used to make that change. Watch carefully how people use your websites and make it easier to do what they are coming there for.

3. Am I getting the most important message across?

The first rule in advertising is simplicity. I call it the Cheesecake Factory effect. Every time I go there, I wind up taking 20 minutes to make my decision. The internet doesn’t allow for that luxury. If a user comes to your site and is overwhelmed with messages, they could just decide that it’s easier to hit the back button and go somewhere else. This doesn’t mean to exclude info, it means to prioritize information in such a way that if I want to dig down deeper, I can, but it’s my choice.

4. Do I need a page for this? 

I once worked with a guy that would draw up a sitemap, then fill pages with content. We’d build sites that had redundant info, too many pages, and confusing navigation because we were putting the cart before the horse. One method for answering this question is to start with having all the content for a website, all the info you need to build the site, in front of you before you ever put pen to paper. This allows the designer to break up content in such a way that supports the overall message as opposed to randomly deciding this is a page, then just filling it.

5. What is my message?

When I review websites, sometimes I use a method I learned in advertising. I’ll pull up a page for just a second, then hide the page. Then I ask myself, do I know what this page is about? If you can’t answer that question, the page is too complicated. Put the message front and center. Make the important stuff above the fold so a user doesn’t have to dig around to find what they are looking for.

As you probably notice, none of these questions are design related. I don’t talk about color, saturation, balance, or any of the stuff I learned in design school. Good design is born out of good user experience. One shouldn’t exist without the other. A good read on this can be found on smashing magazine.