Visual design is a large part of any website and is often the aspect of websites that people will most often remember. The visual design is how you choose to present your website and it is the first impression that users will have of your website.
So, ensuring that the aesthetic aspect of your website is up to mark is essential to having an efficient and usable website.
How to Test Visual Design
According to Kathryn Whitenton from Nielsen Norman Group , usability testing can be used to gauge the visual design elements on a webpage. However, caution must be exercised not to only focus on the first impression that the visual design leaves on a user. The details of the design, (such as font size, color, graphics, etc.) actually affect the usability of the website far more than the first impression.
However, details are far more challenging to measure than the first impression. Too often a user will only comment on the website’s color scheme when actually a problem may lay in the font size being too small. In order to uncover the truth about the entire user experience regarding visual design and make informed tactical design choices, Whitenton has laid out two main techniques to keep in mind: assessing opinions and behaviors and comparing multiple versions of designs.
Assess both the opinion and behavior of the user
Give the user a few tasks to complete while on the site and simply observe instead of asking questions. Through the process of observation, the way that the user interacts with the website, how much time they spend, and how much they comprehend will reveal important information about the website’s effectiveness.
Compare multiple versions of the design to each other
This technique is where usability testing will give you an advantage, since it will allow a user to compare two different design options at the same time. This strategy is called competitive usability evaluation. Again, make sure to observe first and ask questions later. It is also important to note that the most effective way to compare designs is to vary the order in which they are presented to users. If one design is always presented first, it may affect the way users interact with the second option, so switch up the order to ensure the best results.
Usability Testing of Icons
Icons are essential in visual design. Small, simple, and representative, these graphic symbols dictate how users navigate and interact with websites.
Despite their simplicity, icons have the potential to be confusing if interpreted incorrectly. Therefore, it is essential to test the usability of all icons on a website before incorporating them into visual design. According to Aurora Haley from the Nielsen Norman Group, there are four main critera to icon usability:
- Findability – Is it visible on the page? Is it too big? Too small? Incorrect color?
- Recognition – Can the user identify the symbol? Is it commonly used?
- Information scent – Can users anticipate the interaction with the icon? Is the purpose unclear?
- Attractiveness – Is the icon aesthetically pleasing? Or is it poorly designed?
Why Do We Need Icon Usability?
It is commonly assumed that a poorly designed icon is easy to spot. After all, everyone knows the icon that represents the phone, right? Which image below is the correct icon?
Icons depend entirely on the user and the audience. The two icons above mean the same thing, but one appeals to an older audience and the other to a younger audience. Choosing may seem simple, but usability tests should be conducted.
How to conduct an Icon Usability Test
Several methods are available to test icon usability. For a more in-depth description of all the methods, read this article. This section will focus on the two main categories: out of context and in-context testing.
Out of Context testing refers to the practice of showing a user the icon in isolation. This means that the user will not have context clues provided by the rest of the webpage to figure out it’s meaning. This type of testing is helpful in determining the recognition and attractiveness aspects of icons.
On the other hand, in-context testing refers to the practice of observing a user interacting with an icon on a webpage. In-context testing allows for the user to evaluate the findability and information scent of an icon. If an icon is poorly designed or poorly incorporated into a website, users will likely have trouble interacting with it.
The Dangers of Aesthetics
While it is true that visual design is the first impression of a website and is important to be tested, visual design can also present problems to the overall process of usability testing. It’s all too easy to get caught up in how to website looks and forget that the important aspect is how it functions. According to Kate Moran from the Nielsen Norman Group , users will often only remember the design elements from a website when asked to reflect on their experience. They will tend to be more tolerant of minor usability issues if they think it looks well designed. This is called the aesthetic-usability effect.
Essentially, this means that having a good visual design can trick users into liking a website that may not be the most effective. This can be used to the advantage of a web designer, in fact some companies, such as Apple, have built their entire brand on this effect. These companies rely on the audience being drawn to a product or website that is pretty over one that will function in the way best suited to their needs.
However, the aesthetic usability should not be counted upon to make a website effective. Wouldn’t you rather have a website that is effective to begin with instead of one that tricks users into liking it? In the end, it is important to not focus entirely on visual design when conducting a usability test.