News Analysis - Has the web design rulebook been torn up?
Recent major web redesign projects such as the BBC homepage redesign and the Tate beta site seem to reject traditional web design orthodoxies such as vertical navigation.
So has the web design notebook been torn up? And what structures are web designers currently working within?
Last week Tate launched its beta site, designed by Bureau for Visual Affairs which worked with its in-house team.
Although it works principally with a vertical navigation, there are horizontal elements, and crucially the site has been designed in a modular way ‘where panels can be switched on and off, depending on the content,’ according to BVA co-founder and creative director Simon Piehl.
Rather then siloing content along a traditional navigable side bar with sections and sub sections, Piehl says that content-rich sites can be designed without as much reliance on a traditional home page – instead a hierarchical design for visitors who come into a site ‘sideways’ through a search engine offers more detailed content which gradually unfolds.
‘Tagging content brings many live strands together – which is necessary because people are searching for information by subject, not the organisation the site belongs to,’ Piehl says.
‘Old structures are also being challenged by shortening user journeys from touch-screen devices, where tagging is helpful again,’ he adds.
For Piehl, the homepage has changed. Although many brands still use microsites, content-rich sites often use a visual ‘magazine style’ section to show what’s available. ‘It’s left standing as an index and gives users a sense of where they are,’ he says.
When the BBC redesigned its site last year, using elements of the global visual language developed by Neville Brody’s Research Studios to inform the look, it presented users with a visual homepage offering glimpses of content, navigable via a horizontal navigation.
This carousel uses colour coding to delineate categories and icons to show content type. Users can tailor personalised content through filters.
The BBC says the site’s navigation has also been governed by compatibility with smart phones, so that users can ‘swipe’ at content.
Head of homepage search and navigation for BBC Online James Thornett says, ‘We think the idea of audiences coming to the page for the things they need, and coming back for the things they discover is very compelling, and we’ve kept this front of mind during the redesign.’
It seems that this kind of thinking is informing site design in 2012, rather than - with hindsight – other schools of thought which might be seen as prescriptive now.
Back in 2006, an influential usability expert Jakob Nielson published the results of an eyetracking study which showed how web users read pages in an F shape – two horizontal movements followed by a vertical one.
The initial horizontal movement Nielson found, is across the upper part of the screen, the a shorter movement below this, before moving vertically over the left-hand side of the screen, down the stem of the F. This is traditionally how many sites have been designed.
Horizontal versus vertical isn’t really the question here though. Most designers will tell you that user-focussed solutions are paramount.
Co founder and creative director of Poke Nicolas Roope, says that horizontal and vertical navigation both serve a strong design purpose.
Spatial constraints have to be considered, according to Roope who says ‘When dealing with more content and sections the site will tend to be vertical.’
He adds, ‘We’ve been in discussions where constraining options in a horizontal form is a good thing – so rather than packaging up an offer into umpteen sections, we’ve been looking at a more considered entry point.
‘The main thing is despite a fashion towards one or the other, the fact remains, different types of content will better suit horizontal or vertical structures,’ he says.