Empirical Design. Can a computer really design a better site than you?



When iOS7 came out a few days ago, I was struck by how evolutionary design improvement has become. I’ve already forgotten what iOS6 was like. In my mind it’s now a relic, useful at the time, but now surpassed and bettered. All those subtle changes Apple engineers and designers made to improve how I use my phone. And as a user, I don’t notice all of them consciously. I just know that I like it better this way.

And so it should be with website design. I am convinced that web design will become part of a feedback process. New designs will be continually rolled out and optimised for user experience (but updated much more regularly than iOS). Used, loved, forgotten, replaced.

If you think back over the last 10-15 years, website owners and developers have traditionally made huge efforts with a ‘new look’ or a ‘site upgrade.’ Some unfortunate people I have known in the past have spent a ton of money on their ‘new’ site and sadly, a lot of this effort and money was wasted.

It’s the content, especially the raw ‘structured content’ that form the essential building blocks of any great informational site. After all, it’s not the ‘design’ of an informational site that shows up in search results – it’s the results of a specific user query.

User behaviour statistics are easier than ever to access. Google Analytics will give you bounce rates, time on site, page views per user and a hundred other parameters that are all easily measured. So it makes sense to move toward totally empirical design; where thousands of layout changes are tested and run against each other simultaneously. And the feedback from those tests drive the way a site looks. All those hundreds of design changes and decisions have to be weighed against one another to improve overall usability – now that sounds like a job for a computer, right?

Does this mean ‘The End’ of the web developer? Far from it. Did digital animation replace hand-drawn animation? Was Art replaced by Photography? Of course not. Human creativity and flair are absolutely essential in the process – but the design interface is changing. Empirical design, as it gathers momentum, will become like a free usability upgrade – but for the whole web. How cool is that?!

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