Creative Design
Jessie Lacey
by Jessie Lacey
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Context First Web Design: Let's Start A Movement

10/08/2014
Context First Web Design: Let's Start A Movement

From 2012 through 2014 the design trends have been conducive to the explosive adoption of smaller screens and has designers thinking about UX. A design movement is happening right now that focuses less on pretty graphics and more on function with clean, thoughtful aesthetics that guide the user. Not that function over form is going to be the rule, rather, form and function will more closely be tied in a way that has been overlooked for nearly two decades. A designer who is not well-versed in UX will simply not survive.

Trends get the hype and while the next things I mention might be seen as trends, they are more than that. I would call them aspects of a design movement (rather than trends), including responsive design, micro UX, and rich content (less text). Not to be confused with what I’m seeing as actual trends: flat design, mobile-first, card/tiles, monochromatic, hypercolor, gigantic hero image, etc. I’m betting that these trends will disappear in the next two year.

Flat design still has a lot of legs left in it. Flat design isn’t necessary for clean usability, but rather, it is necessary for usability right now. I consider the flat design trend to be the designers’ UX learning lab. The form is stripped down to its basic components allowing designers to get reacquainted with those things we learned in college about product design and user interaction, and to bring them to our screens. Flat design is basically training wheels for better UX, and that is not a bad thing.

Now with flat design, the aesthetic has been streamlined, simplified and made efficient, designers can concentrate on the user’s experience. Thoughtful UX has become paramount because the users context has become more diverse than ever. Before, the context was limited to desktop computers (for the most part), we knew that a user was accessing a website either from home, work or school. We looked at analytics to determine that “mobile users were on the rise” but we did not think much further about this mobile user, just that there were a lot of them. The great divide was created where we had a simple, functional and separate website for those “invisible” mobile users while we concentrated our energies on the big beautiful websites viewed best on a desktop monitor.

Design trends can often times become dogma for some, giving no thought to context. I dare say that context is a huge and often-overlooked variable in thoughtful UX. No matter the look you might be going for, be it flat, minimalism, mobile-first or senseless scrolling, my first question is “who are the users?” and that should be your first question too.

I like to pick on mobile-first because while its intentions are good, it just isn’t always the best approach because, here we go: it doesn’t consider the context. I will be honest, I tend to cringe a little when trends are treated like design rules. In this case, it is a design process, which can box in a designer even more. Mobile-first is a reaction to designers ignoring mobile users and essentially ignoring context but mobile-first creates a dichotomy similar to the one it meant to fix, the divide between the mobile and desktop. The downfall of mobile-first though, is that it treats mobile users still, as one demographic cohort (or group). At least it has designers thinking about mobile users though. The next step is to step outside the users device and think about where the user is and what the user is doing as well as what the user wants, that’s context. One should design for the user and the users needs.

Context-first design is the approach of thinking beyond the content, being thoughtful and deliberate in your approach to the UX and taking into consideration the context of the user. Not just the device that the user is accessing your website with but striving to really understand and design for where they are, what they are doing and what mood they are in (driving in a car, walking a city, anxious, rushed, etc). It is user-centered design first and foremost, not device-centered.

Instead of Mobile First, think: Usability. Better yet, design with the Context-First approach.

It is becoming clear just how intertwined UX is with creative design. Especially now that UX is becoming a concept that companies are taking seriously, it is no longer feasible to ignore UX as an aspect of design. Form complements function, together they create the experience.

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