How to Effectively Use a Unique Website Layout
Last week I published a gallery of 20 Websites With Unique Layouts, which got a mixed response. The post did very well with social media and most of the comments were positive, but some readers didn’t like a few of the sites that were featured or they simply pointed out that particular sites were not user-friendly. I wasn’t at all surprised by this response, primarily because it is true. Several of the sites in that were included feature a unique layout, but some of the qualities that make the layout unique also make the site difficult to use.
As I mentioned in the comments of that post, the goal of the gallery was simply for inspiration. I’m glad that readers appreciate the need for usability and that they place that need above the importance of a design that will wow visitors. With that in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to take a look at the challenge of implementing a creative design while still maintaining a website that functions in a user-friendly manner.
Why Use A Unique Layout?
Most of the websites included in the gallery clearly set out to create something unique rather than simply use a fairly standard and safe design. I think anytime something unique is created there are going to be those that like it and those that don’t. I doubt the goal of most of these sites was to appeal to everyone that visited. In some cases, the unique layout and design is excellent for branding, and that is probably one of the main benefits of the design. Visitors arrive, see something different than every other website they’ve been on that day, and hopefully they’ll remember it.
Potential Problems of a Creative Design
Although a unique website can help for branding purposes, it may also cause some problems for visitors. As Eric commented:
“I enjoy looking at sites that break away from the norm. They really work well for certain purposes. As a portfolio or gallery, they’re great. However, if you’re looking for a way to display information… simple is good. In my opinion, a website should showcase its design OR its information. Both is simply too distracting.”
Eric hit the nail on the head with this comment. Trying to create a standout design while still emphasizing content is nearly impossible. In this case the design will overpower the content and the visitor won’t be able to focus on the content, which is the main reason that 99% of blogs use a standard layout. This allows the content to control the readers’ attention, which is the goal of most blogs.
Other usability issues were brought up in this comment by LGR,
“I stopped looking at the sites when they started to resize my browser, use flash only and eventually crash my entire browser. Beside the fact that the sites “look cool” what criteria did you use to pick them? Certainly websites that are resizing browsers, using only flash and eventually crashing browsers are not very user friendly.”
While I was browsing these sites I didn’t experience any of these problems, but if I would have my reaction would have been the same, to leave the site. Obviously, the negative impact of these issues would be far stronger than any positive impacts that a unique design would create.
I’d like to take a look at two sites mentioned in the gallery that I find to be very usable. First, Digitalmash is the home of web designer Rob Morris. What makes Digitalmash’s appearance stand out is the background image of Rob. He’s holding a page that contains all of the information on the website, and his head is poking out from behind it. When I visited the site for the first time it stood out to me right away, and I’m sure that’s the effect that it has on most visitors.
The home page includes an “about” section that gives all of Rob’s biographical information, which is certainly something that potential clients will want to see. The primary navigation is at the top of the content and includes links to the homepage, a portfolio, and a contact page. The site is easy to navigate (partly because there are not a lot of pages) and users should have no difficulty finding what they are looking for.
In the case of Digitalmash, a background image is used to interact with the content of the site to create something interesting. By standing out in this way Rob is able to get the positive results of a unique website without the usability struggles.
The second site that I found to be particularly usable is Basil Gloo. Basil is a graphic designer and web developer that uses the left side of his site for personal information and the right side for business. Aside from the blog it is really a one-page website that provides links to his networks and companies that he has founded. Although the site uses a unique layout and design, there is nothing to create usability issues for visitors.
Looking at these two websites enforces the point that Eric made in his comment. Neither of these sites features a lot of content. Both primarily serve to provide some useful links and contact information. For a site like this, a unique layout can be more effective because it can still be easily used by visitors.
One problem that I had with some of these sites is that I had to work too hard to find out where I was supposed to go. Navigation should not be difficult for visitors (and really it falls into the category of usability, but I thought it deserved a little more attention). If you hope to drive visitors to certain pages or sections of your website you should lead visitors to those pages by making links easy to find.
One potential pitfall of using a creative layout is that most visitors have probably become accustomed to finding navigation menus in certain locations. In this situation, visitors may be forced to work a little bit harder if your primary navigation is not obvious.
If you are aiming to stand out with your design, make an effort to allow visitors to easily distinguish your navigation. I feel that Popmatik (below) does a good job of this. The layout is unique, but the navigation stands out right away.
3. Page Load Speed and Page Errors
As LGR mentioned in the comment that was quoted earlier, some of the sites had major negative effects, even to the point that it caused problems with his browser. If you are requiring visitors to use a particular browser or to have something specific installed, it will obviously cause a real problem for some visitors.
4. The Design Overpowers the Content
By using too much creativity in a design you certainly run the risk of distracting visitors from your primary purpose. Any website that emphasizes content will not want to use a design that steals the attention of readers. If you want visitors to focus on content, use a design that complements and emphasizes the content, rather than a design that competes with it.
Keys to Consider for Using a Unique Design Effectively
- Never let a design take priority over effectively meeting the needs of the user. When building a website, serving the users and providing a pleasant experience on the site should come first. If a particular design or style will get in the way of meeting the needs of your visitors you will be better off using a different design.
- Always consider why the site exists. The process of designing a website can be exciting, but don’t lose focus of the goals and objectives of your website. Most likely your primary reasons for maintaining the site do not include having the coolest design around. Use a design that will help you to achieve your goals, not one that will hurt your chances of success. If a creative layout and design will help you to brand yourself and ultimately help you to achieve your goals, then go for it.
- Take into consideration what your visitors will expect from your website. There were a few websites in the gallery that are portfolios of photographers. Visitors of a photographer’s website may very well be interested in seeing creativity in the site. The uniqueness of the website may help them to appreciate the talents of the photographer in his/her work. Depending on what industry you are in, your visitors may have some preconceived ideas about what your website should be like.
- Will the site appeal to its target audience? While it may be tempting to design a site that you personally feel good about, what really matters is the opinion of those who you are targeting. If your target market will favor creativity and bells and whistles, you will probably want to make an effort to stand out with some of these elements. If your target market is more likely to appreciate a minimalistic design that features content and ease-of-use, that’s the direction that you should go.
- Don’t forget accessibility. A great-looking website does no good if it can’t be used. Accessibility can be an issue depending on how you aim to make your website standout. Achieving 100% accessibility may or may not be one of your goals. If it’s not, you’ll need to realize that you will be losing some visitors and willing to take that loss.
What’s Your Opinion?
Many of you provided great feedback on the original article and I want to thank you for that participation. Without that feedback this post would never have been written. What would you add to the points discussed here? Are there items that you disagree with? Feel free to share your personal experiences with your own website or as a visitor on other sites.