29 January, 2010

On Web Typography

There are many books and articles on typography, but considerably few explore typeface selection and pairing. With the floodgates poised to open and the promise of many typefaces being freed up for use on websites, choosing the right face to complement a website’s design will need to become another notch in the designer’s belt. But where do we start?

Until now, using any typefaces beyond those installed with computer operating systems by default meant using images, Flash, or some other workaround. But browser makers have put the ball in our court by implementing the @font-face CSS property, which allows designers to link to any font file and pull it into their pages.

This exposed the elephant in the type foundry: Type makers have largely refused to license their raw typefaces on webpages out of concerns about piracy. The @font-face implementation has brought this concern to the forefront, prompting all parties to figure out a mutually copacetic solution. And many solutions are either available or in the works, ranging from augmented font end-user license agreements to hosted third-party font services such as Typekit, Typotheque, and Kernest. Web designers get more options for type, and foundries and type designers make money off of their creations. Problem solved, right? Sorta.

Brave new world

We’ve been spoiled. Until now, chances are that if you dropped some text onto a webpage in a system font at a reasonable size, it was legible. What’s more, we know the ins and outs of the faces we’ve been forced to use. But many faces to which we’ll soon have access were never meant for screen use, either because they’re aesthetically unsuitable or because they’re just plain illegible.

The technical problems with web type also run deep. Inconsistent rendering across browsers and platforms is a substantial hurdle, as are the problems inherent in serving a font file, or more likely a font family: Page sizes can easily jump to 100k and higher. But let’s assume for a moment that these problems will get smoothed out in short order so that we can focus on what to do after that happens.

There’s a serious possibility that by gaining access to the world’s font libraries, we’re opening Pandora’s Box. Many people working on the web today have some knowledge of typography, but my hunch is that many designers are about to feel quite baffled by the new challenges they face.

Context and meaning

Being a web designer will soon require a deeper understanding of typography and how typefaces work. As we move in this direction, our options may be limited at first, but the pool of choices will steadily grow. And as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. Just because you can use the font that looks like it’s wearing bellbottoms, doesn't mean you should.

The system fonts we commonly use such as Georgia, Verdana, and Arial have become so ubiquitous that any associations we might have with them other than “web” are pretty much gone. The aesthetic expression we were unable to achieve due to scant selection afforded us time to hone legibility on a grand scale. This has largely made the web a “set it and forget it” world, in part due to the rapid state of publishing, but also because we don’t have the fine control over typography that we have in print design.

Picky, picky

Using a typeface because it looks interesting might yield acceptable results, but really practicing the art of typography involves understanding typefaces and what they mean. Picking a good-enough face isn’t that hard, but choosing an appropriate one that fits comfortably within societal and technical concerns can be tough.

Notable type designer Zuzana Licko once said “We read best what we read most.” This notion rings true in our learned behavior, but also reveals the reason for the typographer’s toughest challenge: Reading is a personal and relative act. Reading a long passage in a blackletter face that was considered “readable” centuries ago would take us considerably more time than if that passage was set in a basic serif face. Most of what we read now is set in simple serif and sans serif typefaces, whether in print or online.

Beyond the question of readability, much of typography comes down to contrast and form. The details of a typeface can inject meaning into a design: Soft lines and stroke weights, for example, can be useful for delicate material or to give an air of elegance and dignity. Those same attributes can be juxtaposed with unexpected content to produce an ironic effect.

Here’s a list of qualities and methods to keep in mind as you venture into the widening world of web type.

The drop dead guide to choosing and pairing typefaces

As we look to our coffers for new selections of typefaces, the smart money stays true to what we know: Find typefaces that are in our general realm of readability—the ones we use and read on a daily basis. Anything that hits on those points on the “legibility spectrum” (possibly a four quadrant graph) will be best, and will be easier to read. The farther we veer away from that, the more difficult our designs will be to read. That’s not to say there isn’t a wide gray area of legibility.

Contrast

Contrast is probably the most important thing to keep in mind. When pairing typefaces, it’s important to be able to tell that there are two distinct typefaces in play, but contrast has other uses as well. Very different typefaces can play off of each other in complementary ways or resist each other to create a bit of tension, while typefaces that appear too similar can weaken the message and confuse a design’s visual language.

The basics of body text

When choosing typefaces, I like to start by picking a text face for body copy, as this is what a reader will spend the most time looking at. For body copy, look for typefaces that are sturdy and legible at smaller sizes, and for those that have a healthy contrast between characters.

The best text faces generally have some personality, but not so much that it distracts us from the content or experience of reading. Typefaces that have a lot of personality are better reserved for display sizes, as they can become cumbersome to read in longer passages.

Read me

As text gets smaller, a slightly larger x-height and contrast can go a long way.

The usual conventions to selecting type apply for on screen use too, but due to the disparity in quality between the screen and a printed page, those conventions should be followed even more closely on screen, and possibly even exaggerated a little. High x-heights and a strong character body help keep your texts legible, even at small sizes. For instance, Verdana and Georgia, both proven screen typefaces, have a larger x-height and a bit more space between the letters so that text retains clarity even at small sizes.

What’s the message?

This movie poster from the double feature, Grindhouse, uses lots of different typefaces and styles, but does so in imitation of the kinds of posters that were emblematic of late 1970s exploitation films.

One helpful way to understand what you are designing for is to write down a general description of the qualities of the message you are trying to convey, and then look for typefaces that embody those qualities. If you are designing something serious, a playful handwritten display typeface probably won’t work. But a sturdy typeface such as Franklin Gothic could convey stability and strength while imparting an air of importance.

One typeface can be enough to say what you need to say, and two is usually plenty. If you are using more than that, have a good reason—like trying to achieve a certain aesthetic—such as replicating the look of an old boxing, film, or music poster, for example.

One sans, one serif

Bodoni and Futura have very different looking letterforms, but their structure is based on the same basic geometric principles.

One of the easiest ways to quickly create balance and contrast in typography is to choose a serif and sans serif pairing. It’s a simple, easily managed combination that can produce a cohesive look to the text if you select the right typefaces.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but typefaces from the same designer can sometimes work very well together. As in two paintings from the same artist, sometimes you can see the designer’s hand in two typefaces they’ve made. Eric Gill’s Perpetua and Gill Sans work well together because they share some of the same strokes and curves. Similarly, typefaces that were made to be paired, like Meta Sans and Meta Serif, often work well together.

Combining more than one display or script typeface is usually a bad idea. There are exceptions to every rule, but these typefaces usually have so much personality that one is plenty and two could confuse the mood of the text.

Look for typefaces that were designed on similar principles. For instance, despite looking quite different, Futura and Bodoni can make a great pair because they were both inspired by simple geometric forms.

Baskerville and Futura, "old" juxtaposed with "new."

Alternatively, finding two divergent typefaces can create new meaning or an interesting juxtaposition, as long as the contrast is strong. Pairing a transitional typeface like Baskerville with a more modern face like Futura could create an interesting statement on the idea of old vs. new.

Explore different styles

Type families such as Mark Simonson’s Proxima Nova contain a variety of weights which can be helpful in creating a design with diverse and flexible typographic possibilities.

Choosing typeface families with a good selection of weights and styles gives you more flexibility without needing to introduce more typefaces. Play a bold off of a light or italic weight for contrast, or try all caps or small caps with a bit of letter-spacing for a subhead. If you choose typefaces that only contain a single weight, you may find it very difficult to create the contrast that a passage requires to adequately distinguish sections visually.

To the library!

Many typefaces have an inherent connection with a cultural period or subculture. Depending on what you’re creating, this could be an advantage or a disadvantage. It’s always best to follow up on potential typeface choices by finding out where and when, and for what purpose they were made. Sometimes a typeface can have the right “look” but evoke the wrong connotations. For instance, Trajan has been appropriated as the typeface of choice for epic, thriller, romantic, comedy, and well, any kind of film, despite being nearly 1900 years old and Roman. Blackletter typefaces have long been a staple of heavy metal bands or anything that needs to feel “scary” or “dark.” Understand these cultural implications so that you can either avoid them or use them intelligently to bring clarity to your viewers.

Money, honey

We’ve been so accustomed to using system fonts that many web professionals balk at the idea of paying for fonts. But even when you use the typefaces that come with your computer, you’re using typefaces that you’ve paid to license—those costs are included in the price of your operating system. There are many free fonts out there, but most of them are free for a reason: They’re often fine at display sizes, but kerning and hinting might not be up to snuff and many aren’t complete or robust enough to be used in a serious way. Solid typefaces, like almost anything else of quality, usually cost money.

Trust your gut

Sometimes a pair of typefaces just looks or feels right together, even though you’re not sure why. These are guidelines, not laws: there are a myriad of types and styles, and sometimes you’ll be surprised what typefaces work together even when logic says they shouldn’t.

Ever forward!

The number of typefaces available to us increases every day. If your favorite font isn’t available yet, chances are it will be soon enough, though the problem of licensing, delivering, and selecting web fonts won’t be figured out overnight.

As more typefaces hit the scene, we need to understand how they can best serve our designs, and to push ourselves to move beyond mere novelty in our selections. If much of the web is made up of text—and it is—web typography can be a very powerful tool indeed.

21 January, 2010

How to Plan a Content Heavy Site

A major project can be intimidating. The first time you take one on, it may even be terrifying. But with a little planning, you will succeed with flying colors.

In this article, we’re going to walk through a few of those steps to successful project management.

Create a Project Workflow

This is a critical first step.A project needs clear planning from the start. Without a clearly defined workflow, your project will quickly become a muddled mess. Even using a management tool like Basecamp requires first creating a workflow definition. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Who will be responsible for the site content?
  2. Where is it being saved?
  3. What format?
  4. How should it be named?
  5. How are you going to track versions?
  6. What members of your team are responsible for what tasks?

These are a crucial considerations in the beginning of any project, and if you skip them now it will be very difficult to work with large amounts of data later.

Organize Files Logically

Once you have decided on a workflow, it’s time to get your assets in order. Make sure that there is a clear direction of where your files should be going, and what they are named. This is an important and logical second step in order to keep files organized in future stages.

A Sample Folder Structure

Setting up your folders is always a daunting task (there is always someone who does it better) but you can always learn something from trouble you run into. I have come up with a file structure that seems to work for almost all projects that I work on:

The “Client Files” folder is just what you would expect. It contains all files that the client has submitted to us for use in the project. Typically clients provide content, product images, and logos. I sub-divide the “Images” and “Logos” folders because we edit the files after we receive them, but we do not typically edit the text.

Other Considerations

If you are saving files to something such as Basecamp, documents should be a Word document, placed into a specific category (e.g. “Site Content”) for filing, and named after the page it belongs on.

If you’re using an FTP server, naming the files is a little more crucial. Something similar to Site > Text > HomePage_3October.doc contains a date so that you can make sure that you are using a current version. This allows the content creator to go back to specify a version easily.

Additionally, if you are building an e-commerce site, requesting data from a client in a spreadsheet might just come in handy. The columns you end up with will be unique to your project, but they will at the very least be: Product ID, Product Name, Description, Price, Options, Dimensions, Image File Name. Having this reference will be invaluable as you are spending that day inputting the data into your site.

Create a Site Map

How are pages going to relate to each other? If this is a really large site, how are the categories going to relate to each other and then pages within a category going to relate (relationships only need to be defined in one category if all categories are going to contain similar relationships).

There needs to be a site overview listing all categories and subcategories. You can go back into your main folders and create sub-folders for your categories at this point. By having a graphical or outlined site plan, you and the client will have a better understanding of how the site is going to progress.

Define Page Content

Now that you know exactly what the pages are and how they relate, you can begin to define the page types.

It’s easy to undervalue this step, but it is important not to. It lets you refine the site plan and formulate an effective ask for data and content.

Some of the main points things you should to consider at this point:

  1. What types of pages are you going to have?
  2. What kind of forms are needed, and where does the information go?
  3. Is there a database in play?

From these three generalized points, you can build a whole checklist of further items to review (e.g. Setting up form email accounts, legal pages, etc.)

Inventory Existing Content

What data do you have available or finished? Once you’ve completed the previous sections, it’s a good idea to inventory existing content. Verify that you have the pictures of products or people that you requested, that all of the descriptions exist and that they follow proper format.

Something missing? Go back and check your sitemap and project folders. Making sure you have all the data that you need tucked away neatly into proper folders will prevent headaches and holdups when trying to finish up the project.

Make a Timetable

Make a calendar. Put deadlines on it. This will help you focus and keep the project on track. Managing a large project can be a bit like training a cat — seemingly impossible for an untrained person, but with careful planning and persistence, it will be successful.

04 January, 2010

5 Universal Principles For Successful eCommerce-Sites

When was the last time you called customer support because you were having problems checking out online? Probably never! Cart abandonment rate is at around 60%, and most of it happens before the user even begins the checkout process. Sometimes, convincing your customers to trust you is your biggest challenge.

There is no “Consumer Trust for Dummies,” but as eCommerce designers, we need to focus on some fundamentals. The following topics may seem as obvious as walking into a seven-foot Wookie, but rest assured you will find plenty of websites with a mouth full of fur.

1. Paint Your Pictures At Home

If your core demographic is women between the ages 35 and 65 who have an annual income of $60,000+, you would treat them different than the 18- to 25-year-old male demographic. First and foremost in e-tail: forcing your visitor to think is a bad idea. When creativity stops being subjective and can be measured by a dollar amount, making sure you’re designing for the customer is a no-brainer.

Years ago, I had an SVP of DotCom tell my team, “You can go home if you want to paint pictures.” And for the rest of the day, I couldn’t wait to get there so that I could make sure the next morning his inbox was full of expletive material illegal in most counties. After calming down, I realized he was right. All along, what he was telling us was simply to design for the customer and not ourselves. This was a challenge for designers working in an eCommerce corporate atmosphere but a very important lesson to learn.

2. Good UX Is Like A Perfect Movie Score

Build brand loyalty to gain patient, forgiving customers for a lifetime. For instance, Apple’s customer loyalty exceeds all other brands with an unusual cult following. Apple lovers forgive the company when it makes mistakes and zealously defend the company’s products and reputation.

How do you make your customers trust you this much? The answer is to give the user an “Experience.” It is not enough simply to make a website usable. The experience you create for the customer has to make them not realize that they are “using” it. It’s a tough concept to grasp, and the recipe changes from website to website, but the right combination of usability, creative design, writing, psychology and metrics and a strong brand will create an experience through which your customers learn to trust you.

Like the perfect score to a film, a good user experience is unobtrusive and transparent to the consumer because “it just works.” The Apple model will not work for everyone, but I often find myself challenged with a W.W.J.D. moment. Ask, “What would Jobs do?” and then look at other websites for inspiration.

3. eCommerce UX Pitfalls To Avoid

Just because a website is usable, does not mean customers will use it. Usability and user experience are in the same family, but more often than not user experience is the forgotten child. There are key areas in which the two must co-exist. Below are suggestions for some areas where websites should spend as much, if not more time, on the user experience.

Product Detail page

The product detail (PD) page is where some retail websites drop the ball. Too much focus is put on the design and usability of the home page, and that effort does not continue through to the rest of the website. More of the user’s time is spent on the product detail page than any other. Here, you need to offer customers all of the information they are looking for but present it in an intelligent way as well.

A few recent trends on eCommerce websites are “no-click” alternate images and swatches. A user simply has to roll over an image, without clicking, to get immediate feedback. The same approach can be used to zoom in to the image. Other UX options for the PD page are smart fields that let users know they still have to perform a required action before proceeding, without getting a typical error message.

The Checkout Process

Much like the PD page, the checkout process is a critical piece that engages the customer on a somewhat intimate level. However, unlike the PD page, where customers want to spend time to make sure they want what they are looking at, the checkout process should have as few steps as possible. Too many steps and the customer feels trapped.

But too quick and they feel like they have lost control. For instance, asking for credit card information too soon will seem out of order and no doubt scare even the most seasoned online shopper into abandoning their cart. Hidden taxes and shipping costs will make them feel like you are trying to take advantage of them.

Security

Always making sure your customer knows that your website is secure and that their privacy will never be compromised goes back to the issue of trust. It does not take much effort to display a message telling your customers that they are safe in your hands; a footer link to your privacy policy is not always enough.

Page Weight

A page’s weight is determined by its file size, by adding up every image, every line of code and anything that gets loaded when the user first hits the page. Libraries such as Scriptaculous, jQuery, MooTools and even Flash Shared Objects are often forgotten, but they all add to a page’s “weight.”

Some fascinating things are on the horizon for developers related to user experience and page weight. One notable development as of late was the release of Safari 4 Beta, which has support for HTML 5 media tags, CSS animation and CSS effects. As more and more of these features become standard in browsers across the board, we can look forward to offering users a better experience by using features directly in the browser.

4. The Value Of Content And Then SoMe

We cannot talk about user experience without touching on content and social media (SoMe). In order to be profitable, eCommerce retailers need to engage customers with their content and use social media outlets within and outside their own websites.

93% of social media users believe a company should have a presence in social media, while an overwhelming 85% believe a company should not only have a presence in but also interact with its consumers via social media.

  • 60% of all online adults use social media.
  • 85% believe a company should not only have a presence in but also interact with its consumers via social media.
  • 56% of users feel a stronger connection with, and feel better served by, companies when they can interact with them in a social media environment.

When a website such as Facebook, which just turned 5 years old in February, has an active user base of over 175 million people, it is easy to see the unlimited potential to increase your wallet share simply by giving your customers what they want. Some options are:

  • Give your customer the ability to add your website or product detail pages to websites such as Delicious, StumpleUpon, Digg, Twitter and Facebook.
  • Give them the ability to customize their experience on your website. These experiences can range from customizing the home page as they see fit to uploading their image to go beside their product reviews.
  • Create an RSS feed for your website. If your website has a blog or some other content area that changes regularly, give your customers the option to add it to their favorite RSS reader.

They say, “Content is king,” but if you cannot account for your king’s whereabouts, he needs to be beheaded. Your website’s content is only as relevant as its success. So, test as much as you can. Some tests you can perform to get hard data include:

  • Website and email A/B testing
    Split your promotion views between your customers. 50% see version A, and 50% see version B. You can perform these tests for just about any purpose, but make sure your goals are clear before beginning. Figure out what you are trying to solve, and then move forward with the testing. From changing your website’s navigation to simply testing the style of your promotion’s copy, doing an A/B test will give you the relevant data you need to decide whether to update or remain the same.
  • Polls
    Polls are quick and simple but, depending on your pool of users, can give you mountains of data. To get more people to take your poll, consider giving some kind of incentive to participate. Some polls are fun to take, but if you’re asking, “Which brand of television is better?” and not, “Who’s hotter, Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears?” then you may want to think more carefully about how much the feedback is worth.

5. Using Type And Color To Influence

Using color and typography is nothing new to designers. Using them in eCommerce is not much different. When designing for a retail website, your client is the customer. You are trying to convince thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of potential customers to click on your promotion and buy whatever you are selling. Consider the following.

Can It Be Read?

Most designers love to play with typography: twisting, shaping and contorting letters and word to obey your every whim, forming a beautiful masterpiece of skill and beauty. However, if your customer is not an artist, chances are they won’t get what you’re doing, and you’ve just lost a sale. Up front and to the point messaging is not always the answer either.

Consider using fun copy as an alternative. For example, if you sell banjos, instead of saying, “Shop New Banjo Supplies,” you could say, “Add More Twang to Your Thang.” As stated earlier with regard to designing for the customer, this depends a lot on what your target demographic is.

Can It Be Red?

No big surprise, red is the color of choice for error messages. But consider this when thinking about the user experience. What color does Target.com use for its error messages? Makes you think, right? Good! By the way, it uses red, too. The point is to consider alternatives. If your company has red in its brand, and the website has a lot of red as well, consider another color. You’re trying to get the user’s attention, so blue text with an alert icon could work just as well.

Consistency in Type: Stylistically and Creatively.

Making sure your headers, sub-headings and body copy are consistent across your website is easy. Making sure your website has a well-defined style guide is not. A style guide requires a lot of patience and care and is never complete. A website’s style guide should be a living, breathing document that continues to grow as your company and brand grows.

There is nothing wrong with this. As you find certain styles that perform better than others, find a way to add them to the guide. This document, depending on the complexity of your brand and the size of your website, could potentially be split into two separate documents: a creative style guide and a copy style guide. Each guide serves a different purpose but live together harmoniously.

source : http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/03/23/designing-for-the-user-experience-in-ecommerce/