Designer’s Toolbox: Learning Web Design from a Fixer-Upper House

Joy's home remodel has a lot in common with her work as a designer.

A blueprint of a building

How does web usability match up with real life experiences? I happen to think quite a lot. For example, I recently took on a house remodel, and a lot of the skills I used in that project come in handy every day in my work with clients. I bought the house despite my own doubts and against much friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) advice from others. It was a raggedy “handyman’s special” foreclosure that I needed to strip down to its bare bones and remodel — it was a project that required both equal amounts of creativity and problem-solving.

Planning for Users

While redesigning my home, I was forced to examine design in its purest form. I was tearing down walls not only to get rid of them, but also to make way to build better ones. Around every corner was a test of usability in form and function. I had to make decisions, and I used the same process that I use when designing a particular button or call to action for a client’s website. How would I be using these things? What were the reasons for each item’s existence, and how could they be as pleasant and efficient as possible in daily life? At work, we call this subject, the way the user and the client will interact with a system or interface, user experience, or UX for short. Just as my home design forced me to question everything, good UX is achieved by examining every part of a project, even the parts that seem small.

As I plunged deeper into studying house design, I realized that I was drawn to ideas that incorporated a holistic approach. One thing that helped with my house was sketching out plans, similar to the way I begin a web project.

Be a Collector of Information

In my kitchen in particular, each part of the design was critically important. If I removed even one thing from the design, my feelings about being there would change. I studied for months to figure out what would make me happiest in that space. I browsed Scandinavian design blogs and I focused on which things I could live without and which I couldn’t. I created a folder on my computer and collected data and ideas so I could reference them with my contractor. It was a time of exploration and discovery, but that time was well spent, because my research helped me figure out exactly what my perfect kitchen would look like, from the glass panes in the cabinets all the way down to the hardwood floor.

The same is true in web design, of course. Gathering lots of information about what you like, what your customers like, and what your competitors are doing well are the first steps to creating the perfect website for you and your company.

Analyze All the Tiny Pieces

In the end, I feel great being in my kitchen not only because it’s shiny and new, but because when I walk into that space to do basic things like get a glass of water, it’s easy and comfortable. I don’t have to walk around a pesky curved island to get to the cabinet and then the fridge. The new square, smaller island allows me to walk straight in. That may seem picky — but it’s not. Little things like that add up and ultimately define your level of satisfaction within a living environment. I took down doors and opened up spaces to allow for easier movement. I smoothed textured ceilings because I felt better when I was surrounded by those smooth surfaces instead of dusty clumped-up sheetrock mud. With every new decision I had to make, I remember saying in my mind, “This is how I want to feel when I’m in my home, and this is the way I think I can accomplish that.”

When it comes to home building and website design, the little decisions are often the ones that make the biggest difference. A countertop is not just a countertop. It can be pliable, rigid, difficult to use, multipurpose, none of the above or ALL of the above. It can either propel you to work on it in a way that is satisfying or cause you to never want to cook again. Similarly on the web, a button should not be regarded as a simple button. The UX considers not only the button’s design, but also the user’s ease of understanding and how the user will feel when clicking it.

You can see the difference a little tweaking makes. By bolding the headline font and adding a background to the button, the user is able to more easily see which steps to take next.
You can see the difference a little tweaking makes. By bolding the headline font and adding a background to the button, the user is able to more easily see which steps to take next.

Test and Re-examine

Creating a great experience includes a lot of hands-on interaction with our clients to find out from the very start what their goals are and what kind of users they are targeting. We can’t always provide the final solution from the very start, but by diving in, educating ourselves as developers on both psychology of the user and the experience we are working to achieve, we can better understand how to get there. I was pleased with how well my home turned out. After putting in the hours of research, it really makes me happy in the end. When faced with any sort of user-based digital solution, the same principles apply — and I hope our customers are just as happy with the sites I design for them as I am in my new home.



About Joy

Joy takes a holistic approach to life. She’s most likely to snack on nuts and berries, to spend her weekends hiking and biking, or sneak in a yoga class over lunch. Joy believes that music matters, self-care is important, and a well-rounded approach is usually best — she applies that strategy to website design as well, creating careful, thoughtful designs where user experience is paramount. When she’s not debating over fonts and color selections at her computer, Joy likes hanging out with her kids, baking (we love when she brings her creations to work) and posting Instagram vacation photos that are the envy of the office.

See more articles from Joy Sandlin

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