So, humans are shallow. Although the word shallow has a negative connotation, I don't mean it particularly negatively. It's our nature to make judgements based on appearance, simply because appearance is the only way we have of forming a first impression.
So, if we presume that our website visitors will make a first impression based on the appearance of our site, it would make sense that we should make our site look as pleasing as possible. But how much is too much? Does design hinder accessibility? When have we gone a little bit too far toward our "design"? And when have we gone a little too far in terms of usability/accessibility? Is that possible?
Until recently a particular the trend among many websites was to use a series of tables, with images inside them, to create a fully image-laden page. All things were possible - it allowed for tiled borders, rounded corners, clickable photographs and other pleasing effects that just scream "multimedia". You continue to see it on your DVD menus.
Are we seeing a reversal of this trend? If you have seen the new SitePoint design, you might think so. Daringly, SitePoint has replaced their previously familiar "curvy" interface with a brand-new, "clean" and rectangular interface. Looking beyond the lack of rounded corners and curvy buttons, the usability of the site is much improved. But how much effort does it take for us to look behind a design?
There are a few ways of thinking about what makes a good design. We can think about how aesthetically pleasing or impressive it looks, and we can think about how familiar it is to us. When creating a design, we strive for both. We strive to make an original and impressive-looking look and feel, and we strive to make it familiar to the user.
When we start trying to make this design usable and accessible, however, often we are forced to make difficult decisions. Should we remove the rounded corners and the curvy buttons in favour of a quicker loading time and a more familiar hyperlink? Just how far can we take it when designing an interface, and then how far can we take it when we're trying to make it usable? Does a compromise have to be made?
Technology seems to be coming to the rescue. While Cascading Style Sheets have existed for years, we are now beginning to see them in wider use, due to the gradual disappearance of outdated browsers such as Netscape 4 and earlier versions of Internet Explorer. CSS makes it possible for us to make our rather basic and simple design a lot more interesting. We can do all sorts of things we couldn't do before, just by changing the style sheet - and best of all, it doesn't have to harm accessibility or usability. Alternate style sheets can be selected by the user. Style sheets can be provided for print media, spoken text, and other formats - providing the potential for interfaces to become both more flexible and more accessible. The entire layout and design of the page can now be done, due to the power of CSS2. It does give us new possibilities, but it isn't a full replacement, yet, for the tables-and-images design. What's missing is the curves and rounded corders.
Thankfully, in my opinion, it seems that "curvyness" is on the way out. It doesn't seem to be as popular now as it was two years ago. It this is true, then, it would indicate that now would be a good time to move away our tables-and-images designs and experiment a bit with some cleaner HTML and some alternative style sheets. Perhaps, by the time CSS3 comes along, we'll be ready for the return of the rounded corner.
While designing for usability and accessibility can seem like a compromise, I don't think it has to be a particularly awkward one. I, for one, don't mind the disappearance of curvy tables-and-images based designs in favour of a better loading time or a more intuitive navigation system. I've seen some awesome CSS-based designs. If we tone it down on our designs, our visitors may just be more able to see past our designs to the content and navigation beneath.