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Reduce costs and improve usability with visual standards, part 2

by Mike B. Fisher on September 11, 2009

Quick summary:  In part one of this two-part article we examined ways in which weak or missing visual standards detract from website and application usability. Here we look at ways to address the problem.

We’ve looked at the problems created by a lack of visual standards. And we’ve considered some reasons these problems arise. Now let’s examine activities and methods that can improve visual standards and help ensure they have a positive effect on user experience.

There are a number of activities that should be integrated into your development and production processes to improve visual standards. Consider the following:

Seek consensus; encourage participation. It’s critical that the importance of standards be understood and agreed throughout your team – and throughout your organization. It can be helpful to communicate to team members and other stakeholders that standards enforcement is a shared responsibility and affects bottom-line success. For managers it may be helpful to reward individual contributions to creating, enforcing, reviewing and improving standards.

Create and document. Naturally it’s necessary to create standards documentation. This starts with discussion and decisions about appearance and placement of elements such as links, blocks of copy, site-wide navigation, breadcrumbs, graphics, logos, and form elements. Everyone agrees to the initial standards, then they’re documented.  Documentation should include as many visual examples as needed. (Side note: I’ll devote a future article to picking apart a standards document and providing guidance for creating one).

Visual standards don’t need to be high-fidelity representations. It’s often fine to use wireframes or rough graphics to represent initial standards ideas (general appearance of forms and dialogs or the sequence of information within a display). As the final graphics are created you can always go back and update the standards document with the most recent examples.

Share. The best visual standards document does little good if it’s not shared and readily accessible. While it may seem obvious, this step is sometimes overlooked. Ensure all members of the team have the document(s) and place them in a widely accessible central repository. Updates should be circulated to the team in a “push” manner rather than a passive “come get it whenever”.

Deputize. It’s often helpful to assign one team member the job of “standards cop”. For many teams it makes sense for this role to fall to a project or product manager. But it could just as easily be a graphic designer, developer or any team member granted the authority to monitor adherence to the documented standards.

Review. Adherence to standards  should be assessed periodically, as should the standards themselves. This probably isn’t necessary at every product meeting (especially for scrum or agile teams who have very frequent, brief meetings) but it should be done multiple times throughout the development process. It often makes sense for the “standards cop” or product/project manager to lead the standards review, though this is a matter of individual team culture and process. Reviews may at times reveal that the standards should be revised (see below).

Revisit. A standards document should be considered a “living document” and not a one-time affair. Technologies and business goals change over time, as do user needs. It’s sensible to periodically revisit the standards and ensure they reflect the most current vision and realities of the product and its audience.

Indoctrinate. If team members are added be sure to include standards discussion and documentation as part of the ramp-up process. If it helps, think of it as a very mild and beneficial form of brainwashing.

Creating and applying visual standards needn’t be especially complex or time-consuming. Best of all it can result in big payoffs:

  • Greater consistency (different screens look like they belong to the same site/application)
  • Easier and faster to produce the product (everyone’s on the same page; less confusion)
  • Fewer fixes  (reduced need to hunt down inconsistencies post-launch)
  • Improved usability (users will find it easier to understand and use the interface if it’s consistent)

All that in return for a little attention to visual standards?

Seems like a good deal to me.


Photo by charlottel. Creative Commons licensed.

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Related posts:

  1. Reduce costs and improve usability with visual standards, part 1
  2. Store locator usability: problems and best practices, part 2
  3. Store locator usability: problems and best practices, part 3

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