How to Master the Balancing Act Between Web Design and Functionality

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The technical and aesthetic components of “good” Web design are often presented as two competing forces, or separate entities that must be corralled into grudging cooperation for the sake of producing a functional product.

However, by implementing a few best-practice development process strategies, Web designers and developers can work as a unified team to achieve a common set of project goals.

From a website’s conception to official go-live date, the design and development teams need to have shifted out of their silos and onto the same workbench.

1. Know your audience

Obviously, one of the first steps to striking a balance between design and functionality is to understand exactly how your audiences will be using your site. Are they searching for information or trying to make a purchase?

A strong website facilitates its audience’s goals through both appearance and usability.

Bonding both design and development teams behind a common set of goals prevents power struggles later on. If internal disagreements arise at any point in the development or design process, those initial audience objectives will serve to keep the initiative moving forward.

The website exists to facilitate the audience’s needs; its design and functionality are simply means to achieve that end.

2. Bring developers on board sooner rather than later

One of the most overlooked aspects of the website development process is the project handoff between the design and development teams.

If you segregate the website development team from the design team, creating a shared vision becomes difficult; the likely result will be friction between the teams and, ultimately, compromises between the website’s appearance and functionality.

Looping developers into the design phase ensures that the workflow transition is smooth and the creative potential of both parties is fully captured in the final product.

Designers are not always aware of the possibilities and limitations associated with the technical component of website design, whereas developers might not have a grasp on a site’s audience-facing user-interface needs.

When both teams collaborate from the start, the odds of sticking to the project’s timeline and overall vision are much greater.

3. Resist the development veto

Although including developers during the design phase is an important step toward ensuring greater cooperation, it is equally important to avoid the trap of the developers’ veto. Developers must keep an open mind about website production, seeking to accommodate design and user experience requests whenever possible.

In practice, there’s almost always a technical way to achieve a design goal. In particular, the highly adaptable nature of third-party APIs and widgets ensure that almost any capability can be added to a website.

Of course, it’s up to the development team to be flexible and supportive, searching for new ways to implement design ideas in a way that minimizes overall website resource consumption and load times and preserves an optimal user experience.

4. Try before you buy

You wouldn’t buy a car before taking it for a test drive; the same should be true of a website.

Functionality and appearance are highly subjective metrics, and it’s imperative that website developers and designers check in with their client throughout the process. Building lightweight, functional prototypes helps a client—and the teams involved—understand and provide feedback to a project without nasty eleventh-hour surprises.

Prototyping is highly effective because it dramatically improves project efficiency. Rather than wasting time and incurring costs to rework website functionality, the concerns of client and developer are addressed beforehand with an easy-to-reference visual representation of the final product.

A hurdle addressed early in development is significantly easier to surmount than one discovered near project completion.

5. Don’t be a lemming

Though it may be tempting to follow trends and emulate the designs of other websites, at best that’s a surefire way to fail to stand out among other companies—and, at worst, to imitate serious design mistakes.

Consider, for example, the recent craze over long-scroll parallax websites. In such design schemes, most of a website’s content is located on a single page, which graphically changes as the user scrolls down.

Those sites are visually engaging and relatively easy to navigate using links or tabs, but they are a disaster for a website’s search engine optimization.

Search engines prioritize (and rank higher) websites that have many pages, with a clear focus for each page, over sites with a variety of information crammed into a few pages. The latest website design fad may look great, but that’s not much help if your website is buried on page four of Google search results.

Though it may be tempting to attempt to unify the development and design teams by imitating other websites, it is better to instead draw from the best elements of other sites and pages—and discard what doesn’t work.

Talk it out

Overall, the key to breaking down barriers between the website design and development processes involves implementing processes that promote cooperation across teams.

Rather than attempt to imitate the success of other websites or fall into a tug of war between site visuals and functionality, the channels of communication must remain open.

A successful Web initiative shouldn’t be a conscious balancing act between design and development: The two should complement each other in an effort to create a single, shared result.

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