When most people think of design, they assume it refers to “the way something looks”. There is truth in that, for sure. The colors, fonts and images used in a design are definitely part of that design, but emphasis on “part” there. My definition of design is this.

Using every available factor at one’s disposal, including color, shape, layout, text, and imagery, to influence a viewer or user’s actions.

We’re not just making pretty pictures here, we’re driving the actions of other humans. It’s pretty grand when you put it that way. An art form to influence how other people will live their lives.

One important factor I’d like to touch on in today’s post is how perception plays a role in our lives, and should therefore similarly play a major role in our design choices. Consider this:

a city silhouetted under a cloudy twilight sky of orange, blues and yellows
An example of twilight, as photographed by m5 and Creative Commons licensed through Flickr

Twilight. It’s that wonderful time of day where the sun has most definitely set, and though it seems dark on the ground (that is, looking at your friends face proves him to be greatly shadowed, or trying to peer into a forest proves futile without a flashlight), the sky is still bright. Or, at least, it’s not midnight blue / black like the night sky, but more of a light to dark blue.

Looking at the example photo, think about how the time of year affects a common statement that might be made about this time of day.

Around June 21st, for example, when the days are at their longest, an observer might state, “Wow, I can’t believe it’s 9:30 and it’s still daylight out.”

Change the setting to December 21st, when the days are at their shortest, and that same person, viewing that same skyline earlier in the day might change their statement considerably. “Man, I can’t believe it’s already nightime and it’s only 5 o’clock.”

The same amount of light would be in the sky in both scenarios, but because the viewer is apparently pleased with longer days, they talk about the June 21, 9:30pm version as though it’s “daylight”, but refer to the same scenario on December 21st, 5pm as “nighttime”. Nothing changed about the actual amount of light (though the time it came around during the day changed, sure). What primarily changed was the viewer’s perception.

Likewise, a user’s perception may be different for web surfers as well. Take this example. is a pretty great site. Big images, some animation and layout that makes it fun to browse, easy to use for the most part. On your desktop browser that is. Giant images are easy to click on with your finely tuned to one pixel mouse. But visit that same site on your iPhone…

All of a sudden those large images are slow to load over a cell phone connection. The images are choppy as your iPhone 3G is getting a little too old to process the animations. The text is so small you’ve got to try and zoom in super tight to read it, hoping you don’t actually tap on an image with your fat fingers instead of pinch and zooming like you wanted to. Suddenly, what was a fun experience looking at all of the new MacBook Pro models out there has become a daunting, slow task and the user has moved on to reading because at least that site works well on his phone.

Nothing about itself changed, but the users perception changed based on how the site was affecting his overall life. Just like twilight at 5pm in the Winter, there were extraneous factors that influenced how the site was viewed, and the user was lost.

It’s important that we consider as many extraneous factors as we can when designing our sites: will this be more useful to users on the go, or at home in front of their laptops. If they want to make a purchase, will they be in a position to pull out their wallets and enter a bunch of numbers into a form, or is there a better solution such as Google Checkout that could be implemented. At the very least, you should consider the Summer/Winter scenario:

What will users who love the experience think (ie, long days of summer) vs. what will those who hate the experience think (ie, short days in winter)? You can’t cater to everyone, but you can try and design for those users who are going to look at your site as “dark at 5pm” with leaving them at least with a cup of hot cocoa to walk away with. No one likes freezing cold winter nights. Everyone likes cocoa.

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