New web technologies are offering designers the ability to create exciting new levels of interaction and usability in websites. One of the hottest new user experience (UX) features is parallax scrolling, which gives web pages a cool 3-D visual effect. As a user scrolls down the page, elements in the foreground (usually the text or other primary content) move faster than those in the background. Additional layers can be added to create eye candy that is visually stunning — and quite easy to abuse.
Problems always arise when web design puts more emphasis on pizazz and special effects than content. Design is about form and function; when this balance is off, visitors can become easily frustrated as expectations about what a website will offer are dashed. The technology itself is never the issue here, but rather the misuse of it.
Because parallax scrolling is both very trendy right now and such an all-encompassing effect, we thought it would be an excellent time to review some of the basics of UX design. If you just hired a web designer and are pushing him or her to incorporate major amounts of eye candy into the site (or maybe it’s the other way around), the following design considerations can go a long way in helping you strike the right balance between content and candy.
ARE YOU PUTTING SITE CONTENT FIRST?
Is the eye candy that you use a distraction or a mood-setting invitation to the user? Always keep in mind that all of us are now so inundated with graphical ads on the Internet, we have become quite adept at tuning out graphics and animations while scanning web pages for the textual content we came looking for. This can affect SEO as well. Quite often, eye candy on a website means much more code in relation to textual content — a ratio that is taken into consideration by most search engine algorithms.
ARE YOU SACRIFICING SITE NAVIGATION?
Is a visitor to your website able to get to where they want to go quickly and efficiently? What is the “cash register” of your website? Whether it is a “Buy Me” button or a “Contact Us” page, you don’t want extraneous design elements getting in the way. Make sure the user can find the information he or she is looking for and the choices to access that information are clear. An example of a parallax-enabled site with great navigation is Boy-Coy.com. The navigation bar is clear and always easily accessible, but users can also scroll through the pages of the website, enjoying all the great eye candy without it being a distraction.
WILL THE EFFECT BE DATED IN A YEAR OR TWO?
Web design has seen its share of fads, with everything from headache-inducing animated GIF backgrounds to exasperatingly slow-to-load splash pages. These things were cool when they first appeared, but now seem dated and in most cases ridiculous. Thus it is important to ask yourself this question: Is the design element you’re so psyched to incorporate into your website an important directional shift in web design, or is it just a passing phase? If you are not certain and still want to use the effect, you may want to err on the side of subtle and tasteful.
IS THE EFFECT JUST ON THE HOMEPAGE?
Web search has become incredibly sophisticated. No longer can you make the assumption that your visitors will always arrive on your homepage. Think of it like designing a house. If you create an elaborate entrance to your home, yet the majority of your visitors show up at a side entrance or back door, all that fancy design becomes merely a facade. If you utilize a major design effect on your site, make sure you either incorporate it into every page, or at least keep the style consistent throughout the site.
WHAT IS YOUR AVERAGE USER’S EXPECTED EXPERIENCE?
Think about where and when average users will access your site. Are they at work and going to your website with a concern for productivity? Or are they relaxing at home with more time to enjoy eye candy and a willingness to be entertained? Some websites turn the tables on that expected experience in order to stand out or make their purpose more clear. A prime example of this is the online resume of designer/animator Robby Leonardi. Typically you wouldn’t want to challenge or take a chance on wasting the time of someone looking at your resume, but Robby’s clever game-like graphics and navigation-less, story-boarded website express his design talent and imagination far more than a more traditional web layout could.
Unless you have a phenomenal idea and the resources to pull it off, however, trendy, over-the-top UX design and non-standard navigation should be used judiciously. Just as too much sugar makes for a terrible diet, too much eye candy on a website can leave visitors hungry for the very content they came looking for. In the end, what is important is not just what looks cool, but rather that your website’s visitors can find what they came for.