Getting your website right - uses and misuses of web design patterns

The importance of a well designed website is absolutely crucial to future business, particularly when online is used as a channel for sales. With Internet penetration in the UK at over 65 per cent and over 86 per cent of these connections through broadband (source: Office for National StatisticsOpens in new window), your website's often the first port of call for any prospective customers looking for information about your company.

This article looks at the pitfalls of website design patterns and how companies can use them successfully to aid website design, helping to ensure an online proposition that's as effective as possible.

What are design patterns?

User Interface (UI) design patterns serve as common solutions to well-known design problems. They're arranged in a library for use as a reference or inspiration when designing new sites. Wikipedia describes design patterns as “a general reusable solution to a commonly occurring problem in software design”.

Unfortunately though, large scale patterns have been appropriated by some as an alternative to expensive website design. After all, an ecommerce site should just be like other successful ecommerce sites and an informational site should just be like other popular informational sites, right? Actually, this is a misconception; patterns aren't a substitute for good designers and a good design process.

Pattern usage

Some organisations have implemented UI patterns and�actively encourage their use during design and production projects. Yahoo! for example has a comprehensive library of useful small scale patterns which can be used�by Yahoo! Teams. This is also available to external teams, which is unusual for a company to offer (although the contextual information that informs a patterns use is only available internally).

Some organisations have avoided the use of pattern libraries because they've felt that highly generalised patterns have limited use when applied to the wide ranging design problems they address as a business.

The level of research / modification required to get a design pattern working within a new, unfamiliar context of use is potentially the same as simply starting from scratch. Also the relative immaturity of patterns in UI design means that there's an overhead that has to be factored in to maintain the pattern library.

So the real question is, should UI patterns really be a staple part of website design, or are you better off always starting from scratch? The answer is, that as ever 'it depends'.

Unique selling points

Your customers and the way you as a business meet their needs is by definition unique. You need a unique selling point for your site, it's no use just doing what your competitors have done with their sites.

By using patterns throughout your website design you could create a site that's elements are tried and tested. But to what extent can you really trust that these patterns actually represent the best way to meet your customer's needs?

Another downside of the overuse of patterns is the potential to narrow the design process. By using UIpatterns inappropriately within your website design, there's the strong possibility that you are limiting the opportunity for innovation. If your site does nothing that's groundbreaking, or worse still, doesn't even attempt to improve on the status quo, you'll have a harder time meeting your business' goals.

Advantages

However, despite what the negatives may suggest, design patterns do have their uses. One obvious upside for UI design patterns is the very nature of using tried and tested solutions within a design project. To achieve the best for our sites, we as UI designers need to look at common solutions to common problems. This will help us to understand precisely when and where to apply our design efforts.

Another great use for patterns and pattern libraries�is their potential for use as an inspirational 'source book' to tap into design thinking outside of your immediate experience. There are some really good pattern libraries and UI example resources where these ideas are being explored at Welie.comThe UI Pattern FactoryPattern Tap, and Designing Interfaces.

However, there are unfortunately no guarantees that design patterns will save you either time or money.

Conclusion

The risks of inappropriate use of UI design patterns are clearer than the advantages. Like any form of generalised guidance it's important that the limits and scope of design patterns are taken into account when deciding whether to make use of them or not.

UI design patterns, when taken out of a particular context of use or problem domain, may be useless without further adaptation and testing.

In the instances where you decide that it is appropriate put UI patterns into practice, you must ensure that you understand the context in which the pattern was conceived and its suitability for the proposed use. Without this you will not realise the potential of patterns to allow you to focus on more business critical design.

Jacklin says 05:51am 01 Jan 2016

UI design patterns can be difficult to implement correctly since the concept is so simple: collections of patterns that are aesthetically pleasing and functional. But if you treat them as just patterns, your sites can start to feel cookie cutter.

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