What does solid mean in the virtual world of digital design?
A design agency is an interesting place to create websites and digital products. I write code while sitting next to people creating world-class physical objects from paper, ink, glass, wood and metal. All that tangible stuff provides both an inspiration and a challenge.
Recently, it’s also got me thinking a lot about a deceptively simple word: Solid.
This is a bottle of Tamdhu single malt, designed by Good, and it is solid in many ways. The weight and balance when you pour. The reassuring grip of the fluting as you hold it. The design history it embodies. It just feels solid in a very pleasant way. And with that feeling comes other things: A sense of identity and quality. A feeling of trust. Being able to evoke those things is the foundation of designing something really engaging.
And yet, describing a piece of web design as ‘solid’ might seem a bit underwhelming. After all, the web is a dynamic, fluid place of infinite possibilities, isn’t it?
Actually, I think that’s exactly what it is. But physical or digital, those fundamental solid qualities apply equally. That’s why making a website feel solid is as fundamentally important as when creating a bottle for premium whisky. It allows the site to resonate with us at a much deeper level than the mere mechanics of using it.
So how do we evoke feelings of trust, identity and quality in a website we’re designing?
Humans experience things in a very particular way. Our perception of light, sound and motion. How our attention is gained and lost. It’s all intimately connected to the rules of the physical world we evolved in.
We can label this group of people, or that generation, as being digital natives, but biology has made all of us physical natives first. A well-designed website should align with our natural sense of what is solid and trustworthy.
Here are two simple but powerful approaches to help achieve this:
1. Build a set of simple and coherent rules
Much like the real world, a website has a set of rules governing how things appear, move and behave. Unlike the real world, these rules are more or less anything we can imagine.
The rules can and should vary with the goals of each website. Mass-produced IKEA tumblers have their place as much as bespoke single malt bottles, after all. But to create that sense of something solid, these rules need a coherent idea or theme underpinning them. They need to make sense as a single, coherent system.
This is why designing a website by throwing together graphical, animation and content styles from different places is often a recipe for disaster. We find it much harder to understand and predict what is going on as the rules change before us. We feel confused and our willingness to trust both the website and our own intuition will disappear.
2. Make it bulletproof
The central principle of Dan Cederholm’s 2005 classic “Bulletproof Web Design” is that a website should adapt elegantly, but robustly, to whatever content it has to display, under whatever circumstances a user views it. To be bulletproof. The web is a fundamentally dynamic medium, from how content is created and presented to how it is consumed by users on a myriad of different devices. So to make a website feel solid actually means making it flexible and able to adapt to any circumstance.
The opposite is something rigid and brittle, breaking whenever a rare set of ideal conditions aren’t met. We’ve all seen websites where components seem to be fighting each other for space or where text bursts out of buttons. Where the layout breaks because a picture is too big or a paragraph’s word count isn’t quite right. It inspires as much confidence as a cracked bottle.
Trust is the killer feature
The web continues to grow exponentially in many different directions. The capabilities a website can have today are much greater than what was possible even 2 or 3 years ago. But this growth hasn’t all been beneficial to users. Fraud and identity theft techniques continue to grow in sophistication, and as users become aware of new dangers the web can present, they are rightly growing warier.
For a website to have a long-term future, trust is perhaps the most valuable thing it can create in users. To do that it needs to perform the functions it claims to offer, but it also needs to do so in ways that match our intuition and real-world instincts.
Websites will continue to delight and amaze us for a long time to come, in new and surprising ways. But I think the most successful ones will always need a solid core to them, that we’ll notice at a deep level and that invites our trust.