Creating websites visually—without coding—is a reality today. Tools have advanced significantly. The concerns over code quality are, at least, diminishing.

You can now work with WordPress themes and plugins that will let you “drag and drop” elements of the layout. Building and customizing design has never been easier, and it will only continue to get easier.

Most of these tools were—initially, at least—built for designers to bypass or supplement development.

But, that functionality has successfully entered the sphere of the end user. Now, many of these tools promise “anyone” can build a website themselves, without code.

And I’m all for innovation, but, do you understand website design?

This is not a whiny post about paying designers. The word itself has become diluted. I’m talking about the practice that these visual tools enable: designing for something. Do you know how to do that?

Illusion of Explanatory Depth

obama-not-badIf you’re making this face, let me explain why what I’m asking is valid and not pretentious.

Humans are highly skilled at discerning cause and effect. We can discern causal relationships fairly easily, so we’re quick to judge objects’ relation to one another. This is good for us from a survival standpoint, but it can betray us.

However, while we are very good at inferring cause and effect, we do not always understand the mechanisms underlying causality. In fact, causality has been described as a “cognitive illusion”. Much of our understanding of cause and effect is based on associations, without a true understanding of how events are really related to one another.This lack of understanding is referred to the as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. People may believe they have an understanding of mechanistic relationships because they understand one event causes another, but when asked to explain that relationship, they fail.

So, we might be fairly good at attributing causality when observing an event, but that talent makes us think we can reverse-engineer it.

Most people don’t make a decent living at design because they’ve managed to fool everyone around them. They do so because they understand the mechanics of how design works.

Designing for Ourselves

One thing that a good designer knows how to do is eliminate their own biases—consciously and often. And I’m not talking about just doing some basic research; I’m talking about after research and expertise have been exhausted.

In the absence of detailed information, we all work from assumptions about who the user is, what he or she does, and what type of system would meet his or her needs. Following these assumptions, we tend to design for ourselves, not for other people.”

Human Factor: Designing Computer Systems for People by Richard Rubinstein and Harry Hersh

Designers are good because they, first, know how to gather objective information to base a design upon, and then, they have a stockpile of informed “assumptions” about users. This is why many designers can make decisions seem like common sense—or even easy.

So, the less experienced in understanding these assumptions you are, the more quickly you’re going to run out of them. And the more quickly you’re going to tend to design for yourself.

Are Visual Website Building Tools Bad?

No, unequivocally. Blaming a tool is dumb, and you can’t blame companies for marketing their products to a market that’s ready to buy it.

And yet, their presence makes it tempting for just about anyone to start designing things “the way I want it”. That may be 100% fine if your website is for yourself. But, if your website is for other people (e.g. any business), the way you want it should have little-to-nothing to do with it.

I’m not suggesting you have to hire a designer for everything. But I am putting you on notice that it’s not as easy as moving things around until you make the “not bad” face.

If you’re set on using a visual tool and not hiring someone to help you, you owe it to your business to do these one or two things:

Work from Templates

Find existing templates for the visual tool you’re using, or look for common layouts amongst successful products like yours.

The temptation is to differentiate yourself by not looking like everyone else. That intention is duly noted, but you ought to make real sure that everyone wasn’t already doing it better than you’re about to do. Design is not a response.

Start Learning Design

Build a base of design understanding. Pick up The Principles of Beautiful Web Design or Responsive Web Design. Try to dissect designs from companies who you know are doing well because of their online design (i.e. a purely eCommerce site).

“I don’t think this is necessary.”

Fair enough. Maybe you’ll get lucky, and what you like in a design will also work for other people. Maybe you’ll see data that appears to affirm your decision, so you’ll attribute causality to your design.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying you’re leaving your design to the chance that your preferences connect with people well enough to support your business.

If you don’t want to leave your business to chance, get expertise by hiring someone or exposing and counteracting your own biases.

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June 13, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Design, UX, WordPress