Monthly Archives: April 2013

Web design tips for developers

Think of this article as a general guideline for designing any website. I’ve learned these lessons through photography, working in the Enlightenment Linux window manager many years ago, and developing for a design agency. I apply these rules while designing and building Recognize. Being able to do both has saved our team a lot of time and money. Learn to design along side your web development skills, and your value greatly increases.

Enlightenment window manager on Linux

Enlightenment window manager on Linux

Follow nature

If you have to follow one rule, this is it. Farther in this article I will go through more specific examples of nature, such as the grid, 1.6 golden ratio, and following your senses. In the meantime, try to think more theoretical. Think about Apple, and look at their web design and applications. The reflections, subtle patterns, and momentum scrolling are all patterns taken from nature. Observe how light and objects behave, then mimic that in your design.


Take advantage of the senses

Users will appreciate sensory experiences in your application. Tactile, visual, and auditory are all ways to stimulate your users.

Button example for visual and tactile experience

For instance, a button should suppress, or light up, when pressed. Next time you get in a car, press a few buttons. Try to mimic those behaviors in your application, and you’ll create a more realistic user experience.

Find ways to use vibrations to simulate tactile response

Android innovates with vibration responses. Most people say that their Android’s vibration response gives them a sense of context when a keyboard button is pressed on the screen. Android’s vibration is to iPhone’s momentum natural scrolling- they are both game changing user experiences. See how you can innovate with vibrations.

Are sounds possible for your application?

Auditory experiences are generally faux pas in desktop applications. Most apps steer clear and tend to indicate events through visual indicators, like updating the title tag. Still, audio if done right can add value to your app.

But mobile is a different ballgame. When a push notification triggers a background service, play a sound to indicate a message or event. Give yourself a voice, and allow the user to know when an event occurs with a unique one of a kind sound. Remember ICQ and their weird ho-hoo jingle.

Whitespace is your best friend

Some try to fill empty screen real estate with pictures and useless text. Don’t fall for this fallacy. Apple is again another great example, they place the product in the middle of the screen and leave empty space around it. You’ll find people will be at ease with your design.

Whitespace helped Google beat Yahoo. Google put the primary action front and center with nothing around it to distract the user. Embrace whitespace and start allowing your users to focus.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 2.01.52 PM

Focus focus focus

One of my most famous photographs

Websites and apps need to consider a few things when trying to maintain focus. Here are a few steps to help guide a focused design lifecycle:

  1. What is the primary goal of your application? Keep that in mind as you make design decisions.
  2. Create a styleguide, a one page document with all the colors and styles. Create it in HTML and CSS. To make a styleguide, search and extract patterns from the designs. Things like paragraphs, headers, horizontal rules, and forms all can be included.
  3. Only allow two fonts. I tend to choose one embedded font used for headers and buttons. The other font is a standard typeface, such as Helvetica and Arial, for paragraphs and links.
  4. Keep your colors to a minimum. Create a colors.sass file to save the colors as variables. Choosing colors on future designs will be as easy as scrolling a short list of existing colors.

Follow those four rules, your design will be consistent and well-maintained.

Tell a story

Research shows if you tell a chronological story to a jury, they are more likely to believe your case. This heuristic is innate in humans and extends to all parts of life. Humans are storytellers and if you tell a good story, people will believe in your product. Storytelling is why vertical parallax sites are so popular. They create evocative storytelling. What’s your story, and how will it play out on your homepage?

Nike's famous vertical parallax

Bigger is Better

A/B tests indicate that the bigger the action button the better in homepage sign up conversions. If you beef up your headers and buttons, users will unconsciously associate your site with being larger than life.

This is true for images as well, A/B tests have shown that fullscreen images, when used appropriately, can increase your conversion.


Whenever possible, use the golden ratio: 1.6

The golden ratio is found throughout nature. Trees, shells, and the Fibonacci Sequence all follow 1.6. You can use this simple ratio to your advantage when choosing header styles or how you layout your website’s columns. If your first header (h1) font size is 40px, try 40 / 1.6 = 25px for your header 2 (h2).


Use a grid

Grids are commonplace with the advent of responsive web design. Grids allow you to lay out a site using the golden ratio. It helps to set up your layouts following a grid in your styleguide.


Grids, golden ratio, and storytelling are all part of our natural environment. Stay in tune with nature and your designs will be focused and simple.

Write clear messaging, and drop the evocative hype

Fancy headlines and witty copywriting may be interesting, but if the user doesn’t know what your product does, they won’t want to use it.

  1. Come up with a few clear headlines.
  2. Test them out in person and using Google Adwords.
  3. Go with the slogan that most people understand and also gets the best Click Through Rate (CTR) on Google Adwords.

When in doubt, follow the leaders

If you aren’t sure how to proceed with a design, then shamelessly browse around on all the top sites. See what is happening on Behance, Bootstrap, Apple, or 37Signals. See how they solve an autocomplete list, an image carousel, or an user profile. Adapt your styleguide with their suggestions. After a night’s sleep revisit what you came up with, and create a better version. Innovation comes from copying. Copy away!

Think about the “F”

Users read websites in the shape of an “F”. They browse down and run right to scan over content. I should note that sometimes people read in “E” shape, as shown in the image below. Here’s an article on that.

Draw on paper, then in CSS

If you are a web developer, you probably can skip the Photoshop step.

  1. Get out a big piece of blank paper and a pen.
  2. List out all the features you need to design.
  3. Rate the features in importance.
  4. Fit the features in order of importance in a grid or an existing layout.
  5. When the design feels good enough, jump into CSS and build a prototype.

If Photoshop is needed, I take a screenshot of the website I’ve already built and paste it into Photoshop. It allows the designs to come out more realistic and I am able to Photoshop it faster.

When really in doubt, hire a contract designer

For Recognize, we hired a couple of fantastic designers to design our marketing site based off of our business requirements. Once the marketing designs were done, I used those styles in the rest of our site. A couple mockups acted as the design foundation for Recognize.

Do the same for your business. If your design isn’t at the level of your business requirements, use Dribbble or Behance to find a designer that meets your style needs, and hire them. When you email them, ask if they know anyone else in case they are too busy for new work. Chances are they have a friend that is just as good.

Have fun and keep trying

That’s the most important, if you are having fun you will want to keep trying and if you keep trying you will get better. Simple as that. Expand your mind by learning to design your own sites.

Your app is a creek and users are water

A creek ran through my childhood property. Sometimes the movement of my creek would slow due to tiny mud slides and other miniature natural disasters. To allow the water to flow more freely, my friends and I shoveled clear mud, sticks, and rocks clearing the creek.

What I’ve learned about usability of websites/apps is that users are a lot like the water that flows through a creek, and the creek is the app. Through testing, analytics, and design improvements you will watch your users move faster and farther through your app, just like how we moved mud and rocks from the creek.

Here’s a simple non-data-driven way to quickly evaluate your site for blockage: Go through your web app and at each screen ask yourself, where is the obvious button to click or action to complete? If you don’t immediately know, then that page may be causing blockage in the user flow. Check to see if your analytics supports this hypothesis.

The general rule to avoid mud and rocks in your web app is to always have one or two primary actions per section, view, or page.

The primary action of some views is to scroll. In this case it is best to show a cropped content point at the bottom of the screen or browser. Without anything to do other than to see more, the user will innately scroll your website.

If you require three or more options, then suggest a primary path. You can highlight a section with a background color, brighter and bigger button, specific title, or horizontal rule. Essentially, make the primary action stand out through color, size, and positioning.

By following these few simple rules, you should see longer visit duration times and increased conversions. Just like my creek flowed fast and wide when we cleared the rocks, your users will move through your app at a higher velocity.

Recognize integrates with Yammer


We are very excited to announce our partnership with Yammer. Last night we deployed a new version of Recognize that integrates with Yammer. Now both Yammer and Recognize have added value through Recognize’s employee appreciation and Yammer’s workplace social feed. I have envisioned this since I started building Recognize.

Announcing Single Sign On with Yammer

Login with Yammer

The Recognize staff loves this new feature. We don’t have to enter our email and password anymore to login to Recognize. Just one click and we are in the Recognize Stream page.

Even if you are logged in normally, we let you know where you can take advantage of Yammer

Yammer users

When inviting users or sending a recognition, we have login buttons there for easy access to authenticate with Yammer.

Main events in Recognize are populated in Yammer’s recent activity

Recent Activity on Yammer

An update occurs in the Recent Activity when users are validated through +1, when commenting on a recognition, or when a recognition is sent.

Showing thanks has never been easier with our new autocomplete user list

Autocomplete user list

You can find and recognize anyone in your Yammer account. No need to invite anyone if everyone is already on Yammer. If you want to Recognize someone not on Yammer, simply enter their email alias.

Added contrast to the badge trigger button

Choose a badge button

The choose a badge button is now darker to be easier to see on all monitors. This will increase Recognize’s usability and improve the experience for all users.

Comment with Yammer on the Recognition Show page

Recognition show page

Recognize’s value has jumped with Yammer comments. Users can create a conversation about the best work in your company. Sometimes you just want to say, “You’re welcome.”

When comments are made, they show up in your Yammer feed.

Yammer feed

Invite users from Yammer

Invite with Yammer

We show a few users that haven’t signed up for Recognize yet. If you select their name and click “Send,” we will send them an invitation email.

If your company is using Yammer, go to our homepage and sign in. If your company doesn’t use Yammer, then go to their homepage to create a private social network for your business.