It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it consistently.
Imagine visiting a website for a specific purpose…
You enter the URL and you’re met by a blank screen. Gradually, an item slides into view and dramatic music starts playing.
More items appear, including embedded video and you realise this is an animated intro to the site. Generally, the imagery is dark with a red theme – edgy and broody.
It smoothly scrolls through the information and ends up at a large, abnormally-sized button that flashes, suggesting you should click it.
You do so, and you are led to a social media-style interface with a scrolling feed of items in the middle and various other options in bars around the side. The whole site is very blue, with lots of images and animated gifs drawing your attention. There are lots of bright, colourful buttons everywhere.
After hunting through, you find a link that seems right in a drop-down menu that opens across the top when you hover.
From there, you are taken to a very plain, simple, Craigslist-style page with just a few hyperlinks. Otherwise, it’s white and without embellishment.
You look through and find the link you’re looking for and it opens onto a short video with most of the information that you need.
At the end, the video displays a link to more information that you click and it auto-downloads a PDF to your device. When you open it, you find that the PDF is a print-quality pamphlet with high-quality photos and green graphics around them.
At the end, it has a hyperlink that takes you to a Google Drive folder containing more information in various Word documents.
While I have taken this example ad nauseum, it doesn’t seem completely unfamiliar to me, and I doubt it does to you.
Sites often grow organically over time as part of a team effort. Some content creators love video, others prefer an old-fashioned document to convey info, while yet others are crack developers who like using the latest tools to make nifty, interactive sites on the cutting edge. As such, websites often contain combinations of these features, depending on who built what part and for whom.
It’s rarely as extreme as the above example, but it’s also not completely outside the realms of possibility. In theory, planning out the user journey and making it simple and economical should iron out these issues, but that’s only if everyone involved keeps to what I consider to be the most fundamental rule of UX design.
You see, sometimes a video is the right way to go; other times, keeping it simple with a plain document that most of your users can view on old systems is better. You can have a nifty, animated site with edgy, disruptive design, or you can copy a standard format. You can keep it to one interface, or frame the site with toolbars. You can add graphics and video and animations, or you can have a stripped-down, simple format.
Your site can be dark red, blue, green or just plain white. All of these may be appropriate in certain cases. They might also be absolutely the wrong choice for your users, but it is far better to make the wrong choice of style for your site than to not decide on a style at all.
As your users work their way through your site, they will get used to how it works, no matter how badly designed it could be. However, if every click leads to a different kind of layout, colour scheme and type of site, with different UIs and different navigations, your user will never feel comfortable and will constantly have to reassess the site and think about how to use it. The increased mental load will make your site frustrating and slow to use.
As I said, this is fundamental, so shouldn’t be news to UX designers.
However, it’s something that’s easy to lose track of later on. Say you’ve spent ages making a site that’s based on the social media format with a news feed and various bars around it; but then say your client approaches you with a need to add a detailed user-guide video that excellently illustrates something the company needs to communicate. It was created by another agency using a different branding and style from your site.
There’s no other video on the site, so your client wants you to create a stand-alone, static page displaying this video. This video might be the greatest video that was ever made. The branding might be magnificent. The video might be informative and useful and have wonderful feedback. It’s still not a good idea to just tack it onto an existing site, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Of course, one video isn’t the end of the world. Yet, one video might lead to two, then three, then some documents and drop-downs, and so on and so forth until your site is a complete mess. Once you’ve allowed one variation, it’s much harder to keep your site consistent in style.
All that’s important is your site remains consistent. That isn’t to say that your site can’t develop and evolve over time. Perhaps you will adapt your site design to incorporate videos into its news feed or completely scrap your design and replace it with a video-heavy UI. All that is important is that your site design remains consistent in its approach.
Well, it’s not all that’s important - you can still make a terrible site with a consistent design - but every inconsistent site is a bad site. Your first duty as a UX designer should be ensuring that your site offers your users a consistent experience and everything else is secondary.