airobot-585-150-90.jpg

For centuries, the cornerstones of good visual design have been focused on its ability to draw attention, provide a pleasing appearance and lead the eye to the metaphorical water from which we want the viewer to drink in our information.

And during these ancient times, the interaction between the design and the audience could hardly be described as an 'interaction,' as the audience played only as passive observers whose most active duties in the exchange were giving attention, reading copy and processing the information fed to them.

The Interactive Age has forever changed the relationship between a design and its audience. No longer simply observers of design, the audience is now referred to as 'users'--- they use the design.

They call the shots as to whether they defer their interest elsewhere or implore the design for more information.

This newly established democracy of information has justly forced visual design to cater completely to the audience, and rightfully so. The accountability created by this movement has forced us as designers to go beyond how we want our content presented and strive to deliver our information as the user would have it. Visual has gone virtual. And to become viral, you must view all things from the other side.

In a recent article on Smashing Magazine's website by Jeff Gothelf entitled Interaction Design Tactics for Visual Designers, Gothelf provides us with a useful outline of five key tactics for understanding how to effectively design visually for interactive media.

The first point is hardly a surprise: know thy audience. It's the first step of any successful design, but Gothelf encourages designers to go further and actually talk to the target. Find out who they are and how they think and relate this information directly back to your design.

'The most important thing to understand when designing an online experience is your audience. Understanding who they are, what they do for a living, how old they are, how they work, what they know about the Web, how they use it, on what devices, where and so on provides invaluable insight into their pain points that you are out to solve.'

The next step is to 'orient the user.' Make sure the user knows where he is on your site, knows how he got there and understands the options available to go further or find the information he would want to look for. This practice can provide insight to edits that may need to be made to the layout of the page, the placement of links, the organization of the navigation or the general usability of a site. There could be a big issue that can be solved with just one little button, and it's better to find out this information sooner rather than later.

'Simple is better,' Gothelf says next. And an increasing amount of designers are adopting his same point of view. This belief can be supported in the success of the near-naked Google homepage that has trumped Yahoo! with its infamous clutter or by considering how Facebook has dominated the social networking world that MySpace once owned but lost when users grew tired and irritated with the overbearing customization, flash and audio.

Make sure that every element of a page serves a purpose in facilitating the interactive experience. While providing aesthetics will continue to be important in the design process, Gothelf wisely advises that 'ensuring that the experience is usable first is critical.'

Next, 'design for a dialogue.' This is a relatively new thing for visual designers to have to consider, but has become an unavoidable consideration nevertheless. The Interactive Age has given birth to the ability for media to facilitate two-way communication, and the democracy created by the Internet's widespread availability has users practically demanding it.

Provide a convenient way for users to communicate when they have a comment, question or issue, but do not stop there; ensure that they is a way to respond to their feedback and communicate answers back to them. Sites that do not take the time to focus on improving this process only irritate users and can have them perceive the site (and possibly its affiliated company) as closed-off, uncaring or simply not as dynamic and therefore not as modern as others.

The fifth and final tactic Gothelf suggests is 'understanding the before and after.' He states, 'Visual design is beautiful. It's also static. Interaction design builds a workflow from page to page and from state to state. As you design each page, consider what the user can do on this page and how the next step in the process fits into the workflow.'

So deliberate the way your design will react to users imputing information, selecting options or even just moving around the site. Make it first usable, but do not hesitate to incorporate classic design principles to make it look interesting and appealing as well.

The Internet has proven to skeptics that it is much more than a passing trend. And with new online products constantly being introduced into the market and with smartphones well on their way to becoming a universal accessory, the Interactive Age seems to be only in its early stages.

Embrace the opportunities created by this revolution in communications and design accordingly. Or even better, discover the next wave of change that will rock the boat and further advance the connection our designs can have with our users.

Centuries ago, who'd have thought it possible?

Photo courtesy of Virtual Staging Solutions blog.