Many web design trends catch on for good reason. Innovations allow developers to create visually appealing layouts that serve the best purposes of the site owner and visitors. Beautiful design and function can coexist.
However, trends have a habit of becoming ubiquitous. When industry group-think starts to drive design decisions, it is time to reconsider which trends are actually helping to enhance the user experience. Here are five trends that have outlived their usefulness:
Large header slideshows give firms a way to display information about multiple practice areas or attorneys in a relatively compact space above the scroll. But like drop-downs they have begun to outlive their usefulness. They work poorly on mobile and are a hallmark of a design trend that became popular at least 5 years ago.
Users expect a scroll. There is no longer a need to stuff as much content as possible into valuable real estate above the scroll. Segment your pages into topic-specific sections and eliminate the need for slides. One way to preserve motion without the usability issues of a slideshow is to incorporate background video, like this one used by the prototyping platform invision.
2. Loading pages
When Flash-based websites were all the rage, loading pages were common. Animation-laden sites were heavy and too large to load all at once. Fortunately, developers realized that splash pages and loading pages are an unnecessary and irritating delay that often cause visitors to lose patience. And the lack of iOS support for Flash has helped cement its internet doom. Websites must load quickly and provide easy access to helpful information in order to be successful. Simplicity took Flash's place as a design trend, and loading pages became a relic of the past.
But now, in 2015, loading pages are making an unfortunate comeback. These pages push web design back 15 years. Rather than filling a website with unnecessary bells and whistles, fill it with helpful content. Think about what your visitors really need, not what effects look the coolest. Google's recommendation is that a page should load in no more than 4 seconds (and even that seems like an eternity). If a website cannot load without a loading screen, it is too big.
3. Drop-down menus
Drop down menus have long served a legitimate function. Large sites need a way to direct visitors to content without throwing everything at them at once. Drop-downs keep navigation off-page, simplifying the user experience while still providing access to large amounts of information.
Much of the value an attorney website provides comes from the content it offers visitors. Attorney websites that educate and proactively answer questions build trust, increase time on site and boost the likelihood of conversion. Drop-down menus are therefore common on attorney sites because they solve a legitimate navigation concern.
However, drop-downs create a variety of challenges. From a design perspective, they look dated. Mega-menus and full-page navigation are steadily replacing drop-downs. Both allow visitors access to hidden navigation, but both are more user-friendly and more mobile-friendly.
Mobile-friendliness is another issue for drop-down menus. Responsive layouts — those that adapt seamlessly to a user's device — are the industry standard. Menus that contain multiple layers of sub-navigation are difficult to adjust and erect a barrier to browsing on smaller devices. They often require multiple clicks on a small area to open a page, which can frustrate users and cause them to look elsewhere.
Drop-down menus can also be difficult to navigate on desktop machines for some visitors. Navigation that requires a user to hover steadily over a specific area for extended periods of time are challenging to older visitors or those with certain mobility-related disabilities. Removing drop-down menus makes a website more modern and more accessible to all.
Thousands of businesses across the web have the same stock pictures adorning their websites. Need a boardroom? A collection of impossibly happy and diverse people working together? Stock has you covered — you and your competitors. Visitors tire of stock photography; they cannot learn anything about a firm or its culture from the same set of standard images.
Too many people have access to good digital cameras for stock to remain so pervasive. Professional photography is also a good idea. For a relatively small initial investment, your firm will have access to a catalogue of high-quality images that can be used in both web and print marketing. Alternatives to photography also exist. Spectacular designs can be created using typography alone. Custom illustrations and vector drawings are also an option. All of these choices will speak for your firm in a way stock photography never could.
Layouts should be created because they are useful. Designs should help visitors solve a problem or reach a goal. Websites that engage in showmanship add features just because they can. Trends come and go. Websites that chase them will inevitably fall out of style. If your site does not need parallax scrolling or a large background video, leave them out. Don't follow trends because they are cool. Use the tools available to create engaging experiences that work for your visitors.
Bonus: trends that have legs
As a contrast, here are some trending design innovations to watch:
1. Full-screen navigation
With the rise of navicons (those little graphics that indicate the presence of a menu) websites have the ability to display off-page navigation in many creative ways. One of these is full-page navigation. Instead of bringing up a small menu, clicking on the icon will reveal a menu that encompasses the whole browser. Unlike drop downs, full-page navigation easily adapts to responsive design. Maryknoll School's menu is a good example of this effect.
2. Content personalization
Content personalization gives you the ability to display content based on visitor data. It is very popular with e-commerce sites; Netflix and Amazon.com are examples of businesses that rely heavily on content personalization. However, personalization does not have to be limited to sites with an Amazon-sized marketing budget. Firms can use analytics data to segment users and present different content to visitors based on their interests or motivations. This idea is in its early stages among law firms, but it is a method to watch.
Simplicity is a trend that will hopefully never go out of style. Sites that use white space and avoid visual clutter are easier to navigate and easier to spend time with. Visitors need to be presented the most important information first, then given clear paths to accomplish certain actions. Providing too many options makes it easy to make no decision at all.
Websites will have similar features, no matter how creative the layout. The most important consideration in web design must be the needs of the visitor. Designs that address those needs will stand the test of time.