Using themes to improve user experience

Using themes to improve user experience

Lipstick on a pig

Just read a colleague’s post about how – when redesigning websites and especially web apps – people often make the mistake of refreshing the user interface (the lipstick) without significantly improving the user experience (the pig). Absolutely agree with this and several other points he makes.

It got me thinking about this website. I like to think it’s a hip marketing tool for my career, but in the back of my mind I know it has been fading into the land of just another boring blog. I’ve been procrastinating on a much needed UI/UX overhaul. It’s time to eat that frog before it gets any uglier!

User Experience goals

To focus my efforts, I set two user experience goals.

  1. My stats show that readership is shifting from computers to mobile devices, and that people are reading more often on their phones than their tablets. Time for me to jump on the Mobile First bandwagon!
  2. I’ve rotated through a dozen WordPress themes since I started this site, but they’ve all had the same basic look and feel. Minor changes in colors and fonts, widgets that have come and gone. Now I want a more dramatic change!

With that, I start searching for WordPress themes. Every theme claims to be mobile-friendly, but I quickly learn that “displays on a phone” is very different from “looks good on a phone.” Nothing to do but try them out. This is what I hate about shopping for pants, by the way, but I digress.

As I go through this tedious process, my second goal becomes more tangible. The dramatic change I’m looking for has to do with image-centric designs that catch the eye, layouts that let the reader scroll first and click (or tap) second. I don’t want animations, but I think some of the overlay treatments are cool. Ironically, I find myself drawn to several gallery-style themes aimed at photographers rather than writers.

The Athena theme

I eventually land on the Athena theme from a Canadian design firm called Smartcat. Honestly, it’s designed to do a ton more than I’m using it for, but it’s incredibly configurable. Configurability over customization, I say! It means this theme will be long-lived relative to its customized brethren.

Old User Experience
The default Twenty Ten WordPress theme

The theme also forces me to do a bit more work on the images I use because they are so in your face, but that’s a good thing. Here’s a painful reminder of what my site used to look like.

Granted, a new and improved theme is a lot of lipstick, but in the case of Athena it also reinvigorates the pig. The user experience is much improved on both desktops and mobile phones. IMHO, reading is more enjoyable and navigation is easier. The design is super cool and more in line with my brand. If you agree, check out the smart cats at Smartcat!

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