4 things laser eye surgery (re)taught me about web design

A couple years ago, I had laser eye surgery. For me, this was a lengthy process involving multiple assessments, choosing a provider based on those assessments, securing financing, scheduling, re-scheduling, getting the surgery, and, a month or two of varying degrees of dry eyes, bad night vision, and loss of contrast.

Web designers could learn something from losing their vision for a while. Here are 4 things that laser eye surgery (re)taught me about web design.  

Web designers could learn something from losing their vision for a while. Here are 4 things that laser eye surgery (re)taught me about web design.  

Throughout the process, I had varying use of my eyes, during which I thought about accessible web design. Actually, I had to do more than think about it, I had to actually suffer because of it. So, in the spirit of teachable moments, here are four things laser eye surgery (re)taught me about web design.

4. Reduce, (re)use resize.

Okay, pardon the lame pun. Let me 'splain. I was back at work three days after surgery, and my eyes were still pretty wobbly. I work at a computer all day, and I do a lot of online reading. Unfortunately, my eyes got tired rather quickly, so I was only good for short bursts of reading and scanning. Fortunately, most modern browsers can resize text on websites. Unfortunately, many sites are not designed to allow the browser to do this. Also unfortunately, many websites have way too much text.

Teachable moment: Improve your site accessibility by reducing the amount of text and enabling your stylesheet to use the built-in text resize function.

3. Ensure your user has adequate guidance and support throughout unfamiliar processes, and don't confuse them with extraneous material.

Financing my surgery required forms. And, because my surgery was rescheduled, it required more forms. But not every form, just the ones that needed revising. It was a shame they neglected to tell me which ones those were, which led to conversations like this:

Eye doctor admin: "Has your surgery date changed?"

Me: "Yes."

Admin: "Well, the forms need to reflect this. We'll send you revised forms. Fill them out and fax them back."

Me: [Receiving all the forms and not finding any discernible difference on anything but one page] "All the forms? What's changed?"

Admin: "The date."

Me: "So, then, nothing on the bank withdrawal form?"

Admin: "Er, no."

Me: "And nothing on the insurance form?"

Admin: "Er, no."

Me: "So then do I need to fill those two out and send them back?"

Admin: "Er, no."

Me: "Why didn't you just send me the one changed form that I needed to sign?"

Admin: "Because it's an automated process. The computer emails you all the forms every time."

I hate forms, I hate numbers, and I hate numbers with currency signs in front of them even more. It's why I'm not an accountant. I was uncertain of the process ("What do I do?"), uncertain of the outcome ("If I screw up, will I be turned down?"), and I was expected to mind-read.

If the financing company had taken a little time to design the system to actually work with user exceptions, such as changes in surgery dates, it would have made for a much happier user.

Contrast this with my surgery day. I showed up, I got a name tag, I was told to sit there, come here, look at that, don't blink, stay still, all the while being told exactly what would happen and when. And after, when all I wanted to do was lie down in the dark with my eyes closed but I needed drops every five minutes, the post-op nurses worried about both the time-keeping and the drop-administering. They also called my ride to come and get me. All I had to do was follow clear and simple directions.

Teachable moment: Taking the time to test and refine the user processes in the site's design phase makes for happy users. And, big side benefit: it saves time and money over the long term.

2. Legibility is more important than your brand's visual identity.

Pro tip: avoid the conflict between legibility and your visual identity and design with use in mind when you're choosing your brand colours.

One of the "healing symptoms" was the loss of contrast vision, especially in anything but bright light. This went away as the cornea healed and cleared. Meanwhile, the worst culprits:

  • red text on black
  • white text on yellow or orange
  • tone-on-tone palettes: light blue on dark blue, e.g.

I recall a particularly poignant example of this on my way to a post-op checkup—at 4 PM in January in Edmonton, and therefore dusk. I couldn't see blue illuminated letters on the side of the tan building until it was too late to make the turn.

Website design teachable moment: when conveying the content is important, never sacrifice legibility to maintain your brand's colour palette.

1. Design with the audience's circumstances in mind.

The first step to getting eye surgery is an assessment. This is a free test of whether one's eyes are operable. It involves a lot of looking into a variety of machines, bright lights, and scans. It also involves drops that dilate the pupil and relax the eye muscles. If you've never had the pleasure, this makes it virtually impossible to tolerate light and to focus on anything, especially at reading distance.

After my assessments, I was given a beautiful, glossy brochure that explained the procedures, next steps, and what to expect. It also answered any questions I might have. Or so I was told by the surgical coordinator. You see, I couldn't read the thing till the next day because the text was set in 7pt type. Naturally, though, I wanted to read it right away, because at that moment, my whole life was about getting eye surgery.

Web designers often get the "who" they're designing for, but they might overlook the "when and where." If you're using a persona to keep your audience in mind, include information about when and where your persona is likely to be using your site.

I conduct my usability tests in situ, because the data I might lose from not having a controlled lab situation is dwarfed by the insights I obtain from seeing my users use my sites with all the trappings of the rest of their life around them. For instance, in past tests I've discovered that my typical users got interrupted by the phone every 2 minutes, or that their monitors were tiny and/or their chairs were ergonomic disasters, and their computers were powered by gerbils on downers. Understanding the where and when makes designing the user experience much, much better.

As for the glossy brochure? My eye doctor didn't have to forego it, but if they'd included an insert in large type to at least get me through the "waiting for my ride; have questions now; can't focus" moment, it would have been that much better.

Teachable moment: Remember the when and where your users get your content, especially in light of skyrocketing increases in mobile browsing.