The Joy of Discovery in Web Design

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

We all want want users to to be happy when using a site that has been designed by ourselves. It’s just one of the many reasons why, as web designers, we should be passionate about what we do. The word ‘experience’ is thrown about abundently and while we try to create the best possible experience for visitors, not many designers think past that and take the time to add extra touches for visitors to really feel happy to be on a site.

The act of discovery is part of human nature. When you go on holiday, you’re going somewhere not only to enjoy yourself but to discover somewhere new. The same thinking can be applied to web design as when someone is visiting a new site, they are looking to discover something but it is our job to make their discovery as fun and memorable as possible.



The joy of discovery in web design is a rare and difficult thing to achieve but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as giving people the option of performing a task in a slightly different way. If visitors notice there is an alternative way of accessing a particular feature or navigating a site for example, they may prefer it to the standard method. On the other hand, if users don’t notice the alternative then they are none the wiser and will still be able to use the primary method which has been designed and developed first and foremost with usability in mind.

It gives the user choice without them realising it and when they do notice it, they will feel as though they’ve discovered it themselves. Almost as though they’ve found a hidden secret no one else knows about or at least they haven’t been told about.

Take for example a recent design that I have created for a company called Flexible Flights. We’ve used a filter on the left hand side where you can narrow down your results by, type of flight (direct or indirect), time of day, flight and airline among others but you can also filter by type of flight or airline from the top of the search results itself. This hasn’t been explicitly explained to the customer (the filter is titled ‘Filter Your Search’) but because it retains the link styling, it will be apparent to people that it is a link, implying that they are clickable and a way of filtering.


Okay, this isn’t making users feel as though they’ve discovered something big but discovery in web design doesn’t have to be. Subtlety can play a large role in discovery too as even if the visitor doesn’t feel as though they have discovered anything subconciously giving them a feeling of greater control. Now that doesn’t mean that you should be arranging multiple ways of doing everything possible on your site, just focus on what is key to what your site wants to achieve.

Make People Smile

Sometimes it’s only little things that make people smile. Take a step back, or rather, take a step forward away from the big picture to try and grasp small entities which can make a difference. The best example of this is when scrolling down on an article on Tim Van Damme’s Max Voltar blog to reveal the logo hidden underneath the header. When you first notice it, you immediately smile and you may not even notice it upon your first visit so when you do notice it, you almost feel as though you’ve discovered it. Even the act of it appearing from beneath the header is a form of discovery of itself.

The opportunity for you is that most websites aren’t necessarily designed to make people smile but if you can then you will almost certainly give them a reason to remember a site increasing the chance of them returning in the future. After all, if you can make someone smile when using a website then you’re almost certainly going above and beyond competing sites.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with 9 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.