If You Don’t Like to Exercise...

Maybe you don’t really want to go to Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp. So we’ve decided to give you a break and share with you the types of likes and dislikes we often hear from our own clients and colleagues, sprinkled liberally with our own biases.

What Do You Hate About the Web?

We found that compiling this list was quick work, as we see these design sins every day, and have committed quite a few over the years ourselves.

Can’t find it

You know great information is available in a certain web site. At least, that’s what you’ve heard, but every time you look for it, you can’t find it. Maybe you were even bounced out of the site altogether through some external link. Sites like these often provide no index, table of contents, or site map, and no search facility. Even worse, the labels they use for their information are obscure; they may mean something to someone else, but not to you. Another problem can be when the content is moved around repeatedly, so that something here today is gone tomorrow.

Even when users aren’t looking for particular information within a site, they can often be befuddled by a poor navigation system. A common example of this phenomenon is navigational headers and footers that are inconsistent from page to page. Another example: backgrounds and color schemes that radically change from page to page within the same site. Users may wonder if they are even using the same site at all.

Poor graphic design and layout

It’s becoming almost passé to complain about web sites with huge image files that take a long time to download, but people tend to hate a host of other graphic design-related problems. Pages crowded with text, links, graphics, and other components make it harder for users to find information on those pages. Many designers forget that white space is as important a component of a page as anything else. Crowding results in long pages that require scrolling to get to important items.

Paradoxically, people also complain about graphic design on the Web being both dull and excessive. We’ve all yawned our way through long pages of text after text after text, without a break for the eye, all against the backdrop of a dismal gray background. We’ve also encountered high-octane graphics with loudly crashing colors that make our eyes burn, or purposely minimalist designs that sacrifice usability for a bizarre sense of aesthetics (e.g., using the same colors for both links and unlinked text).

A large part of the problem, of course, is that graphic design is a profession whose mastery requires more than just picking up a copy of Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator and the URL for a clip art archive. Effective graphic designers step back and think about the objectives of the site, its sponsor, and the particular challenges of their project before plunging in. Also, good graphic designers don’t tend to see every project as an opportunity to exclusively showcase their own work. Like it or not, the Web doesn’t require us to have MFAs to design graphics for our sites.

Gratuitous use of bells and whistles

Technology is great: it allows us to do so many neat things! It’s often hard to resist showing all the neat things we can do with web technologies. Wonderful things, from trite counters to moderately annoying, revolving “NEW!” animated GIFs to frustrating frames to the Java applets that, after taking eons to download, don’t add any functionality.

This may seem to be a very Luddite perspective, but, like graphics and other aspects of web site design, technologies should directly aid users in getting what they want out of a site. There shouldn’t be any unnecessary bells and whistles. If the desired effect of the technology is to attract and captivate the user, then it must be very carefully applied; unless the technical designer is quite talented, the user will have likely seen it before and seen it done better.

Inappropriate tone

An interesting aspect of designing user interfaces for any medium, Web or otherwise, is deciding what you can expect from the user. If a site is designed to speak one language (e.g., it makes liberal use of organizational jargon) and the user speaks another (e.g., he or she is a medical professional who is used to communicating with scientific terms), who should make the effort to learn the other’s language? It’s generally assumed that the burden is on the site and its designer to communicate in the language of the user, and not vice versa. In the heat of the moment, it’s very easy to forget about the audience and instead concentrate on self-expression, technological options, or some other distraction from user-centered design. The result is a site that doesn’t speak to the user, but forces the user to try to get inside the mind of the site’s copyeditor.

Designer-centeredness

There’s nothing wrong with self-expression, but most large, complex web sites aren’t geared toward the self; the huge investment made in them requires that they be designed for use by many people. Yet we’ve all encountered sites ostensibly set up for companies that are little more than avenues for webmaster self-expression, including such oldies as lists of “my favorite links” and an image of said page designer. There is an ongoing debate at many companies as to whether or not to allow their employees to maintain their own personal information on the Web; keeping that stuff off the official web site seems to be a good practice.

Under construction

We always encounter sites that are under construction. In fact, sometimes they seem to have been abandoned. If a site’s content and functionality don’t merit launching, then why launch it? If it has already launched, it’s generally understood that no site is ever really finished. Users would probably prefer to know nothing of far-down-the-road changes than see an under construction graphic or read a note explaining what’s happening, why it’s taking so long, or whose fault it is.

Lack of attention to detail

Then there are sites full of haphazard information, rife with typos, broken links, out-of-date content, factual errors, or poorly executed HTML. A lack of proofreading, link checking, HTML validation, and, in general, any attention to detail demonstrates a lack of professionalism and sensitivity to the user.

What Do You Like About the Web?

This section is considerably shorter than its predecessor. Does this mean that there is less to like about the Web than there is to hate? Not at all. It means that, as with anything else, we take success for granted. While poor design actively frustrates and angers us, quality is quiet, passive, and often transparent. Whether we’re discussing everyday things such as door knobs and keyboards, or the look and feel of a web site, we generally take note only when things don’t work. You will notice, however, that the sites we love all share the same characteristic: they integrate each of the key aspects of web site design: information architecture, technical design, and graphic design. Later we’ll discuss many quiet techniques to aid in web site design and development, but for the time being, let’s stay in web consumer mode.

Aesthetics

Superficial though it may seem, we use and enjoy some sites simply because they are aesthetically pleasing. However, it is rarely because they simply contain the most pleasing graphics. An attractive site is distinguished by a cohesive and consistent look that presents a unique identity for the site and, ideally, for its sponsors. These sites’ graphics and page layouts are integrated with their other features, such as navigation systems, custom applications, editorial style, and so forth. Therefore, the user doesn’t notice the individual images so much as he or she enjoys the overall atmosphere and experience created by the site. Behind such sites stand graphic designers for whom design is about the whole page, not just the images (just as information architects concentrate on the whole site, not just pages). The intangible qualities of this type of site are its consistent and functional graphic elements, as well as its integration of page layout and graphic elements.

Big ideas

Some sites are thought provoking: they present ideas that may change the way you look at things. The copy in these sites may be written in styles that are reminiscent of mystery novels, gossip, manifestoes, poetry, or Sunday morning political discourse. You might completely forget that you are using the Web. Great writing and intelligent page layout aren’t what’s obvious about these sites; their ideas are. The intangible qualities of this type of site are its quality writing, copyediting, and overall ability to communicate ideas effectively.

Utility

Above all, we visit and return to a web site because we find it useful in some way. Ideally, all sites incorporate special technologies seamlessly, but some have no choice: their end-all and be-all is to serve you some nifty application. Search engine sites, for example, are more engine and less web site. Or with Web-based games, the HTML files are really quite secondary. You don’t go to any of these places because they are web sites. You go to them to do research, keep up with the news, or have fun. For that matter, you won’t go to them if they don’t function well. Can you imagine if AltaVista were down for an afternoon? The intangible quality of this type of site is that its applications work well and match the site’s goals, or perhaps are the site’s goals.

“Findability”

While one of the most painful parts of using the Web is trying to find something on a bad site, a real joy can come from a site that makes it easy to find its useful content. Sites that use well-planned information architectures are as magical as the phenomenon of the Internet itself: both are incredibly effective at the tricky task of routing users and packets respectively. Strong information architectures are especially important for large web sites: to unlock the power found in those huge volumes of content, these sites need navigation systems and organizational schemes that feature the information that people need to know and hide the stuff that would otherwise get in the way. The intangible qualities of this type of site are organization, navigational ease, and the fact that the site doesn’t get between the users and the information they need.

Personalization

Users increasingly demand from web sites the ability to get information that is customized to their interests and needs. Many web sites now tailor their content through the use of architectures designed to support multiple audience types, or through technologies that allow users to profile their personal interests. These kinds of sites demonstrate that their designers are sensitive to the fact the users aren’t all the same. Besides the influence of users, marketing efforts have driven this trend to a large degree: why present general information to the broadest audience (e.g., trying to sell tobacco products to everyone, including the anti-smoking activists) when you can target information to prequalified market segments (e.g., selling expensive cigars to yuppies)? The intangible quality of this type of site is that its designers realize that users are different, and make provisions to address their unique needs.

A Last Word About Consumers

Web consumers have an almost mythically short attention span. No medium compares. When visiting a new site, users often give up on it before its main page has fully downloaded. Sure, cable TV watchers can surf channels rapid-fire, but few systems carry more than 60 or 70 channels. The Web, on the other hand, has hundreds of thousands of “channels” only a click away.

Considering the challenge of designing sites that users love while also accommodating their microscopic attention spans, it may seem that the web site designer has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. However, if completing our Boot Camp exercise doesn’t make the prospective web site designer at least a little uncomfortable, then there is an even bigger reason to worry. Besides producing a useful list of likes and dislikes, this exercise should strike some fear into the hearts of all web site designers. It should now be apparent that, regardless of how low the barrier of entry is for writing HTML pages, designing successful sites is an incredible challenge.

Completing the Boot Camp exercise makes you a more advanced web site consumer. It may force you to take a thoughtful step back before diving into the inviting but treacherous pool of web site design. As you jump in, your next step will be to decompose the huge problems discussed here into something more manageable. You’ll do this by asking important questions, such as:

  • What is it that we are designing, and why?

  • Who will use it?

  • How will we know if we’ve been successful?

Helping you answer those questions is the purpose of this book.

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