Web design and development
involves three levels:
- Web management
- interaction design (navigation support, homepage layout, templates,
- content design (the actual writing on the pages, as well
as the design of any other media types used to communicate content as
opposed to site interaction)
Just as in a hamburger, the
middle layer is the most tasty and attracts the most attention, including much
of my own work on Web usability. I have come to realize that the outer two
layers are more important in many ways: users only care about content (in other
words, no, the medium is not the message; the message is the message)
and the usability of a website is more a function of how it is managed than of
how good its designers are.
will be the topic of many other columns; here I address some classic mistakes
in managing the design of a website.
1. Not Knowing Why
This is the number one
problem, all right. I am amazed how many websites are built simply because some
executive told somebody to do it without telling them what the site
should achieve. And no, it is not an acceptable reason that
"everybody else is doing it."
these days, you need a website simply to be considered a professionally run
organization (not being on the Web is like not having a fax machine: people
think you are a fly-by-night). Thus, it is OK to make a
"business-card site" with a small amount of corporate image building,
directions to your various facilities, and the annual report and other investor
information. However, doing so is not the most effective use of the Web, and a
site along these lines should only be built as a result of an explicit decision
not to invest in active use of the Web for business.
companies should start their web design project by finding out ways in which
they can provide true customer value on their site. Give users benefits from
spending time on your site, allow them to do business with you, and their money
2. Designing for Your Own VPs
cause companies to end up with home pages full of mission statements, photos of
the CEO, and corporate history (all of which do fit on an "about this
company" page; just not on the home page). Remember that your company is
not the center of the universe for your customers. The site should be designed
with customers' needs in mind and not to promote grandiose ideas of
self-importance. Do not build a site that your top executives will
love: they are not the target audience.
3. Letting the Site Structure Mirror Your
Users should not have to
care how your company is organized, so they should not be able to deduce your
organizational structure from the structure of your website. Admittedly, it is
easiest to distribute responsibility for the site to divisions and departments
according to already established chains of command and budget categories, but
doing so results in an internally-centered site rather than a customer-focused
site structure should be determined by the tasks users want to perform on your
site, even if that means having a single page for information from two very
different departments. It is often necessary to distribute information from a
single department across two or more parts of the site, and many subsites will
have to be managed in collaboration between multiple departments.
classic sign of a mismanaged website is when the homepage has a button for each
of the Senior Vice Presidents in the company. Remember, you don't design for
your VPs, so it will be quite common that you can't tell them what
"their" button is on the homepage.
4. Outsourcing to Multiple Agencies
If you outsource every new
Web project to a new agency, your site will end up looking like one of those
quilts assembled from patches by each of the participants in a protest march.
The problem with using multiple agencies is that each of them want to put their
own stamp on the site: both because they have different design philosophies and
because they will want to use you as a reference account. It is no fun to say
"we designed such-and-such pages" if all the pages on the site look
get very annoyed when they move between pages on a site and find drastically
varying designs at every turn. Consistency is the key to usable
interaction design: when all interface elements look and function the
same, users feel more confident using the site because they can transfer their
learning from one subsite to the next rather than having to learn everything
over again for each new page.
best way to ensure consistency is to have a single department that is
responsible for the design of the entire site. If this cannot be done, at least
have a central group that oversees all design work and that is chartered to
enforce a single styleguide. Even if the central group does not actually design
any pages themselves, considerable consistency can be achieved if the various
departments can turn to a single source of design advice. Even better: have the
central design group maintain the templates and deliver updated and revised
graphics as needed.
5. Forgetting to Budget for Maintenance
As a rule of thumb, the
annual maintenance budget for a website should be about the same as the initial
cost of building the site, with 50 percent as an absolute minimum. Obviously,
ongoing costs are even higher for news sites and other projects that depend on
daily or real-time updates. If you simply spend the money to build a glamorous
site but do not keep it up to date, your investment will very rapidly turn out
to be wasted.
Web currently changes so rapidly that a major redesign is needed at least once
per year simply to avoid a completely outdated look and to accommodate changing
user expectations. Additional maintenance is needed throughout the year to
bring fresh content online, reorganize and revise old pages, and avoid linkrot.
you have established a design styleguide and a set of page templates in order
to avoid the inconsistencies mentioned under Mistake 4, you also have to budget
for maintenance of these design resources. If the styleguide and templates do
not evolve with changing needs, you will rapidly see design entropy set in and
the site will fall apart. The most common example is the need for new stock
graphics, new headerbars, new navigation buttons, or new icons. If you don't
have an art director on standby for this type of requests, then the page
developer who needed the new graphic will outsource it and the site's
look-and-feel will start to diverge.
6. Treating the Web as a Secondary Medium
One rarely gets a gourmet
meal by repurposing yesterday's leftovers. Similarly, even if you repurpose very
valuable non-Web content, you will at best get a slightly valuable
website. The Web is a new medium. It's different from television, it's
different from printed newspapers, and it's different from glossy brochures, so
you cannot create a good website out of content optimized for any of these older
media. The old analogy still holds: movies are not made by filming a play and
putting the camera in the best seat of the theater.
only way to get great Web content is to have your staff develop the
content for the Web first. Then, if you still have a need for printed
collateral, transfer the text and images to a desktop publishing application
and massage it into a form that is suited for print. Of course, your print
materials will suffer from this procedure, so if you want great Web content and
great brochures, you will have to have two teams develop two sets of content.
creators have been trained to develop linear content for traditional media:
they have spent their entire careers doing so. They have to consciously push
themselves to work differently than their natural approach to content, so
unless you force your content developers to produce their material specifically
for the Web, you will end up with substandard Web content
7. Wasting Linking Opportunities
The Web is a linking medium:
the hypertext links are what ties it together and allow users to discover new
and useful sites. Most companies have recognized this phenomenon to the extent
that they religiously include their URLs in all advertising, TV commercials,
press releases, and even in the products themselves (ever bought underwear with
a URL woven into it?). Unfortunately, most of these URLs are overly generic and
do not provide users with any payoff that is related to the context in which
the user found the URL. Do not link to your homepage in your ads.
If a potential customer gets interested in a new product or a special offer,
you should not force the poor schmoe to find out how to navigate the site from
the homepage to the product page. Instead, link directly to the product page
from the ad. Also, seed press releases with specific URLs that support your
message: reporters may follow these links for additional detail and online
publications may use specific links instead of generic ones to better serve
you are running a campaign with a certain theme, have it include a URL to a
page that follows up on that theme. The payoff page should not be a copy of the
ad (the customer presumably already read the ad before going to the Web),
though a link to an online version of the ad might be appropriate to help users
who go to the page without having seen the ad. Instead, use each medium for
what it's good at. For example, a game company could use TV commercials to make
people think that a game looks good and use the Web to allow them to
play a simplified version of the game.
8. Treating Internet and Intranet Sites the
Internal intranet Web sites
need to be managed very differently from public Internet sites. The key
difference is that each company only has a single intranet and thus can manage
it to a much greater degree of consistency and predictability than we can hope
for on the wild Web for many years. (This is why there are hundreds of separate
usability guidelines for intranet design.)
employees use the intranet for corporate productivity, meaning that any waste
of users' time is a direct hit to the bottom line. I am appalled when I hear of
intranet managers who put advertising on their site to pay for their equipment
costs. If, for example, the value of an average employee's time is $1 per
minute and users spend 3 seconds more per page because of the ads, then each ad
costs the company 5 cents in lost employee productivity. Even if the MIS
department makes 2 cents per ad (a typical CPM of $20), the net loss to the
company is 3 cents.
9. Confusing Market Research and Usability
Thankfully, many sites have
embraced the value of customer data for design, but unfortunately many of them
rely solely on traditional market research like focus groups. Most of these
methods relate to creating desire for a product and getting it sold and do not
provide detailed information about how people operate the product. A
Web design is an interactive product, and therefore usability
engineering methods are necessary to study what happens during the user's
interaction with the site.
are not designers: no matter how many focus groups you run, they cannot tell
you how to design your navigation. Focus groups are great for getting
information about users' current concerns and areas where they would like help,
but they will rarely teach you how to reinvent the fundamental way you do
business. Listening carefully to customers will often reveal frustrations that
can turn into opportunities for improvement, but once you have an idea for an
improvement, you must create a prototype design and try it out with users in a
usability test to see whether it really works for them.
are endless stories of customers who say in focus groups that they would love a
certain feature, but who never use it once it is launched because it is too
cumbersome, too expensive, or doesn't really meet their needs in real use. The
point is that market research forms the starting point but has to be
supplemented with usability engineering if you want a design that works when
people try to use it.
may commission a traditional market research firm to question thousands of
customers to measure whether they like your website more or less than your
competition. Once you know that your site scores, say, 5.6 and your worst
competitor scores 5.9, you may know that you need to improve, but you will not
know how to improve. Specific insights into the detailed design of
your site and the parts that must change because they are confusing, slow users
down, or do not match the way users want to work can be derived from watching
four or five users as they actually use your site to perform real tasks.
A day or two in the usability lab and you will have a long list of changes that
will improve your design.
is less common to find sites that only do user testing and never conduct any
market research, but that would be a mistake too.
10. Underestimating the Strategic Impact of
It is a huge mistake to
treat the Web as if it were an online brochure and manage it out of the marcom
department. The Web should be considered one of the most important determinants
for the way you will do business in the future.
your CTO and head of marketing what strategic thoughts they have
relating to terms like "disintermediation", "virtual project
teams", and "microtransactions." If they don't have any
thoughts, they had better start thinking now - before it's too late.
The Web enables completely new ways of doing business such as true
globalization (for example, "work-around-the-clock", where projects
are passed on to teams as the globe turns). If you don't grasp these new
business opportunities you will be toast in a few years.
two classic errors in predicting the future of a technology shift are to
over-estimate its short-term impact and under-estimate its long-term impact.
The Web has been hyped to such an extent that people overestimate what it can
do the next year or two: most websites are not going to turn a profit any time
soon. But please don't underestimate what will happen once we reach the goal of
everyone, everywhere; connected. The impact of networks grows
by at least the square of the number of connections, and the true value of the
Web will be only be seen after extensive business process reengineering.