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Chapter 1. What Makes a Web Site Work

What is it about buildings that stir us? Regardless of whether we consider ourselves architectural connoisseurs or just plain folks, we all encounter different physical structures every day. Each building affects us emotionally, whether we realize it or not.

Just this evening, I spent time in a dark, smoky bar with original tin ceilings and exposed brick walls. The bar has been around forever, as have some of the patrons, but I chose to spend time sipping beer there rather than in the neighboring gleaming microbrewery that opened last year. The new place has a wider menu of beers, better food, and non-smoking sections, but tonight I preferred the old joint with the great graffiti on the bathroom walls.

After the bar, I went to a café to read. Ann Arbor has about 25 cafés, 10 of which are within walking distance of each other, and they're all decent places. So why did I go to this one? It has a great nook with soft chairs and a low ceiling, providing an almost totally enclosed space where I can have the privacy I want.

And now I'm back at the office. Our space is located in an old building that originally was a mechanic's garage. What was once the oil pit is now a sunken-level workspace for graphic designers. Exposed timber beams lift the roof high over an eclectic space conducive to creativity. After the garage closed, the building was a greasy spoon; my office is where the kitchen used to be. Repurposed every decade or so, our building has worn many hats over time and overflows with history. Back in 1918, the builder could never have conceived that it eventually would be occupied by a Cajun restaurant or a travel agency, much less an information architecture firm.

Why so much talk about the impressions that physical structures make on us? Because they are familiar to us in ways that web sites are not. Like web sites, buildings have architectures that cause us to react. Buildings and their architectures therefore provide us with great opportunities to make analogies about web sites and their architectures.

Buildings and their architectures are diverse. Consider the extent of architectural ground I covered in my brief evening jaunt. Buildings look different -- or are architected differently -- because they must cater to so many different uses, users, and moods. Warehouses, strip malls, and Chinese restaurants look and work the way they do because they are designed for varying uses. Drinking beer with friends, reading quietly, and working all require different environments to succeed. Web sites are the same; we visit them to learn about alternative medicine, play games, or vent our frustration. So each web site requires a different architecture, designed with its particular users and uses in mind.

Some architectures disgust us. Ask someone who owns a house with a flat roof how they feel about its architecture. Or someone who spends too much time in a kitchen with no counter space right next to the refrigerator. Or someone who works in a steel-and-glass high-rise with fixed windows that prevent the building's occupants from opening them and letting in fresh air.

Why do bad architectures happen so often? Because their architects generally don't live or work in the buildings they design. That hardly seems fair. The same is true of so many web sites. Why does that main page contain over a hundred and forty links? How come the contact information is buried so deep in the site? Why do I keep getting lost? Don't these web sites' architects ever use their own sites?

That's exactly what the next section is about. You can't really become a proficient web site architect unless you first know what it's like to really use the Web on a regular basis. In other words, the best web site producer is an experienced consumer. You must become the toughest, most critical consumer of web sites you possibly can. Determining what you love, what you hate, and why, will shape your own personal web design philosophy. In turn, drawing on your new sensitivity to web consumers' needs will make a great difference as you start designing and building your own web site. Reaching such a level of user-centered awareness sets you aside from every other web site developer; in a profession with such a low barrier of entry, it may be all you have to ensure that your work stands out.

1.1. Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp

Regardless of your level of experience producing web sites, you should revisit Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp before beginning a new site or new phase of an existing site. Why? Well, if you are an experienced site developer, you're probably too jaded to remember what it's like to be a new user (this has certainly happened to us). If you're new at this, then it's likely that you're so excited by design and technical options that you're too distracted to worry about the user. If you work for a large organization, its personality, jargon, and self-perspective may be so instilled in you that you can't begin to imagine what an outsider encounters when confronted by your corporate culture. So now is a good time to run through our Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp exercise.

Start by assembling the people who will work on developing the site. If this is just you, bring some other folks on board so you have a broader set of perspectives to draw on. So pull together some friends, coworkers, or anyone with at least a little experience using the Web.

Just about everyone in the group knows from their own experiences that using a web site has both good and bad aspects; the secret is to unlock those sentiments by forcing the participants to articulate them. Do this by asking your group (and yourself) to brainstorm answers for the following two simple questions:

  • What do you hate about the Web?

  • What do you like about the Web?

Usually we start with the hate question, because, interestingly (and sadly) enough, it's almost always easier for people to talk about negatives than positives. In group settings, it's a great way to break the ice. As the participants spew their venom (or offer their niceties), jot each point down on a white board or flip chart.

Once these issues are aired, run through the positives and negatives. Discuss any natural groupings that you notice. We almost always find that the issues raised fall into three general areas: 1) Technical (e.g., effective use of interactivity, bandwidth/download issues); 2) Look and Feel (e.g., complementary aesthetics and functionality, the importance of good copyediting); and 3) Something Else (e.g., finding information sites, site navigation issues). Interestingly, these Something Else issues often directly relate to information architecture. As this is likely the first time the participants have ever been introduced to the concept of information architecture, we like to emphasize strongly that it really does exist and does merit the same consideration as more obvious, tangible areas such as graphic and technical design.

While the group categorizes these issues, some interesting paradoxes often emerge. For example, a common like about web sites is their compelling use of images. Yet a common dislike is gratuitous use of images, many of which take a long time to download without providing useful information or adding any benefit. As such paradoxes emerge, light bulbs ought to appear over the heads of everyone in the group (at least those who thought that building a web site would be easy). It should now be obvious that building a web site and doing it well are two hugely different tasks. If not, be concerned; your colleagues may not be up to the arduous site design and production process that awaits them.

The final step is to see if the members of your group reach consensus on these issues. If you'll be working together on developing the site, it's important that the team comes to a consensus regarding what works and what doesn't. If there are disagreements on certain issues, it's important to acknowledge those and explore why they exist. We often find that these disagreements are directly tied to disciplinary backgrounds. Pointing them out now is a good way to sensitize the participants to something that ought to be, but unfortunately isn't, always obvious: different points of view are represented among both consumers and producers of web content. There isn't necessarily a Right Way or Wrong Way of going about things, but discussing these issues in advance gets them on the table, and gets you that much closer to making a sound and defensible decision once you are ready to begin developing your site.

Of course, you and your colleagues will ideally carry over into the development process your bittersweet memories of what it's like to actually use web sites, resulting in a more user-centered product.

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