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1.2. 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.

1.2.1. 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.

1.2.1.2. 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.

1.2.1.3. 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.

1.2.1.4. 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.

1.2.1.5. 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.

1.2.1.7. 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.

1.2.2. 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.

1.2.2.2. 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.

1.2.3. 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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