On Designing Well

    The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

    It's pretty simple to put up a web page — 1st graders have their own web sites now; after all, who doesn't anymore? But there is a huge disparity between tossing up a home page, and creating a something that's genuinely valuable and useful to its community — be it a corporate site or a more personal effort, be it on the web or some other interactive media. There is also a significant difference between a static, "read-only" site, and an interactive interface for what is ultimately a network-based application.

    If you've spent any time on the web at all, you know that for every site that you think is "good," there are nine more that are definitely "bad." There are meta-sites (Yahoo is perfect example) that attempt to define which other sites are good (by definition making those left out "bad"), that themselves may be good or bad from a design perspective.

    Before we get too far, I think it's important to define some terms: it's probably easier to identify a bad site than a good one (there are certainly more of them), but it's important to distinguish what I mean by bad, because I think there are two different kinds. Sites that are slow, or that have a lot of broken links, or that are obviously not current are certainly bad, but this badness is "mechanical" in nature — the sites have been poorly implemented, or are poorly maintained, or improperly hosted, or all three. There are many sites that don't function well through no fault of the designer, and they're definitely annoying.

    The other kind of "bad" is a site in which it's easy to get lost, or worse, or in which it's unclear where to even begin. A site that doesn't answer the questions that people are likely to pose is bad. A large and information-rich site that you cannot navigate or search is bad. A site that doesn't have what you were led to expect is bad. The distinction here is that it's quite possible for a site to look "good," but to in fact be "bad." Conversely, it's tempting to immediately say that an "ugly" site is bad, but I would argue that ugliness isn't inherently bad — just distracting. It's possible for a site to look terrible to you, but to in fact work well and be helpful — this kind of site could undoubtedly be better, but it can still be "good" from a design perspective (although perhaps not great).

    It's also important to define what I mean by "design" (also see the first lecture); following are four important distinctions in design disciplines. Each can and often does overlap with another, but leaving one out of the overall process will almost certainly result in bad design. It's possible for each to occur independently, and to some extent, it may be possible to pursue them in any order. I believe in general, the process best flows from top to bottom, with each discipline working with and informing the next stage in the process:


    • Information Design is the process of defining and arranging the information that will be made available to the users. It is the process of deciding what will be available to be seen. Deciding what questions go on the FAQ, or which widgets to include and which to exclude is information design. Defining what goes on this page and what goes on that page is information design.

      (related lecture)


    • Interface Design consists of deciding how you will see what you see. Is it blue or white? Does it go at the top or the bottom? Is it a big button in the middle or a tiny button on the right? It is a question of deciding how the underlying information will be represented on a page; in short, what it will the site look like.

      (related lecture)


    • Interaction Design is about defining how a user will interact with a page, site, or more generally with the underlying information. This is subtly different from Interface Design; some people would collapse the two into a single definition. The distinction for me is about where in the overall process the designer is focusing — interface focuses on a particular page or pages and how they represent themselves, interaction focuses on the larger gestalt of how a user is likely to move around within a structure: Do you click or do you type? Does the user fill out a form, or choose from a row of buttons? Where have you been and where are you going? How will the application behave?

      (related lecture)


    • Graphic Design is the blending of a cohesive aesthetic style with the content and interaction format that have already been defined. There is an important distinction between designing something that looks striking (graphic design), and designing something that strikes you as making sense (information and/or interaction design). Clearly, it is possible, in fact it is important to make something that looks good and make sense; it is however equally possible to make something that makes sense but looks bad, or something that looks good but is nonsense. This is where culture and style come strongly into play.

      (related lecture)


    Again, all of these fields can easily overlap, and it is particularly on a very large and complex site that you need to distinguish between them. You will find other people have differing distinctions and definitions, sometimes merging some of the above, sometimes identifying even more subtle distinctions in the design process.

    It's worth noting that I did not in fact define "web design" — I would argue that there really is no such thing, or that at best it is an amalgamation of the above four. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who claim to be doing web design who have little or no experience or expertise in any of the above four categories. I think part of the problem is that the tools needed to create a web page are so readily available, everyone believes themselves to be a web designer just because they know HTML or know how to use a WYSIWYG editor. Just because someone knows how to use a wrench does not make them a plumber.


    Where's the Start Button?

    For me, good design is a process that starts with identifying the underling information, defining how it will be represented on the page, identifying how a user will interact with what's there, and finally, putting a polish on the whole thing. It takes time, and good craftsmanship; however time well spent reveals itself within the design. Of course, ask ten professionals and you'll get ten fundamentally different views on what design and "web design" are all about, some of them deeply conflicting. This is a good thing. What constitutes "good" and "bad" is ultimately personal, and one strength in any good designer is the ability to be decisive about what one thinks. This is not to say that standing against the world is always a good strategy, but design is about expressing meaning — strong opinions tend to make for strong designs, with greater focus improving the overall level of communication.

    So what makes a web site good? For me, the most fundamental definition of a good web site is one that actually helps its users answer the questions they pose to it. Moreover, a site that successfully anticipates what kinds of users it will have and how they're likely to interact. Ultimately, a good site makes itself understood — from the casual first-timer to the repeat customer, a good design will help everyone get where they need to go, quickly and efficiently.

    To illustrate: what is the single most likely thing you would expect to do if you called an airline? Buy a ticket — this is, after all, what airlines do — they fly passengers to and fro. Yet this was the one thing you could not do on United Airlines' first web site. Although this was quite some time ago, I cannot help but wonder how anyone could convince a company that primarily sells airline tickets that it should have a web site that couldn't sell airline tickets, despite ready availability of the technology at the time. Fortunately, their web site has continued to improve with user feedback, and it's now much more obvious how to go about doing so when you first enter United's site. Reservations, flight status, mileage plus — these are now fairly obvious choices on the front page, but they didn't use to be.

    Another key aspect of good design is paying attention to user. Web sites are representations of the ongoing relationships between businesses and customers (or any kind of community for that matter) — as the roles and functions change, so too should the web site. You may not be right the first time every time, but knowing when your design is wrong is as important as knowing when it's right.

    Bad sites, like bad ideas, tend wither and die quickly — because of the incredibly dynamic nature of the web, it's all but useless to critique particular sites in this context. Because good site tend to flourish as they gather attention and energy, there are a few that have been around long enough to point out.

      Amazon — What's the single most likely thing you would do at a bookstore? Yes, buy a book. Amazon has made this simple and obvious. They've consistently added features that make it ever more convenient to shop: one click ordering, emailing a book as a gift, multiple addresses, remembered shopping lists, and now, every other product too. They have listened to their users, and continued to improve, fine tune, and grow. They're not perfect, but they know it, which is part of what makes them so good.

      Astronomy Picture of the Day — One of my favorite sites. It's a resource, a place to get information about our universe. It's not selling anything, it doesn't make a dime, it has no advertisements, yet it's incredibly popular. It has cool pictures, and a wonderful library of information that's linked in to the descriptions. I think it's a great site because it purports to be nothing other than what it is, is elegant in its simple way, and it is driven by the passion of individuals with a purpose (in this case, to pass on what they know).

      Google — Without a doubt, finding something on the web is one of its greatest challenges. Finding the search button on any web site, let alone on a "search" engine can be all to frustrating, let alone weeding through the results. Google has one box (enter a question), and two buttons. It is so simple, which is all it needs to be.


    Not the web, the internet

    It's worth noting briefly that the web and the internet aren't actually the same thing. The internet is really a language, or protocol, that allows its users and their computers to communicate (all about computers). The world wide web is information formatted in a generally universal way that you can find using the internet. A favorite analogy is this: the internet is to the roads as web sites are to the buildings along the way.

    I make this distinction because there are many other tools on the internet that have nothing to do with the web, such as FTP (File Transfer Protocol), which allows you to send and receive files with your computer. Email is an example of something that isn't the web, but does use the internet. Threaded discussions are another form of communication you can use on the Internet that can either be web-based (html-based forums) or not (Internet Relay Chat, Instant Messaging). Today's browsers, such as Netscape Communicator, or Microsoft's Internet Explorer "understand" these different tools and kinds of communications, and obscure the difference between these tools by presenting them under a single umbrella. And most people in the know tend to cram all of these things into the terms "the web" or "the Internet," using both interchangeably. Ultimately, the web is the interconnections of "things" available via the Internet.


    When do I make my first Million?

    A lot of people think that if they put their business on the web, millions of people will see whatever it is they're offering and start buying. This is simply not true. You can find articles on and off the web that bear this out statistically — there are not a lot of people or businesses who are actually "making money on the web." The economic downturn is patent enough evidence of this.

    This is because the web, for most people, is actually a lousy way to "make money." In fact, talking about making money on the web is the same as talking about making money through TV, or making money in the newspaper, or making money via the radio — these statements almost don't make sense. Of course, the media distributors and programmers make money, but companies that "speak" through these media make money only in indirect ways. I'm not knocking the web, and I'm not saying that it isn't valuable — it's a question of perspective. The web is a communication channel, just as the telephone, television, or the newspaper are communication channels. The web offers a new way for you to communicate with past, present and future clients and community members, and of particular importance, a new way for them to communicate with you.

    There are some fundamental misconceptions about the web — that's it just like TV, that a web site is just an on line brochure or a giant ad, that it must be an award-winning graphic design for it to be "effective." People do not interact with the web in the same way that they interact with a book, a magazine or television. The web is in fact interactive — the user directs their experience, and can interact with you or your company in way that no other medium allows.

    We have always had the opportunity to market, sell and communicate with as many people in world as we want to, any way we like; it's a question of cost and effectiveness. It costs a great deal of money to "reach out" to customers or friends over the television, or through the newspaper, and you can say very little in the time that you pay for. A full-page ad in a national magazine might cost $50,000, it occurs only once, and you can only squeeze a few pictures and a paragraph or two onto the page. And more importantly, these channels are one-way — people cannot interact with a magazine or with the television (though I've shouted at both from time to time).

    The web is fundamentally different — you have the potential to "talk" for a virtually unlimited time to a potentially unlimited audience; you have the ability to "listen" on a mass scale, which has never been available before; and most importantly, you can offer complex and personally tailored experiences with a web site that you cannot in any other medium (except perhaps the phone, which is limited to one-to-one conversations, and which requires relatively expensive human beings in order to utilize).

    For instance: you can answer questions, take orders, get profiles, track individual and group preferences and usage — in short, you can do everything on the web that you're already doing in the "real world." An artist recently asked me, "why should I put my stuff on the web? No one's going to buy it off the web anyway." And I told her she was right — no one's going to buy art out of the yellow pages either. That doesn't mean the web is valueless to her, or to your business; it's a question of usage. As an artist, she has the potential to put a large body of her work in front of a lot of people at a relatively low cost. But she must make the effort utilize the web to create business and sales (through other marketing techniques and channels) by driving people to her site. She must make the effort to use the web (by showing people what she does electronically); the web will not do the marketing for her.

    A web site, after all, is a handful of computer chips and some software — it's a machine. By mechanizing many of the tasks you plan on doing, or are already doing, such as communicating with a client, taking a customer's order, answering frequently asked questions, or using a computer to keep track of inventory, you can use the web to potentially reduce the dollar and time costs of doing business. During the process of creating a web site, you may also encounter opportunities to do things you had not even considered, such as automatically keeping track of incoming shipments and outgoing purchases, instantly knowing your current inventory, or building a database of product information that your salespeople and customers alike can benefit from. All without actually hiring a lot of people, or building new buildings.

    No product will sell itself. A web site can help create the appropriate product exposure and positioning to generate sales, but it's important to understand that your company must make the effort to drive people to your web site in the first place. It is true that the web may well create opportunities that you did not previously have, by exposing what you do to more people than you've ever reached before, but that won't automatically translate into more money.

    A web site shouldn't be about generating revenues, it should be about extending your extant business, its transactions and day-to-day operations into yet another medium. The truth is that you "install" a web site for the same reason you install accounting software or a phone network — to extend your business capabilities and better serve your customer. Because you're in a new medium, you can do the latter in all sorts of new ways, which is frankly a side benefit.

    Ultimately, web sites don't generate revenues — businesses do. A good web site is one that helps you do what you're already doing, helps your customers and clients do what they're already doing with you, only better.




all content © copyright 2003 neil verplank, unless otherwise stated