The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Neil Verplank (bio) email neil Other articles

    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 business or corporate site, or a more personal effort.

    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 define 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 "behind the scenes" - they have been poorly implemented or poorly maintained or both, which is not the same as poorly designed, and not the kind of bad we're talking about, though there are many sites like this, and they're definitely annoying.

    The other kind of "bad" is a site in which it's easy to get lost, or worse, where it's unclear where to even begin. A site that doesn't answer the questions that people are likely to ask 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 really "good," but to in fact be bad. Conversely, it's tempting to say that an ugly site is bad, but I would argue that ugliness isn't inherently bad -- just annoying. It's possible for a site to look terrible, but work well and be helpful -- this kind of site could undoubtedly be better, but it's still "good" from a design perspective (just not great).

    It's also important to define what I mean by "design." Following are four important distinctions in design; each can and often does overlap with another, but leaving one out of the process will almost certainly result in bad design. In general, the process flows from top to bottom.

    • Information Design (link) 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.

    • 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? These are questions an interface designer must answer. It is a question of deciding how the underlying information will be represented on a page.

    • 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?

    • 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.

    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. And again: 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. If you ask ten professionals, you'll get ten fundamentally different views on what "web design" is all about. But if they do not have some distinction in one of the above four categories, it's likely that they are in fact doing "bad" design. Just because someone knows how to use a wrench does not make them a plumber.

    To summarize then: 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.

Where's the Start Button?

    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 is a good site.

    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. 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. Checking on reservations, a flight status, or you mileage plus account are other obvious interactions with an airline - again, these are now fairly obvious choices on the front page, but they didn't use to be.

    Bad Design:

      Andersen Consulting is another shining example of bad design: the opening page tells you only that you have arrived - it's a welcome mat. If it quickly shifted into a menu, then that might be useful. But it doesn't. It sits there, and offers you a "home" button, telling you that this is not in fact the home, and making you wonder what you're waiting for. The second screen ("home") is worse - there are at five different menus on the page that might be "where you're supposed to start," including, as well as a welcome message. It's utterly unclear where to even begin -- Where is the start button?

      CNN -- There are almost 60 links on this page, with virtually no visual distinction between one and another. It's overwhelming -- yes there's a lot going on in the world, but people expect up-to-the-minute news from CNN - what is all this stuff, anyway? I don't know, I'm not even going to look...

      jfax -- 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 is there an obvious place or button that actually explains clearly what it is that JFax does. You're forced to click on numerous links to understand why you've arrived here at all, which is unfortunate, because it is a pretty cool service - it converts voice messages and faxes into email and sends them to you. Why they couldn't say that in an obvious way is beyond me.

      Microsoft Technical Support -- Microsoft and Technical Support are two phrases that definitely do not belong together. Most of the products and technical services you are likely to encounter on the net have good guides, and make it easy for you to find what you're looking for. Microsoft does the opposite - their site looks ok, and you can search it, but you're likely to find that none of your real questions are answered, or worse, you'll encounter a long list of pages that indicate you must pay in order to get the answer you want. Why even show me what I can't have access to?

      Secret Science of Egypt -- This is a perfect example of a site that looks fine, but if you have any idea at all what this guy is trying to say, you're way ahead of me. There doesn't seem to be any point to it at all. It's tempting to smirk at the site because it's "wacky," but that's not my point at all -- I've seen plenty of sites that deal with rather fringe topics that are interesting, or informative, or amusing, but this site is just utterly opaque.

    I've spent a lot of time identifying what makes a site bad, because I don't think it's necessarily obvious. So what is a good web site? I've listed several below, and identified what I think makes them unique.

    Good Design:

      Amazon -- What's the single most likely thing you would do at a bookstore? Yes, buy a book. Amazon makes this simple, and obvious, and they offer you many ways to do so. And, after you've used the site and given them a profile or done any purchasing, it actually gets easier, with "one click ordering."

      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, yet it's incredibly popular. It has cool pictures, and a wonderful library of information that's linked in to the descriptions. And it's updated every single weekday.

      Ebay -- People have been exchanging goods forever, ebay makes it incredibly easy (and cheap) to put your wares in front of millions of potential customers that you'd otherwise never reach. It is the global market.

      Fedex -- Another great site. Want to know where your package is? Just enter the number, and you can find out exactly where it is, when it arrived, who signed for it.

      Hotbot -- Without a doubt, finding something on the web is one of its greatest challenges. Everyone has their favorite search engine; I think Wired's hotbot is effective not only because of what it finds, but because the ability to configure your search, or to learn how to do so is right at your fingertips.

      IMDB -- The International Movie Database is a wonderful site. It lists over 100,000 movies, which is a daunting amount of information, yet it's incredibly easy to find the kind of information you're seeking. Whether it's reviews, current movies, or answers to one of a million trivia questions, the interface makes it easy to get right to the title you want, yet pleasant to "wander off" in all kinds of tangential directions.

      Solstice Site -- A site all about the Winter Solstice and related information. One of the things that make this site so appealing to me is that it's utterly personal - there seems to be no particular professional motivation for this person to have spent so much time on it, other than the fact that they care. Yet they've taken a lot of time to make it visually appealing, and rich with information that's easy to access.

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. The world wide web is a form of information you can find using the internet. A good analogy is that the internet is the road system, and web sites are 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 or forums are another form of communication you can use on the 'net. And if you've spent any time at all on the internet, you've probably spent some time in a chat room - a tool that allows you to communicate immediately with other people on the net.

    Today's browsers, such as Netscape Communicator, or Microsoft's Internet Explorer "understand" these different tools and kinds of communications, and so obscure the difference between these tools. And most people cram all of these things into the terms "the web" or "the internet," using both interchangeably.

When will 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."

    That is because the web is, for most people, a lousy way to "make money." In fact, talking about making money on the web is the same as talking about making money on TV, or making money in the newspaper, or making money on the radio -- these statements almost don't even make sense. 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 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 award-winning graphic design in order for people to use a site or for a site 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 in way that no other medium allows.

    You have always had the opportunity to market, sell and communicate with as many people in world as you want to, any way you 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; you have the ability to "listen," which was never available before; and most importantly, you can do things with a web site you cannot do in any other medium (except 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 just as she must make the effort to create business and sales using other marketing techniques and distribution channels, she must make the effort to use the web to show people what she does; the web will not do the work 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 cost 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 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.


    by Neil Verplank (bio) email neil Other articles