The Most Critical Moment of Web Design

There is one moment in design that is more critical than any other. It is a moment that determines nothing less than the fate of the design. A moment that, if taken advantage of, could lead to true innovation. If not taken advantage of it only leads to innovative excuses. That moment is the moment […]

There is one moment in design that is more critical than any other. It is a moment that determines nothing less than the fate of the design. A moment that, if taken advantage of, could lead to true innovation. If not taken advantage of it only leads to innovative excuses.

That moment is the moment that a web designer finds out that their web site isn’t working as they had intended. Some unintended behavior has occurred. In other words, someone’s done something they weren’t supposed to. At this point, all web designers have a choice to make.

We can choose to either explain away the unintended behavior as the result of something external to the design, or we can accept the unintended behavior as an artifact of the design. Each of these choices have their benefits and drawbacks, and both certainly affect the future of the design.

Attempt to Account for it By Something External to the Design

For some reason, in the act of creation, we lose all objectivity. We view our own children as the best children, our own art as the best art, our own web sites as the best web sites. Because of this, we tend to account for any suggested shortcomings in our creations by attributing them to something — anything — else.

If someone has something to say about our kids, then they obviously have problems of their own. If someone doesn’t appreciate our art, then they just aren’t looking at it the right way. Web design is no different. When someone doesn’t like our web site or complains that something isn’t working right, we immediately look for holes in their argument. We ask: is this even a sane person? Did they really have a problem, or are they just a complainer? They probably complain to every site they go to and not just ours, we say.

Imagine that the person complained of not being able to find something on our web site because, they claim, there is no link to it. Knowing that there is indeed a link to it, we could simply send them the url to the page that they’re looking for. This may take only a second, solve their problem, and even gain us a happier user. What could be better?

Well, what could be better is that we solve the problem. Notice how we kind of skipped that part? It happens all the time. In general, smoothing over potential issues like this is an unhealthy way to approach design. I think of it as acute design blindness: we separate ourselves and our creation from the problem almost unwittingly, leaving ourselves unaccountable for our design.

Accept it as an Artifact of the Design

The other choice we have when people behave in ways other than we intend is to accept their behavior as an artifact of the design itself. In addition to becoming accountable, it leads us on the path of addressing the problem objectively.

Imagine the same scenario as before except that after we send out the email to make everyone happy, we make note of it somewhere. And we keep track of those notes so that over time we can mark trends of what users are having difficulty with. (if we don’t keep track we’ll forget the emails sent here and there)

Later, when we have time to critically analyze what’s going on with our design, we make sure to go over our list of issues and address those that come up frequently. In doing so we are accepting that these behaviors are an artifact of the design: behaviors that would not exist if not for the interaction we had direct bearing on.

Though this sounds relatively simple, it is often a tough argument to make with designers who are particularly fond of their own designs. I should know: I used to be one of them. I often thought — in my deluded state — that people who complained were simply too lazy to learn how links worked or how browsers worked or how the Web worked. After all, this stuff seemed pretty easy to me.

Imagine though, the same scenario as before resulting in a different, unintended behavior. Instead of sending an email to you complaining about not finding something, a user instead simply leaves your site in frustration. Their expectations of your site drop, they become much less likely to visit in the future, and they end up telling their close friends about it — who tell their friends — who just so happen to be in the process of making a will — and because of this whole debacle they end up forbidding everyone in their extended family from visiting your web site. Forever.

For every overt action, there are countless covert ones. For every observed behavior, there are countless unobserved ones. For every obvious problem, there are countless subtle ones. Admittedly, taken one-at-a-time many of the problems with our web designs probably won’t show too much negative influence overall. But taken together they add up quickly.

In the end, we can only know so much about our designs. We can know how they’re supposed to work, how they affect those people we specifically test, and how they affect those few people who pull themselves out of daily routine to tell us about their experiences. And though we will never know everything that could be useful to us, we will do well to remember that all these behaviors aren’t happening despite our design, but because of it. They lay there like fossils encased in amber: artifacts for us to discover.

Published: November 11th, 2004

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