The Dangers of Judging Web Designs Superficially

If designers judge each other superficially it brings down the circus tent on everybody. It lowers expectations and creates a market where looking good is the same as being good. It devaluates user experience to the point where non-audience members have a voice that is just as powerful (if not more powerful) than real audience members. And over time it serves to pull the rug out from under the web design profession.

People judge things because it is efficient. We judge everything, and we do it as quickly as possible. We look at newspaper headlines to judge which stories we should read. We judge the speed of oncoming cars so we know if we can cross an intersection. We judge movie trailers to see if we should bother. The faster we can judge, and judge correctly, the more problems we can solve, and the more efficient we become.

Being a web designer I tend to judge a lot of web design. I browse through several dozen familiar web sites each day and a few sites I’ve never been to before. I judge them each in turn. I’m not sure how I judge them: my judgments aren’t always definitive, but I know I’m making judgments because I have a general sense of “I like this” or “I don’t like this”.

It seems that other designers do, too. Many designers with blogs often post comments about other sites. Two recent redesigns, those of mezzoblue.com and blogger.com, started countless conversations on the merits of each. Designers were making judgments like “looks great” or “the white space needs to be rethought”.

Too many of these judgments are superficial, focusing only on a quick visual inspection of the site. They use terms like “look” and “feel”. They also focus on things like color palette choices, validation, which tags were used, or which technique was used to round the corners. They deal with how the site looks or how the code looks.

Yet, we know better. We know that this sort of thing isn’t very accurate or even helpful. First impressions are trivial, and rarely provide insight into the work that was done. We even have this idea crystallized into hackneyed sayings like “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

But, we often do. While making quick judgments is a normal part of being human (and certainly an accepted part of blogging), I think it’s dangerous to do in the web design world. It does the following:

Ignores real usage of the site

Many designers who make quick judgments about a site aren’t even in the target audience of that site, and therefore lack even the most basic criteria for effective feedback. Many designers who critiqued the blogger.com redesign are undoubtedly more advanced than the relatively novice audience the site is intended for. They might as well be critiquing an un-subtitled movie spoken in a language they don’t understand. They can react all they want to, but they’re not experiencing the whole of it.

On the other hand, the mezzoblue.com redesign had a few examples of real usage in action. A few comments written in reaction to the redesign focused on the new commenting system that Dave Shea had implemented. The controversy was that Dave chose to highlight certain comments of people he knew while leaving the rest untouched. This angered some visitors who pointed out that it was placing undue emphasis on those comments without first knowing how valuable they were. The arguments, written by actual users of the site, provided more than enough feedback for Dave to ponder over. This is the sort of non-superficial feedback that many designers could only wish for.

Promotes trivial topics to higher levels of importance

Dismissing a site (and subsequently a product) because it doesn’t validate is an example of one of the most distressing consequences of the worthy movement to code with web standards. Right now, validating code does very little to increase the value of a site to any user, even users who might be designers. Most users simply don’t know and don’t care.

As he was done for several other projects, Douglas Bowman wrote a detailed post in his blog detailing the blogger.com redesign. Worried about how designers might react to the new site not validating, he pre-empted them by saying, “I’ll save you the time and tell you it won’t validate right now�If you’ve already visited Blogger and hit your Validate HTML favelet within a minute of seeing the new design, shame on you. Don’t you have better things to do?”

This comment illustrates the weight with which designers mistakenly endow validation, while perfectly summing up the frustration of a designer and team dealing with real world constraints called users.

Gives new designers the wrong idea

What do new designers think when they read superficial commentary? They emulate it, of course. They incorporate the same thinking into their burgeoning web design skill set. If they hear that this site is good, they’ll assume it is without much thought. This is yet another way to be efficient, but it is a very dangerous way to learn.

In practice, every project has it’s own avalanche of issues. There is no one right way to do anything, and because each site has a different user group then each site has a different set of issues it must deal with. Swift dismissals (or swift acceptance) of web sites suggest a superficial scan is adequate to judge web design.

In a perfect web, we should be able to listen to those who have much more experience than us because they should know better. But even a comment made on a whim can be detrimental to someone looking for solid advice on their current design problems. And beginners are everywhere on the web!

Erodes the credibility of professional web designers

Professional web designers already have a difficult enough job justifying that existence. They’re often seen as simply implementing designs at the whim of their client and not as professionals who help their client create effective designs. How many designers have to justify their decisions to people who have no experience in the design field?

Superficial comments make this worse. It allows others to observe design with the same triviality. Potential clients will take notice, and eventually seek out and hire those designers who create trivial designs. Saying it is so is the first step in making it so.

The overall effect

If designers judge each other superficially it brings down the circus tent on everybody. It lowers expectations and creates a market where looking good is the same as being good. It devaluates user experience to the point where non-audience members have a voice that is just as powerful (if not more powerful) than real audience members. And over time it serves to pull the rug out from under the web design profession.

The judgments we make as designers are important. We should not make any superficially.

Anything we say is everything we say.

Published: June 7th, 2004

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