The #1 Problem in Web Design

The world of web design is actually a gigantic game of telephone.

There are two messages involved in every web design project. One is the desired message, the message that the site owners want to deliver to their audience. This message probably has something to do with the value of participating, of using that tool or service to make your life better in some way.

The other is the actual message, the one that actually gets delivered. This message is usually some form of the desired message, but often has a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty thrown in. In the worst cases it is actually not the desired message at all but an unintended communication that means something completely different.

The number one problem on the Web today is a mismatch between the desired message and the actual message being delivered.

Remember the game of telephone, the one where you sit in a circle and whisper a message to the person beside you? That person then tells the person beside them, and once you get all the way around the circle you compare messages. Rarely are the messages the same. In many cases it is funny what we end up with. After all, it’s just a game.

But on the Web it isn’t so innocent…

The world of web design is actually a gigantic game of telephone.

There are two messages involved in every web design project. One is the desired message, the message that the site owners want to deliver to their audience. This message probably has something to do with the value of participating, of using that tool or service to make your life better in some way.

The other is the actual message, the one that actually gets delivered. This message is usually some form of the desired message, but often has a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty thrown in. In the worst cases it is actually not the desired message at all but an unintended communication that means something completely different.

The number one problem on the Web today is a mismatch between the desired message and the actual message being delivered.

Remember the game of telephone, the one where you sit in a circle and whisper a message to the person beside you? That person then tells the person beside them, and once you get all the way around the circle you compare messages. Rarely are the messages the same. In many cases it is funny what we end up with. After all, it’s just a game.

But on the Web it isn’t so innocent. The entire industries of visual and interface design, copy-writing, usability, user experience, and all the rest are tasked with playing a gigantic game of telephone. Their job is to communicate the message that needs communicating. Does their design deliver the desired message, or is the actual message completely different? All of these groups, in their own way using their own techniques, are trying to align the desired message with the actual one.

There are a lot of other topics in design that get a lot of interest: technical issues like cross-browser implementation, using semantic markup, and scalability to name a few. There are also an amazing amount of process-related topics: which design method is best, how many users do you test, and when should you get funding, etc. There are a million issues to deal with, but really they all pale in comparison to the #1 problem.

And, to top it all off, the Web is a visual medium, and so we tend to judge things visually. If they look right, then we assume they are right. But just as a smile from a serial killer isn’t really what you want, neither is a web site that looks great but doesn’t support what you’re trying to do. On the other hand, when a message is being communicated clearly, it usually looks good because the way it looks makes sense, so there is some merit in judging by how it looks.

From a 30,000 foot perspective it is easy to see that the web site serves as a function. You take the desired message, run it through the web site, and out the other end comes another message. If the actual message is the same as the desired one, it is a 1:1 function whose output doesn’t change the input. If it’s not, the function is doing something undesirable…it is changing the input in some way before it is output.

So two points become absolutely critical. One is the point at which the desired message is most clear. At what point do you know exactly what the desired message is? Well, you have to talk to the person in charge. The person making the critical strategic decisions on the project. If you’re not talking to that person, then you probably have dirty data. And, if you can’t get a straight answer, or the real answer isn’t best for the audience, then maybe the desired message isn’t the right one.

Here’s an example of push-back. The business strategy of generating increased advertising revenue is often realized as a design strategy by increasing page views by breaking up stories into multiple pages. From a reader perspective this is obviously less desirable. So at this point it’s the designer’s job to say “Breaking up pages arbitrarily isn’t so good for our audience…it provides a worse experience. Let’s not design for page views and we’ll make happier users in the long run”.

The other critical point is the actual message. At what point do you know the actual message that is being communicated? Well, there are various ways to get at it, but the best is to experience it and watch others experience it. Designers tend to deal with this intuitively, and usability folk tend to deal with this by testing. And, to that end, I’m not sure that one method is better than another. I’ve been on both sides of the fence long enough to know that there is no such thing as a single method that always works, and until there is, we’re just going to have to keep trying.

So for those folks trying to make sense of their latest project…if you’re stuck about what to do…try to find those two points: the point at which your desired message is best explained, and the point at which the actual message is most clear. If you can get your message communicated well, in an actual form that is close to the desired one, then all other issues are small potatoes.

Published: September 21st, 2007

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