Please Make Me Think... Revisited §

Something sparked a re-evaluation and reconsideration of my position on usability and web design, and the pervasive mantra of “don’t make me think” in the web usability community. Since penning that entry, I invested some time into reading Steve Krug’s book and was actually unimpressed. While the book was interesting, and I could see the validity of his points, it almost feels foolish.

There is a time and a place for such simplicity — i.e. a site’s navigation structure, or a well placed “Wizard” for software installation — but for the most part I finally saw the source of Andrei’s frustration.

“Yes, usability in and of itself, is dangerous to the world at large. And yes, I, as a designer, should be bound by some ethical mantra to make my work deeper, more thoughtful and complex, not aimed for the lowest common denominator of my user base.”

Usability Has Prevailed for Too Long

Yes, the usability culture of the web has been in control too long, and I never really understood the extent until I put Andre’s article together with Krug’s book and some further reflection on articles from Jakob Nielsen. Don’t get me wrong, usability is important and without a thorough understanding and implementation of most usability practices, web designers would be failing to truly understand the dynamic open nature that is the web.

Usability practices to the extent discussed in Krug’s book can go too far. If one’s only consideration in web design is making something so simple that users have no need to consciously be apart of the content, then what is the purpose? You might as well have a single template for every bank, school or newspaper that wants a website — at least then there would be no significant difference in the layout or function. A user could simply think “Okay, this is a bank’s site, so it’s going to be this certain way.” Eventually this will become ingrained, and voila! no more need for thinking on the web.

This seems a little far fetched, but is it? Isn’t this already the extent of our experience on most websites? When you visit Amazon.com you see the tabs, the search fields, the featured merchandise. Okay, now load target.com, pretty close. The colors differ, and Target doesn’t have tabs… but there’s not much innovating going on. Now load up Walmart.com and compare it to Amazon. Nearly identical (except the color, of course… and good old Walmart has gone overboard with the tabs). Now, do the same for some of your favorite financial institutions, insurance companies, or many major corporation’s websites. If you put each one side by side and don’t focus on any one in particular it might be difficult to differentiate between one and the other.

Designers Take over, Please!

I think that the usability era has had its hurrah, and its time for designers to take the reigns of the web. Everyone is at the point of understanding the nature of the web. It is a remarkably fluid and universal knowledge base. More people gain access every day, and more people are contributing to it than ever before.

All of these facts point to the success of the usability movement on the web. More people than ever are able to interact with the medium then they could in the past. And while many assistive technologies are still in their infancy, they are poised for breakthroughs very soon, and we will only see the number of people gaining access, and the number of people contributing themselves, increase more rapidly.

This is why I feel so strongly about the design renaissance, and the true birth of design into the web, and it was something I hadn’t really considered in my original response to Andrei’s article. What we have now is an incredible amount of creativity from so many different people pouring out into the web. Everything from blogs to podcasting to wikis, we are finally seeing the clenching fist of marketing and consumer ideals release its hold on the Internet, and real people are out there contributing real thoughts and having a real influence.

Now there is the chance for growth to occur. We are on the right track by continuing to embrace usability, but we must be careful to never make it at the expense of what design is. It is absolutely time to quit creating for “the lowest common denominator,” and create something unique and powerful. And yes, something that might gasp make you think! If we are going to allow the web to become an intrinsic part of our culture we need to let go and allow it to be something that has room for a challenge.

Forget the dumb-down approach, but don’t let the design drive you either. This is something I am still learning myself and am trying hard to implement here. The focus needs to be first on content. Create the point first. If you’re making a site for a financial institution, focus that content for that purpose. If it’s for your own personal use (i.e. a blog) then focus on what you have to say first. Then apply design and usability as layers.

I recently started working for the University Web Office at Humboldt State, and we are in the midst of redesigning many of the department web sites. Browse around there if you get a chance, and you can see what we’re up against. In that case, the content is already there, so we have the opportunity to be creative, and that’s what we’re doing. The Web Office is utilizing Graphic Designers to design many of the new sites, and it is our job in the Web Office to code it up and allow for usability across browsers and for different people. So far, I see nothing wrong with this approach, and the sites that will be debuting are nothing short of beautiful. They’re complex and visually stimulating, and leave little to be desired, especially from an educational institution.

In short, I have changed my response completely. Yes, usability in and of itself, is dangerous to the world at large. And yes, I, as a designer, should be bound by some ethical mantra to make my work deeper, more thoughtful and complex, not aimed for the lowest common denominator of my user base.

Extrapolate all of this further into the realm of interface design, graphic design, or any other design you care to think of. It’s time to stop hurling simplistic applications toward an advancing audience, quit dumbing down your work for the good of the simplistic few. Marry your content with design that is functional and supports what you’re trying to create. Worry about the lowest common denominator last, because they are the least important.

Make It a Discussion

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