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Design for the Stupid

  |  April 24, 2002   |  Comments

People can be stupid. Designers who don't take this into account aren't any smarter.

The days of the Web as a frontier for pioneers are over. In a growing number of countries, the Web reflects society at large. eBay, AOL, and Yahoo have long had sites that are simple and easy to use. Web design needs to focus on ordinary people who are relatively unfamiliar with the Internet. Simplicity is the number one characteristic of site design that works.

Customer: "I'd like to buy the Internet. Do you know how much it is?"

Customer: "How much does it cost to have the Internet installed?"

Customer: "Can you copy the Internet for me on this diskette?"

Customer: "I would like an Internet, please."

Customer: "I just got your Internet in the mail today..."

Customer: "I just downloaded the Internet. How do I use it?"

Customer: "I don't have a computer at home. Is the Internet available in book form?"

Customer: "Will the Internet be open on Memorial Day tomorrow?"

Customer: "Are you sure that the Internet isn't closed for the night?"

These are all supposedly real quotes from real people, taken from a Web site called Computer Stupidities. If you think the people who said these things are really stupid, then you shouldn't be designing Web sites.

"Indeed, from Titanic to Chernobyl -- and in 9 out of 10 accidents in the air and on the road -- human error has accounted for vastly more fatalities than malfunctioning parts or sabotage," The Economist wrote in March. When it comes to our tools, we make stupid mistakes all the time. Good design takes this into account and seeks to minimize the mistakes we might make.

People can't spell. Google recently published a very long list of the misspellings of Britney Spears's name. You'd be amazed at the amount of ways one name can be misspelled (or mistyped). Did Google sit back and laugh? No. It implemented a function that, if it thinks you have misspelled something, suggests the correct spelling. That's good design.

Repeatedly, I receive email from designers who tell me my thinking on Web design is so 1996. They inform me that in 2002, people are much more educated and demand innovation and excitement.

The reality is that there is a much greater need for simple Web design today than there was in 1996. Back then, we had pioneers and early adopters who tended to hunger for the new and exciting. Today, the vast majority of people on the Web do not see themselves as pioneers. They see the Web as a utility they can use to pay their phone bills or check out holiday offers.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings's analysis of Internet access during January 2002, of the 172.8 million Americans with Internet access 55.5 million did not go online at all that month.

Cars have been around a lot longer than the Internet. Cars are vastly easier to use than computers. Yet people still make all sorts of driving mistakes. When it comes to the Internet, even intelligent people will do the most amazingly stupid things.

We need to stop pushing the envelope and cease living on the cutting edge. People make stupid mistakes all the time. What's really stupid and truly, breathtakingly moronic is designers who don't recognize this fact.


Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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