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Iterative Design Can Be Lazy Design

  |  July 17, 2002   |  Comments

You're in charge of a large Web site. Need help to make it better? Develop a common set of design standards, so your site will be easier and more cost-effective to manage.

Iterative design is a popular approach to Web site design. It generally involves getting something up quickly, analyzing the results, and making improvements based on that analysis. This can make sense when little is understood about the environment. That's no longer the case with the Web.

Imagine the type of conversations that would occur if cars were designed iteratively:

  • Designer: So the steering wheel came off in your hands. Looks like we'll have to fix that one.

  • Designer: Your back tire blew out when you were going 60 miles an hour. Hmm... We'll have to solve that one in the next iteration.

  • Designer: Your brakes failed as you were going down a hill. (Laughs) Isn't that the beauty of iterative design? You get the product out, get people to road test it, then find out real problems experienced by real drivers.

The reality is if car designers were granted the same freedom as software and Web designers, they would literally get away with murder. Web designers often, figuratively speaking, murder their staff and customers.

In the late '90s, "planning" became a dirty word. It was all about youth, energy, and speed. We operated in Internet time. Nobody could predict the future. I certainly got caught up in the lemming-like rush to do stuff -- and do it now!

The mantra was the Internet is constantly changing. You therefore couldn't plan for it. It was like a fast-moving river. You pushed your boat out and dealt with whatever came your way.

At some point, it struck me the Internet wasn't changing much at all. As time passed, it became clear the Web was, in fact, becoming more uniform. It also became clear how much waste and bad design were online.

Is building a Web site more complex than landing on Mars? Than building an airplane? A skyscraper? A heart implant? I heard a great quote recently: "Fail to prepare. Prepare to fail."

I've seen some awful Web sites in my day. Sites that made fundamental mistakes. The designers thought that was OK, because it was iterative design. They could fix it in the next iteration.

"We can't predict how users will react," they'd say with a shrug. They claimed their approach was "user friendly." (The awful word "user" is theirs, not mine.) "This is user-focused design, man. We see how the user reacts. Then, we react to the user."

I know how I react when I find a badly designed Web site. I leave. And I don't come back. How does a designer react to that?

I've seen badly designed intranets that staff refuse to use. Even if you design a new and much better intranet, the task of winning back confidence is huge.

People behave conservatively on the Web. They select a few sites and stick with them. When they visit your site, they expect everything to work right the first time. Approach Web site design as though you're performing heart surgery: Make too many mistakes and you lose the customer.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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