Start Making Sense: Designing Sites for Users

I’ll admit it: Some web sites leave me absolutely baffled. I’ve been working or playing on the web for about six years, and I feel relatively comfortable there, but sometimes I’m just completely lost.

Is it my fault? Well, possibly, but I prefer to give the user the benefit of every doubt. Plus, I don’t think I’m alone. I believe that often it’s simply because sites are designed with little attention to how users understand and process information.

Psychologists use the term “schema” to indicate a mental model. According to, a schema is “a pattern imposed on complex reality or experience to assist in explaining it… or [to] guide response.” In other words, we set up patterns within our minds to deal with the complex world in which we live. When we encounter a new complex experience, like a web site, we try to use our existing patterns to explain it. If we cannot, we are forced to create a new schema (or click to another site).

So often, Internet marketers do things with no concern for their users’ schemata. We come up with new products and fancy web sites that users cannot use. We devise names and tag lines that do not fit the way our users view the world. We’re often too busy “disintermediating frictionless end-to-end solutions” (thank you to’s BS generator) to show the user, in her terms, how a site works and how it will improve her life.

IBM takes users’ schemata into account in its principles of design. Under its principle of “familiarity,” IBM says, “Allow users to build on prior knowledge, especially knowledge they have gained from experience in the real world… Users should not have to learn new things to perform familiar tasks. The use of concepts and techniques that users already understand from their real-world experiences allows them to get started quickly and make progress immediately.”

When Intuit produced its Quicken product, it put effort into understanding users’ real world. It had employees go into homes and study how consumers managed their finances on paper. Intuit then tried to emulate or improve some of those processes in its software. The software, then, worked within the schemata of its users. (This seems to have been successful, as Quicken now controls roughly 80 to 85 percent of the market.)

The trash can that is now ubiquitous on computer interfaces is a good example of using users’ real-world mental models to make technology easy to use. As IBM states under its “obviousness” design principle, “Real-world representations… give the interface a familiar look and feel and can make it more intuitive to learn and use.” When my grandmother turned on her computer for the first time, she knew what the trash can was for. But she was less certain about using a button labeled “Start” to shut her computer down.

In addition to using real-world conventions, we can help users by using web conventions. Most of us feel comfortable with home pages, left-side navigation, and keyword searches. These have become part of our web schema. Working within existing schemata makes it easier for users to figure out our web sites.

This is not to say that we can’t create new, exciting things. We should always be making groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting products and web sites. We just need to ensure that they make sense to the user. Most cars, even fancy new ones, have steering wheels and gas pedals to the right of their brake pedals.

I don’t think the answer is in constrictive, boring standards, but in intelligently working within your users’ schemata to allow them to easily use your wares. You’d probably be impressed if I made a product that cleaned your office while cooking you a gourmet meal. But not if you couldn’t turn it on.

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