The Web for Dummies

A great number of Web designers think that the average person who uses the Web is like them. What this means is that far too many Web sites are designed by designers for designers.

The same problem has affected poetry over the last half century. Poets started writing for other poets rather than for a general readership. The result has been that more people write poetry than read it.

Today, the single greatest enemy of good Web design is the designer. Typical designers show one or both of the following characteristics:

  • They come from a traditional visual-design background and think that Web design is all about graphics, color, space, and balance. They want the page to look good, to look different. They want the reader to have an experience. The more extreme designers want Web pages to look “cool.”

  • They come from a technical background and think that Web design is about pushing technical boundaries. They want everyone to have fast machines, lots of bandwidth, and loads of plug-ins. They also expect that everyone has a degree in technical engineering and assume that everyone finds playing with Web gadgets “fun.”

How can clever people be so stupid? It’s like giving someone a broom, and he uses it to brush his teeth, or giving someone a TV, and she uses it as a mirror. Eight years in, how come so many people who design for the Web are still getting it so fundamentally wrong?

Form Should Follow Function

Cool technology and poor design are killing the Internet. The classic example of this thinking taken to its extreme is WAP, or wireless application protocol. “The Internet on Your Mobile Phone” is a slogan I have heard again and again. Who in their right mind would want to access the Internet over their mobile phone? Yes, maybe accessing very specific services, such as timetables, but the whole Internet?

The Web is like a a library, newspaper, and directory all rolled into one. A defining characteristic of each of those is that they tend to have a very similar and functional design. All libraries have bookshelves, chairs, and tables. All newspapers have straight columns of text and pictures. All directories have an underlying A-to-Z structure.

The designs of libraries, newspapers, and directories have changed very little in the last 20 years for the simple reason that they work. The designs are boring, but useful. After all, when was the last time you said this about your telephone directory: “I wish it would jazz up its design. A to Z is so boring. How about Z, Y, X, W, V, U for a change?”

For Efficiency’s Sake

A major study by Alexa Research found that “an alarming number of Web users are not particularly efficient at reaching their online destinations. Rather than entering a uniform resource locator (URL) into the address field of their Web browsers, millions of Internet users enter the name of the site they want into the search box of their home page or other search engine.”

Millions upon millions of people are new to the Web. Millions more will use it only once a month or whenever they want to find a specific piece of information. They want a Web site to treat them like “dummies,” not because they’re stupid, but because they want a simple design that’s quick to understand and easy to navigate.

On the Web, boring is good. Cool is stupid.

Related reading