Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Altruistic vs. Narcissistic Web Sites

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Heated debates are now raging in the web design blog* realm.

[* blog = “web log,” i.e., digital diary, internet notebook, online journal, in which an individual or organization presents opinions, feelings, beliefs, ideas, news clips, quotes, and other items of interest. Most blogs enable users to interact by way of searchable comment archives, email contact, and a “post comment” response functionality for each blog entry.]

Anti-usability Designers

In their personal blog sites, some designers express impatience with user considerations. Usability guidelines are scoffed at as subjective or even “random.” Rules are, to them, just dogmatic opinions that are severely limited in application. They desire the liberty to design web sites with restriction-free “beauty,” or sites that other designers will praise as fresh and innovative.

They tend to add mouse-overs and drop down menus where the norm is to link to lists with explanations. Or they'll have a Search entry box with no “search” or “go” button, requiring users to hit “enter” on their keyboards. Doing the unexpected is a prized value. If users have to learn new skills and terminology, just to deal with the novelty at their site, so be it.

Pro-usability Designers

Other designers argue in favor of web sites that provide optimum user experience. For them, visual aesthetics is a subordinate concern. These designers have observed users struggling at web sites, trying to perform tasks and find information. Thus, sacrificing a clever design idea or unusual color scheme, to ensure the higher ideal of ease of use, is acceptable to them. To violate user expectations and familiar modes of operation is taboo. They realize that users are conditioned to web norms established at such high traffic sites as Google, MSN, and amazon.com.

Most web designers probably fit in somewhere between the two extremes. But some outspoken designers are vigorously proclaiming a markedly anti-usability aesthetic. Usability “gurus” are reviled as tyrannical invaders of their privileged realm, wielding “weapons of mass artistic destruction” (i.e., usability guidelines).

Having waded into the rough currents and rowdy tempests of this debate, one thing gradually became clear: one can categorize web sites, based on the underlying attitude of the designer, as being either altruistic or narcissistic.

Altruistic Web Sites

Definition. Altruistic (from Latin “alter” meaning “another”): putting the needs of others first. Strong desire to help rather than hinder. Seeking to be of value to those in need. Friendly benevolence. Following the Golden Rule. Not seeking personal benefits in a way that causes others to suffer. The opposite of selfish, vain, and egotistic.

Altruistic design accommodates user preferences, established web norms, the conventions that users expect. This is done, not to be “slaves to users,” but to shorten the learning curve for web site visitors. Few users have the time and patience to develop a whole new skills set to accommodate an “off-the-beaten-path” web site.

Altruistic designers believe it's poor strategy to risk alienating or confusing users, just for the sake of being different. Or to impress fellow designers with controversial violations of best practices.

Users enjoy altruistic web sites. They perceive these sites as familiar, helpful, and service-oriented. Altruistic web sites are easy to understand, the information is relevant, and users can quickly perform a variety of tasks. They tend to visit altruistic web sites more often, bookmark them, and recommend them to others.

Characteristics of an Altruistic Web Site:

1. “You” oriented copy, focused on benefits to users.

2. Standard link nomenclature, e.g., “Home,” “About,” “Contact Us,” “News,” “Articles,” “Archives,” “Privacy Policy.”

3. Text is written in user language, rather than corporate speak.

4. Informs user when task has been successfully completed.

5. Provides link back to Home Page from every page and form.

6. Upfront, easy to find Contact Information, rather than hiding from the public, afraid to hear any criticism.

7. Depth gauge (Home > Products > Engines > Mining Truck Engines) to let users know their current location, and how they can backtrack to higher levels of the site structure.

8. Search Site entry box provided for complex, information-rich sites, so users can quickly access items without having to remember or guess where they're located.

9. “About Us” page provides enough facts about named individuals to establish the credibility of the web site and its contents.

10. Registration instructions provide users with specific requirements, such as mandatory fields, characters and symbols allowed for a password, how many it should contain, and how to make one that's hard to crack (“avoid maiden name,” etc.).

11. Site functionalities, forms, and links actually work—having been tested prior to releasing the web site to the public.

12. “Printer Friendly Version” is provided, so users can print a page stripped of ads, navigation tools, and other non-essentials.

Narcissistic Web Sites

Definition. Narcissistic (from Greek “narke” meaning “to be numb”): being insensitive to the needs of others. Viewing ones self as the primary object of pleasure. Considering all criticism and advice as attempts to destroy personal happiness. Craving adoration from others. Displaying contempt toward any suggestions for improvement. Seeking personal benefits without regard for the feelings or well being of others. Conceited and arrogant.

Narcissistic design imposes unusual restrictions and requirements on users. Users confront a radically unfamiliar, challenging, or indifferent environment. Independence from experts is brazenly asserted, to allow the designer to “do anything I want to do, because it's my creation.” An immature, unprofessional attitude.

Narcissistic focus is on the designer, as reflected in the web site, which acts as a vanity mirror. The designer's need for self-expression, freedom from constraints, and praise from fellow designers, is the primary concern. Users are expected to gaze in awe at the “brilliance” of the narcissistic design.

Users flee narcissistic web sites in frustration, and sometimes anger. They can't understand why anyone would even bother to put up a web site that fails to consider potential problems users might encounter. Once repulsed, users seldom return to narcissistic sites.

Characteristics of a Narcissistic Web Site:

1. “We” (corporate sites) or “I” (individual sites) oriented text, with product descriptions from the organization's point of view.

2. Non-standard, idiosyncratic link nomenclature. For example, “Home” is called “Main Page,” “About Us” is called “Resume,” and “Contact Us” is called “Rattle Our Cage.” Many users will be confused, or annoyed, at such deviations from web norms.

3. Links are not immediately obvious that they're links, not underlined, and don't change color to show they've been selected.

4. Tiny fonts that require squinting and extra-precise mouse clicking skills. “Large font size” options usually enlarge only body text, not the navigation or heading text.

5. Self-indulgent color choices that possibly look nice to the designer, but cause readability and usability problems. Very common: light color type against a background of the same, slightly darker color.

When you encounter a narcissistic web site, remember: there's nothing wrong with you. It's the design that's dysfunctional and impolite. Then again, it could be that the content is so bad, it deserves the design in which it's confined.

It's possible to produce web sites that are gratifying to designers and satisfying for users. Innovative, award-winning web design doesn't necessitate ditching guidelines based on user observation studies, common sense, or altruistic artistic ideas.

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