Thursday, December 30, 2004

Designer Hostility To Usability Analysis


I have often wondered about two things on the web:

1. Why so many web sites are hard to use.

2. Why some web designers hate usability principles.

I dislike hyperbole (exaggeration) because it tends to cloud the issues with emotional "ranting" and anger.

But, although I know enough about web sites to discuss design and content writing enhancements, I still have trouble finding information and, to a lesser degree, performing tasks, at a great many web sites.

I refer to complex sites, and sites that give standard features "innovative" labels and non-standard locations.

Like labeling the standard "Contact Us" page, not "Contact Us" as most do, but something like "Communication Options", or putting the contact information in the "About Company XYZ" page. Or making it difficult to actually find the contact information by putting it deeply into the web site, making users click on "About XYZ Company", then "People", then "Feedback", then burying it in tiny print at the bottom of the "Feedback" page.

While this strategy may be appropriate for sites that get a lot of wacko or prank email, letters, and phone calls, it makes it annoyingly difficult for serious users and prospective customers to contact the company.

Lots of times I arrive at a home page that is so cluttered and busy, it's hard to get oriented. Where do I begin? Where, in all this visual and textual noise, is the one thing I happen to need right now?

Or there is no "search site" function for me to navigate on my own through the site, to try to forge a direct and swift path to the information I'm sure is somewhere on the site.

In spite of the frequency with which I encounter usability problems at web sites, I often also encounter extreme reactions on the part of some web designers against usability.

They seem to resent any serious focus on typical users of a site.

Perhaps they don't want to admit that they goofed up and made a site less usable than they know it could be.

They find it convenient to claim that users are stupid or inexperienced, so they don't have to admit any defects in their design or information architecture.

But the fact remains: too many web sites are still not as usable as they ought to be. Some even seem a bit user-hostile, or uncaring about typical user expectations and behavior patterns.

It would be like an automobile designer being indifferent or antagonistic to the needs and comfort of drivers, the end users of the automobiles. Like placing the horn and turn signals in the passenger side of the dashboard, or making a tiny rear view mirror. Cars must be highly and easily usable, or there will be many fatal accidents and the model will be recalled.

Too bad web sites can't be "recalled" and taken off the web for usability violations.

Recent Example on a Web Designer Discussion List

Just a couple of days ago, I posted two email commentaries on the topic of evaluating web sites in the context of how users interact with them, a topic that was begun by someone else.

Each post was attacked quite vigorously by a peculiar, hot-headed web designer. Since I said everything I wanted to say in the two posts, I refrained from continuing the debate.

Due to the designer's "flaming" (attempt to incite anger and self-defensive retaliations), the moderator of the discussion list emailed me and asked me to not respond to the designer's baiting, and said he considered the designer to be excessively hostile toward me personally.

This irate designer spoke negatively of my usability comments, the usability specialist Jakob Nielsen, usability research in general, and my skills as a communicator.

My point in the discussion list posts was that the true usability of any web site is unknown until you observe actual representative users attempt to interact with the contents and functionalities of the site. Anything less than this is speculation.

Thus, User Observation Testing is mandatory for genuine and comprehensive insight into the usability of a web site.

Judging by his responses, this poor designer was deeply disturbed by such thoughts. He wanted to dismiss the paramount importance of both user observation testing and usability principles.

He seemed to think that all usability concepts were aimed at him like a flurry of poisoned arrows. They seemed to threaten him, rather than enlighten him.

Any assertion of a usability enhancement principle, gleaned from years of user research by such specialists as Jared Spool, Jakob Nielsen, Steve Krug, Thomas Powell, and my own experience, were scoffed at and denied.

Non-usability Web Design Concerns

He, and other anti-usability web designers, tend to downplay usability and exalt non-usability web design concerns.

It's true that users are not the only group designers must consider. They have to please their boss, and/or the client, and they quite naturally seek the approval and praise of fellow designers.

Designers also state that they're limited by budget and technology limitations.

Users are seen by anti-usability designers as a nuisance, a bunch of dumbies who don't know what's best for them. A phrase bandied about is "users don't pay for web sites." We're told we must not let (ignorant) users "put demands upon us", or our web sites will become mediocre.

A phrase bandied about is "users don't pay for web sites." Ah, but they do, in the sense that if users find the site hard to use, they won't return to it and won't buy products at it.

All other factors being equal, a web site that accommodates users will tend to sell more product than a web site that's more difficult to use. And a profitable web site, then, is funded and supported by the profits it produces from its users.

Comparing Web Sites with Direct Mail

A direct mail promotion that fails to consider what customers want, and how recipients respond to direct mail offers, e.g. by not using a money-back guarantee, not including testimonials, etc., will not sell many products.

No direct marketer will ignore the needs of the customers being mailed to, and just mail out any random, whimsical creative package. To do so is marketing suicide.

Usability Principles are not "Dictates"

Web designers need not be paranoid of usability research. Usability principles do not "dictate" to the designer how to build a web site. They guide him and help him fashion a site that not only looks nice, but works on the level of users who will attempt to interact with the site.

Usability is slightly less important for a web site that is owned by a web designer or graphic artist, and has a target audience of other designers or artists.

In this case, more liberty is allowable, and even some low usability/high creativity challenges to the users may be acceptable. You may wish to shock, surprise, and amaze these special users, whereas on most other web sites this would not be a wise policy.

Anti-usability Designers are Suspect

Not to be mean-spirited, but I wonder why any designer would be against user testing and usability research. I wonder if the designer has something to hide, something that might shrivel if exposed to the harsh light of day.

I hope the reason for antagonism to usability is more benign. I hope a web designer is ruffled by usability concerns because he had a boss who tormented him with usability rants, and had no artistic appreciation of beauty or design brilliance.

This I can understand. If someone, a boss or client, tries to force some discipline upon you, you tend to react defensively, perhaps in an aggressive manner.

Yet, I don't have any grudge against beauty or innovation or creativity or technological progress.

All I mean to advance is high usability for all web sites, based on actual understanding of real, typical users. Not hypothetical notions of what users want, or designs that consider users to be stupid and not worth bothering about.

Usability analysts do not say that usability is the only concern to pay attention to when constructing a web site. Nor do we say that if the usability is great, this alone is enough to ensure the success of a web site.

But we do see many web sites where usability principles are violated and it's hard to find information, perform tasks, contact the owner, or otherwise interact with the site.

A seasoned web usability analyst can sit down and try to interact with a web site. This will give him his first indications of what needs to be fixed. But only when actual users are observed interacting with the site do you discover its true usability.

As Jakob Nielsen has said, and I paraphrase slightly here, commercial creativity is always under constraints. Commercial creativity is not "create any random thing you want", but is instead, "create something that satisfies the need, or solves the problem, of these users."

My famous, controversial motto:

"Web sites are made for users. Not for designers."

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dumbing Down vs. Simplicity


There is quite a little discussion going on at one of the web developer email discussion lists that I subscribe to.

The topic?

"How to Talk Down to a Client"

I have very strong opinions about this topic. But before I proceed, let me first explain what an "email discussion list" is, so there is no confusion on the part of any of my readers (nobody knows everything!)...

An email discussion list is an online service whereby you receive in your email inbox messages on various topics, written by various members of the list.

You receive questions by individuals, questions that are addressed to the group as a whole. Then certain group members respond, or pose their own questions.

Each topic, question, announcement is called a "thread". When you reply to a "thread", you must stick to that thread, and not go off on a tangent of irrelevant material, which is called going OT (Off Topic).

If you have a question to ask the group, or a reply you feel could contribute to a specific topic, you can send an email to the discussion list address, and it gets forwarded to all the group members.

Now...what just happened here?

I assumed that not everyone would necessarily know what I meant by "email discussion list", so I defined it.

Is this "dumbing down" to the "lowest common denominator"...or is it simply the practice of simplifiying and clarifying?

Dumb means "stupid."

"Dumbing down" would be taking something smart or correct, and changing (distorting) it to make it stupid or wrong.

If I provided a poorly worded, factually inaccurate explanation of my term, that would be dumb.

Or if I tried to make a complex item sound like it was not actually as complex as it truly is, that would be deceptive and "dumb" for me to do.

But if my explanation is complete, accurate, and easy for almost anyone to understand, then it's not "dumbing down" but "simplifying" or "clarifying."


I'm reading, just to stretch my mind with difficult writing and complex thought, the book, The Analysis of the Self by Heinz Kohut, M.D.

It's Monograph No. 4 of The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, published by International Universities Press, Inc., copyright 1971.

I read advanced level psychoanalytic material just for fun sometimes, hoping I'll get something out of it. I'm very interested in narcissism, masochism, and aggression, for various professional reasons.

My reason for bringing this up is this: the text is so dense and technical, in some sections, I can barely understand more than a sentence per page. I love it.

Every once in a while, there is suddenly a Simple Explanation in Layman's Terms, and whole chapters of the book become illuminated by the little sentence, definition, analogy, or whatever.

"Swings from the therapeutic activation of the idealized parent imago (idealizing transference) to a transient hyper-cathexis of the grandiose self are among the most common occurences in the analysis of narcissistic personalities." (p.67)

I barely understand that sentence.

He seems to be saying that at one moment the self-obsessed person respects his doctor as a trusted father figure, then may suddenly turn around and act like a spoiled brat who respects no authority other than his own selfish wishes and imagined needs.

My Definition of "Dumbing Down"

Simple explanations are not "dumbing down".

Putting esoteric (that which is "hidden" or not well known to the average person) concepts into layman's language is not "dumbing down".

"Dumbing down" is speaking with an arrogantly mocking tone, in exaggeratedly childish terms, to a person in order to make that person feel inferior, ashamed, or angry.

"Dumbing down" could also refer to telling people what you know that they already know, and implying that they don't know it, which could be insulting to them.

"Dumbing down" could also refer to discussing something at a primitive, overly simple level, as though that is the only level at which it functions and can be discussed, and thus never proceeding beyond it.

Like explaining atomic structure at a third grade level to PhD. nuclear physicists. Staying too simple for too long to an advanced audience, causing impatience and disinterest.

Here now is my response to this topic "How to Talk Down to a Client" in that web developer email discussion list...

RE: How To Talk Down to a Client

Only stupid people talk "down" to anyone, even
children deserve better than "down" ("dumb downed")

I even object to all forms of "baby talk" goo
goo ga ga crap, it's discredited by child

If you really understand something, you can put it
into simple terms as well as advanced terms.

If you only know how to describe it in highly
technical language, then you're stupid, and don't
actually know it like you assume you do.

Einstein, Plato, Freud, Tim Berners-Lee, etc. knew how
to put concepts into very simple terms anyone could

No matter how smart you supposedly are, when you hear
a technical thing described in simple analogies and
down home illustrations ("a web server is like a
...."), you can be amazed at how you now understand it
a little better.

You can start elementary levelish and rapidly proceed
to more complex aspects, depending on your audience,
by defining terms and relating new ideas to already
known ideas, as you go along.

If tech people are impatient with simple explanations,
they're living in an ivory tower of ignorance. If you
really love something, you like hearing it described
in a multitude of ways, from childish to metaphysical.

When it doubt, flesh it out, ie, make it super easy to

The smart people, who don't "need" simple
explanations, will still learn something---how to
explain what they know in simple terms.


Describe things in simple terms.

Proceed slowly and logically to more advanced details, depending on the comprehension level of your audience.

Don't assume how ignorant or intelligent your audience is. Find out somehow.

When you're not sure about the comprehension level of your audience, keep it clear and simple, but clever or unique.

Start with easy basics, in a creative style (unique analogies or historical insights not well known even to "experts"), then slowly build up to more difficult technical aspects.

The uneducated will appreciate the simplicity.

The advanced will delight in the creativity and originality.

You may be able to please both ends of the spectrum that way.

Important Reminder:
Really smart people don't mind simple, clear descriptions of complex long as it doesn't oversimplify, i.e., present something as being more simple than it really is.

Probably nothing is totally simple, with no complex aspect or element whatsoever.

And there is probably nothing that is all complexity, with no simplicity at all.