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."


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I agree that designers shouldn't be hostile towards users. I've never encountered the type of designer you're describing, and I doubt I ever will, because I wouldn't consider that person a designer at all.

I'm also not sure what websites you're talking about that "even seem a bit user-hostile, or uncaring about typical user expectations and behavior patterns." I feel like "Usability" as a concept has made its way through the web design wold and no serious designer or company would claim that it isn't important. Maybe I'm insulated from this by working in silicon valley...

The comparison with direct mail is interesting, but I think it leaves out one huge issue: people hate direct mail. You've been in the industry, so you've seen how tiny the response rates are. It could be argued that direct mail is ruining the postal system. If we made websites like direct mail it would be a world of deceptive attention grabbing popup ads. Yuck. Ok, I'm done.

As for Jakob Nielson....
Jakob's job is to make bold but simple statements that will convince executives to hire him at his day rate. Is he sometimes right? Yes. Does he oversimplify issues and make meaningless proclamations? Also yes. Example: "Web advertising is a very poor revenue generator." And on a semi-mean-spirited note, check out - it's terribly ugly, difficult to navigate, and almost impossible to map out mentally. Try the search feature. Look for contact info. Yikes.

Finally, always listening to users does stifle innovation. Standards are good, but the great designs, the killer products, sometimes test poorly in the lab. If user feedback/testing always worked there would be no bad movies, no ineffective tv ads, no unpopular cars.

steven edward streight said...

I'm impressed that you took the time to provide a detailed response to my post. This is greatly appreciated, as is your self-control in expressing yourself on a hotly debated topic.

I find that Jakob Nielsen, who I do not champion, but merely regard as my first teacher and a good source of information, is attacked by irate designers.

I don't see Jakob Nielsen as a money-hungry hack.

I see him give away tons of free information. I see him explain virtually everything you need to know in his books. In fact, if a person read his free info on his site, and bought maybe two of his books, they probably wouldn't need to hire him. They could do their own usability analysis on their own site and make huge improvements.

Designers who express hostility or indifference to usability generally operate poor usability blogs or web sites.

I've read their rants and visited their sites, most of them use that super tiny font that makes their text microscopic.

Imitative CSS layouts, with a "beautiful" graphic design across the top of the home page, often no title text, just a graphic acting as a visual identifier for the site. Contact information is usually difficult to find, and credentials/clients/staff bios are often non-existent.

Design vs. Usability is a civil war that need not be waged. It reminds me of Preventative Medicine vs. Surgical Procedures. Both extremes have their place with patients.

Usability specialists can't always be aware of all the problems and restrictions web designers encounter. We need to hear the designers explain why our usability guidelines need to be fine-tuned, revised, or abandoned.

The fact remains that at almost every web site I visit, I encounter time-consuming, frustrating impediments to quickly and easily finding the information I need. Or navigating the information space.

For example, I was at a music web site, and when you click on artists, then click on a specific music artist (Edgar Froese), when you're done reading the information on the artist, there is no "Return to Artists List" button, only "Return to Main Menu".

So you have to return to the main menu of the site, then click on artists, then go down the alphabetical listing to where you were last at. Very unnecessary complexity. This is what we call "low usability" for this function.

That's just one specific example that popped into mind. It's why the browser Back button is used so much--because the web site doesn't work right. In the example mentioned above, my browser's Back button was disabled by the site, so I couldn't use it. This is also very common on web sites.

See why we keep harping about "usability"?

steven edward streight said...

P.S. to above Anonymous (you could always just add your name and URL or email address to the comment field) commentor:

Re: direct mail.

You confuse direct mail with junk mail.

Junk mail contains offers for products in which you have no current interest.

Direct mail contains offers for products in which you have proven to have a current interest, via recently ordering or purchasing identical or related products.

People don't hate direct mail, if the mail promotes good quality and good prices on items they want and especially if they have a track record of buying things via mail order.

Some people like to order by mail and receive packages by mail, UPS, FedEx, etc.

Manu Sharma said...

I have witnessed how some of the posts you made recently got flamed. While I won't say the arguments made by Andrei and Ziya were entirely without merit, the way they attacked and ravaged your posts was completely uncalled for. A grave but usually ignored outcome of such flames is that it makes everyone on the list cautious and afraid to post. People who may have otherwise important things to say restrict themselves for fear of being treaded upon or seeming stupid.

I may be a minority but I actually see these flame wars as a *design* problem. I think most people believe that if only list members behaved themselves, everything would be alright. But I contend that this is human nature. There will always be people who'll act in ways that goes against the interests of the list. This will happen in any discussion list.

I think with better design and management of discussions we can solve this problem. It's really unfortunate that even with over a decade of discussion tools, we have not made any progress in this regard. This maybe because of lack of popularity of the view that this is a problem waiting to be solved.

Manu Sharma

Anonymous said...

Dude, I'm not sure what your personal career goals are, but if they include working in the web design/web usability field you should seriously consider who you're insulting on the IxD list. Some of the best and most respected designers post and lurk on IxD. If I was considering hiring you and found your recent posts by googling your name I'd drop you from the short list quick.

steven edward streight said...

And do the anti-usability designers care how rudely they attack anyone who disagrees with them, even their own kind? Things like, "pass the pipe, I want some of what you're smoking" and etc. said by one desinger to another.

I have no fear of expressing my opinion or relating my experience. Good corporations and web professionals seek those who are confident and have a unique voice, who aren't "bullied by crybabies".

I plan to express even more firm and controversial ideas here on this blog and in a book I'm writing on Web Usability.

Dude, it's Vaspers the GRATE, not Vaspers the Wimp.

I believe in diplomacy and tact and I have never attacked anyone personally. I may express an opposition to something someone has said or done, but even that is done obliquely.

You may notice I rarely quote any statement, nor refer directly to any specific person by name. This tactfulness on my part is rare online.

An administrator of a forum recently said he encouraged "flaming" to some extent. I'm not sure how to interpret this statement, but I never wish to engage in "flaming" as in "deliberately making harsh, often personal, statements with the primary goal being to anger, upset, discriminate against, or be unkind toward another human being."

I'm sure that "great men make great mistakes" and humbleness is a prized ability.

But when I see gleeful flaming of Usability Professionals, and then people send me emails telling me that they're shocked at the way my posts have been relentlessly flamed, it makes me wonder.

I received an email in which I was told that because some posts are typically flamed unmercifully, many refrain from expressing their opinion, due to fear of those "crybaby bullies" who can dish it out, but can't take it.

I've participated in some really rough and tumble forums on much more important topics than web design, matters of great significance worldwide. The little flaming battles that go on in web design discussions are petty and pathetic compared to some of those, where people are trying to discover the truth about huge global, world community, and even cosmic concerns.

Think about that for a few seconds.

steven edward streight said...


As far as web professionals doing a search on my name and reading material that would convince them not to hire me...

...yesterday a the acquisitions editor at a very prestigious computer book publisher emailed me and said they (using the impersonal plural in the singular sense) read my blogs with great interest, like my writing, appreciate my knowing what I'm talking about, and want me to write a book on a certain topic.

I'm being secretive because the publishing business is very competitive and I want this book to be a surprise.

I want them to beat other publishers by being the first to even conceive of having a book on this topic.

Perhaps I'm not such a leper, with my "rebel opinions", after all. Time will tell, I suppose.