Jay Small

I am a digital-focused executive living near Nashville, Tennessee. And I’m a guitarist who has played in a few variety bands.
When they’re too much to tweet, sometimes I post thoughts and ideas here.

Ideal Web design: No one knows what it looks like

This article by Jay Small was originally published in 2002 in the NewsFuture section of the American Press Institute Web site.

In what I’d call a biorhythmic convergence, several things happened recently that opened a window of clarity in my thinking about Internet design:

  1. Chuck Jones, the cartoon director, died.
  2. The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report based on U.S. survey research indicating people’s Net habits are becoming more focused:
  3. I led a Web design discussion with students from Full Sail, a Florida college that provides intensive degree programs for digital creatives, including three-dimensional animation, film editing and direction, and game development.
  4. Gary Kebbel, director of news services for America Online, wrote an essay for the February issue of NewsFuture. To paraphrase his key points, local news sites are boring, disorganized and undeserving of audience loyalty.

I don’t wholly disagree. But I do see pitfalls in some of Kebbel’s suggestions to attack boredom. I fear we are heading off on tangents that add no value for those task-oriented consumers Pew found, or worse, interfering with their workflows.

I have significant experience, but claim no unique expertise, in media design. I’m certain of only this: no one yet knows how to design an ideal interactive service for a general news audience.

You might as well try to design a faster-than-light engine. Key components have not been discovered, invented or properly combined. Key problems have not been solved. And even if all impediments were removed, we could never all agree on where to go first.

Today’s pale proxy for the ideal interactive service is the World Wide Web, that giant consumer-experience compromise. Every major component of Web infrastructure is tuned first to match the needs of the least common denominator: HypertextPacket switchingStateless connectionsFile compressionSimplistic scriptsBuffered streaming.

Like MacGyver riffling through a toy chest, we’re rigging things up with the ragtag parts we have. In seven-plus years, the best server, database and software engineers in the world have not made the best Web sites behave as well as the worst packaged desktop software. You can almost hear Johnny Cash singing, “I got it one piece at a time …”

Yet we’re still debating how to arrange the deck chairs on … err, make news Web site designs “less boring.” Fine. Let’s talk about that.

Kebbel suggested designers were mistakenly “not paying attention to any of the design principles so evident on newspaper pages,” using too few visuals and too many link-list columns. (No argument on that last point. In another NewsFuture essay, Steve Yelvington, of Morris Digital Works, counted more than 200 hypertext links apiece on home pages of several news sites.)

But newspaper page design is the wrong metaphor for a Web site. A newspaper is a distribution medium with limited space, and ranking/packaging stories by journalists’ estimation of importance evolved there as the best of several imperfect methods. The Web is a demand medium with unlimited space. Our sites are not fixed editions, but archives of information on demand, where ranking by importance becomes increasingly impractical for editors and consumers the more items we store.

Besides, journalists aren’t as good at ranking by importance as we like to think; just remember all those disagreements at newspaper Page 1 meetings, where editors’ tasks are to select and rank just five to seven stories. At best, “importance” is an inconsistent and easily misunderstood list-sorting criterion. Further, traditional news sections (news, sports, business, features, entertainment) alone are too broad and vague to be effective category labels for Web indexes.

Do you believe the front page of any paper makes the news judgment of its editors obvious? If so, put one edition in front of, say, 20 regular readers and ask each to identify the most important story, then the next most important etc. You will get at least 10 significantly different lists.

Kebbel also suggested that news sites add full-time specialists to tweak out home pages with “photos, sidebars, polls, some multimedia and definitely with message boards tailored for each story.” I’ll set aside the subject of “empty rooms” on currently installed Web message boards and chat servers – except to say it’s clear people do not wish to commune online over every news topic. (See Rusty Coats’ discussion of community publishing in the January 2002 NewsFuture.

Again, to be fair, Kebbel’s not alone in calling for aggressive design efforts atop our sites. The Full Sail students were all over it, too. I call this philosophy Design By Adding Things, or the Andy Hardy school (”We’ll put on a show! Mom can sew the costumes! Dad can build the stage! My uncle just happens to have a 500-stream video server he never uses!”). It feels right, too, because richly designed pages look great if you have a high-resolution display and megabit connection. Most digital creatives do.

The Full Sail students asked whether I thought 3D “virtual worlds” would be the computer interface metaphor that someday replaces “desktops,” “folders” and “files.” I told them I doubted it. Text will remain the key component of human-computer interaction at least as long as displays and input methods are two-dimensional, though we still have much to learn and apply about how people process text in interactive media. Consider the mental effort required to immerse oneself in a 3D interface presented on a 2D display (if you have ever tried to learn the controls of a new PlayStation 2 or Xbox game, you’ve felt it). The extra effort doesn’t promote workflow or comprehension in an information space; it distracts from it.

You should have seen the looks on the students’ faces. They, like Andy Hardy, instinctively want to solve a problem by piling on showy features. It’s more fun to design overwrought Flash interfaces or even just home pages that look like magazine covers. Digital creatives are trained to attract attention and entertain, not to manage workflow or inform.

Macromedia sells Flash creative tools to designers, but gives the Flash file viewers to consumers. Why? Because Flash doesn’t solve a consumer experience problem on the Web, it solves a designer frustration problem with the Web. Our consumers are focused more on tasks than stimulation (add your own adult-oriented site joke here) – honestly, if consumers had to pay to see Flash animation, how many would do it?

Consultant Vin Crosbie, in the January 2002 NewsFuture, observed that the near-infinite content space on the Web leads to equally plentiful advertising inventory. The more pages we build, the more inventory we create, in turn forming a downward spiral in value per ad impression.

Apply similar logic to design. An explosion of high-end creative tools, in a medium free of space or time limits, encourages Design By Adding Things. DBAT doesn’t make design better, it simply means there are more things to design. Poorly managed, it adds complexity to index pages instead of creating the “visual order” for which newspaper designers say they strive. Complexity makes it harder to maintain an intuitive information hierarchy as our database of articles grows. Task-oriented consumers find what they’re looking for less often, diminishing the effectiveness of each article we post.

I’m not saying there’s no room for high-end design on the Web. I’m saying good design in any medium is as much about editing as creation. Those 200-link lists grow organically because lots of people are creating but no one is editing. As bad as that may look, a rich interface that grows unrestrained could be much worse.

As Yelvington said, “In a networked world, data isn’t scarce. … What’s scarce these days is scarcity itself. What’s hard to find is clarity, brevity and importance.”

And workflow. That 200-link list may be unattractive but could be more usable than a “poster” site – if you’re scanning the list for something specific, and if those links are sorted and categorized in ways that make it simple to find the one link you need. Task-oriented consumers may wish to make their own decisions about “importance,” for example, or at least compare their decisions to ours.

If hiring Web staff, I wouldn’t want to put one or two designers just on building things for my home page. I’d rather see a class of interactive design editors emerge – people who can set design priorities, who know we need to:

  • Design workflows, not distractions: Index pages and other directories of content (such as site maps) must be categorized and sorted in ways that are intuitive for consumers whose task is finding details. Kebbel suggested brief story abstracts accompanying headlines in link lists, and I agree those can be helpful layers of information. A simple search tool with high perceived quality of match can also compensate for deficiencies in the hypertext indexes we provide, helping consumers get to the specific bits of data they want.
  • Design sequences, not pages: Chuck Jones was not the best technical artist or animator, but he was a master of sequencing and timing, and we can learn from his work. We can stop thinking of Web design one page at a time (or worse, one .GIF file at a time) and start designing complete event sequences for consumers. Like rivers and tributaries, sites should have multiple flow paths, some for heavy use, some for occasional use, all with an obvious outcome. You can’t anticipate the sequence of every session, but you can handle diversions and outright errors gracefully (here’s a simple thing not enough sites do: overwrite your default “404 Not Found” error page with a custom page that includes a search form and the top level of your site map, so a lost Web visitor might quickly get back on track).
  • Spend more time designing downstream flow, less time upstream: We instinctively commit resources to intensifying home-page designs while article-level pages often sit unadorned. That may be misguided effort. I found most of the links in this essay, for example, not by visiting the sites’ home pages but with Google, an external tool designed for the task of Web searching. Since Google linked straight to detailed pages, home pages weren’t part of my workflow. Even if a task-oriented consumer enters your site on the home page, she is probably there to find something specific. If she lands on a home page with 100 places to click, 99 of them are likely not relevant to her task. They’re just potential distractions, even potential annoyances. But let her find and finish with the item she wanted, and you get a fresh marketing opportunity with a more receptive consumer who is either between tasks or at the end of her list. So why don’t more Web article pages carry links to related content or other on-site options? Why do we stack banner ads on home pages, when a call to action might get better results at the end of an article?
  • Personalize designs for many possible workflows: Yes, Web consumers are task-oriented, but they aren’t all working on the same task with the same tools. So it doesn’t make sense to present the same interface to everyone. Many sites smartly individualize content selection and sorting, store consumers’ search criteria, run e-mail “agents,” and retain individual preferences for site appearance. Personalizing workflow may also mean storing entire sequences of events as consumer preferences for future visits, just as players save their places in levels of computer games to avoid repeating steps.
  • Focus design experiments on things beyond the Web: The preceding four strategies apply no matter how capable, fast or ubiquitous future interactive media become. But they’re practical, not freely creative, strategies – and it’s counterproductive to subdue creative enthusiasm entirely. I encouraged those Full Sail students to pull some of their wildest dream projects off the Web to escape its mainstream frustrations. Digital creatives should use today’s high-end tools, completely unfettered, to build and test models of future interactive interfaces for homes, offices and portable devices. The news profession should do the same. Yes, it’s smart to build prototypes of the next six-month iteration of your Web site design, but don’t stop there. Also sketch out how your services might play on wall-sized HDTVselectronic paper or digital jewelry. You’ll keep your digital creatives inspired while keeping your production Web site usable.

I don’t consider myself a “futurist,” in the sense that I would dare forecast what is likely to happen. Real futurists don’t read tea leaves. They clear paths to any of several possible futures. We should design Web sites within today’s usability confines – even if it goes against creative instincts – while preparing for a future that certainly will not bore us.

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