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The Sorry State of Web Design

Somewhere, somehow, somebody got the idea that when we moved to the web, human beings all got a hell of a lot smarter. All of a sudden, all the principles, concepts, and guidelines, all the hundreds of thousands of hours of user-testing, psychological research, and inspiration that went into the design of the GUI could be safely thrown out the window. All of a sudden, the beauty of the page was everything, and usability took a permanent back seat.

It ain't gonna work, folks. Human evolution didn't take a sudden upward hitch in 1992. We're the same and, more importantly, our users are the same.

In the pre-GUI era, we had invisible navigation, often termed the "black cave metaphor." Users would eventually, if unwillingly, adapt to their surrounding, building in their minds elaborate mental models of the elaborate invisible navigational structures. This metaphor came about not so much as a function of the technology, but the technologists. Engineers were in charge, and engineers, with their superior ability at forming mental models, do well in black caves.

The GUIs released users from the discomfort of the cave, both by eliminating most traditional navigation and by making visible that which was left. Users were able to learn new software quickly and use it effectively, all without the uncomfortable task of building mental models.

In most respects, the browsers represent a giant step backwards. Many of the powers we assumed in the old black cave metaphor days of the seventies aren't even available on the latest browser releases. Powers such as the ability to supply menus that have something to do with the application being run. Powers such as the ability of the application to warn the user they are about to destroy 15 minutes worth of work when they elect the Back option. Little things like that.

The entire web approach also returns four-square to the old navigational model of the mainframe, abandoning the GUI's reversal to zero navigation. And users are no longer expected to build a mental model of perhaps forty or fifty screens. Now they're suddenly expected to be able to handle millions.

Today's browsers have increased the presence of graphics enormously, except in a single arena: They have once again plunged all navigation into darkness. People have no idea where they are, how to get to where they want to be, or even what their options for travel might be. There is no structure within the browser that illuminates anything but the most primitive move-backwards, move-forwards navigation. (See: Website Navigation Bars.)

Faced with this extremely caustic environment, you might assume that designers would be putting high effort into ensuring that their users were given every possible cue as to form and function, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, designers are creating invisible buttons, checkboxes that look like radio buttons, jumps across the world that are indistinguishable in appearance, but not behavior, from a jump two paragraphs down the page.

Why is this happening? For two reasons. First, many of today's web designers are completely unschooled in even the most fundamental principles of effective interaction design. They are hired for their scholastic background or artistic talent, not their real-world design understanding. Second, people are carrying on the shipping of products without even the most rudimentary user testing, again through total ignorance.

What's to be done? First, all the current browser makers, collectively known as Microsoft, need to clean up their act. Browsers should be making navigation clear. Either Microsoft or the standards organizations need to take the first baby steps toward turning on the lights. They could start by developing different appearances for links to anchors on the same page vs. links to other pages on the same site vs. links to foreign sites. These same groups or ISPs and HTML editor creators can then move on to provide navigational widgets that will provide standard appearances to navigational mappings. Development systems also need to bind appearance and behavior together, so that new, undereducated designers are less likely create radio buttons that look like checkboxes.

Much of this is still an end-run around the real problem. Engineering colleges are responsible for a lot of this mess. Graduates claiming human interface design degrees prove expert at the fine art of looking stuff up (known as research), with little or no talent or experience in real design. The fancy design schools are equally at fault. Just as doctors receive perhaps a single, one hour lecture on nutrition during their 8 years of medical training, designers receive bupkis on cognitive psychology, principles of interaction design, and usability.

Apple spent $10,000 each on signs for each of their 15 buildings. The sign's designers, all with top design school pedigrees, won coveted design awards based on their superlative use of white space. None of the judges, alumni of these same institutions, noticed that these guys had managed to forget to include on the signs the names of the buildings! (That's why they had so much white space.) The signs were pretty, all right, but they were completely and utterly useless.

Imagine cooking schools being run on these bases. The cooking schools for would-be human factors chefs would have them spend four years reading about the great entrés of history, along with stomping across desert and jungle in pursuit of new potential ingredients that could, one day, be woven into dishes by others. Meanwhile, the graphical pastry chefs of tomorrow would be building magnificent desserts out of the ingredients that give them the most artistic range--flour, salt, paint, and plaster of paris. Not too tasty (who knew, since no one ever tasted it?), but lovely to look at.

Both human factors and design curricula need to learn from cooking schools. Cooking schools leave their ivory towers and set up shop in hotels and restaurants out where the people are, giving their students real-world experience. Human factors students destined to be designers need to spend a great deal of their time designing real products for real people. The web offers human factors departments an easy outlet that doesn't even require stepping off campus. Offer the world useful websites that will stretch and grow your student's abilities.

Design schools need to begin teaching the importance of communication, along with how to achieve it. They need to change their basic methodology of "testing"--peer review--to modern usability testing.

It's hard for educational institutes to bootstrap such new teachings. After all, the reason the professors aren't teaching this stuff is because they never learned it. Fortunately, the answer to the problem is rather simple: The two departments need to cooperate with each other. Design students indeed spend their time designing. Which is why graphic designers really can turn out beautiful graphics. Human factors students spend their time testing. Which is why they are able to prove that bad design A is 7% inferior to even worse design B. If you combine the two disciplines, you have exactly what is needed.

Interaction designers graduating from a human factors department need not be expert graphic designers, but they should be expert interaction designers, and they should have at least a fundamental grounding in graphic design principles. Graphic designers should continue to be expert at graphic design, but they need to improve their ability to communicate ideas and they need to know how to--and to value--usability testing, both casual and formal.

Private industry needs to expand their internship programs for both graphic design students and human factors students. More students should be given the opportunity to intern, and the programs must become more than a source for cheap labor. Human factors students need to spend their time designing, and graphic designers need to be exposed to the rigors and methodology of the usability lab.

If you are reading this and graduated from one of these august institutions of learning, please pass this article along. Your school likely really needs to hear it. Certainly, some schools are doing a fine job in preparing their students for the real world, and even more students are successfully preparing themselves, in spite of the curricula. Many others, however, are just not getting the education that they deserve and that they paid for. It is time for a change. The sorry state of the web is a wakeup call. It's time we listen.

Reader Response:


I found your comments on navigation very interesting, but my enthusiasm for
the multilevel solution (Stu's no. 3) is dampened somewhat by most users'
general lack of appreciation for hierachical menus. We need to flatten the
menu -- both in terms of space used, but also to lighten the users' burden
in building a mental model.

One technique that I have played around with in an attempt to reduce
complexity is to use a drop-down menu list that has an indented outline:

Item 1
SubItem 1
SubItem 2
SubItem 3
Item 2
SubItem 4

Picking Item 1 will bring the user to a summary page which would contain
links to SubItem1 etc. If you want to see an attempt to make this works in
practice (and maybe find an interesting recipe!), point your (DHTML enabled)
browser to The
drawback with the drop down menus is that they only work on the newer
browsers. My implementation fails to address the mapping problem -- it
wasn't intended to. Still, it might trigger some ideas.

John Lloyd-Jones

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