Section 5.2. Design

5.2. Design

Design has emerged as one of the world's most powerful forces. Our lives are intimately touched by architectural, environmental, industrial, and visual design. Most of the places and objects that shape our experience have been designed by intention. And the Internet has created new frontiers for interaction, information, and communication design.

Know Thy Customer

The power of pull has always been appreciated by the best minds in business. As the legendary management guru Peter Drucker explains:

There will always, one can assume, be need for some selling. But the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy. All that should be needed then is to make the product or service available.

Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices by Peter Drucker. Harper & Row (1973), p. 6465

In the past decade, an eclectic community of pioneers embraced the challenges of web design. Graphic designers, information architects, web producers: our titles are as diverse as our skills, and yet we face the same challenges. We must understand our medium and our users. We must keep pace with the relentless march of technology. And we must communicate our value and defend our designs over and over again. When dealing with marketing folks in particular, we find ourselves repeating the following mantra:

You are not the user.

The emergence of usability, user-centered design, and user experience design testifies to the value of user research. "You don't know your user" is a common corollary, required when explaining that focus groups don't provide the same insight into user behavior as field studies, search logs, and usability testing.

The experience is the brand.

While perhaps an exaggeration, we're trying to swing the pendulum from a preoccupation with image to an appreciation of experience. No matter how pretty the logo, if users can't find what they need, the brand is damaged.

You can't control the experience.

The user holds the steering wheel and will surprise you at every turn. She may ignore your headlines. She may never visit your home page. And she might be using a smart phone with the images turned off.

The debates often begin in the tug of war over home page real estate. Marketing sees the home page as a channel for positioning, promotion, and persuasion. The page overflows with logos, tag lines, photographs, brand messages, banners, and special offers, as Figure 5-2 illustrates. Search and navigation are granted a few pixels to the side, the sum total of user needs and corporate information captured in a handful of words and a query box.

Figure 5-2. A typical pushy home page

And yet, from years of research, we appreciate the immense difficulty of representing collections of content and objects with labels and keywords, as Figure 5-3 attempts. We know that even by bubbling up a few sample subcategory labels, we can dramatically enhance the scent of information. But to do that, we need more real estate. And so we must explain, educate, evangelize, and advocate. We must push for pull. It's our professional responsibility. Reaching the balance in Figure 5-4 isn't easy.

Figure 5-3. Categories and sample subcategories at Yahoo!

Figure 5-4. A better balance between push and pull

Of course, the experience doesn't begin or end with the home page. Users often start by plugging a keyword or two into Google. Ranking and presentation in the result set impacts brand perception before users even enter the site. In Figure 5-5, who would you rather be: Harvard or Stanford? Or how about Columbia, sitting in obscurity beneath the fold? Users assign most authority and credibility to the top results, and the descriptions that appear may determine whether they decide to visit in the first place.

And for many who do visit, the home page is nothing more than a signpost, hastily scanned and quickly forgotten on the way to somewhere else. Visitors want products, support, data, documents, and downloads. They're not interested in our message. The only time they really notice our site is when they become lost or stuck. And it's at that very point when push is most annoying. I'm desperate for help and you're pitching an upgrade? I know what I want. How about a navigation system that lets me find it?

Finally, as designers and user advocates, we must consider the myriad variables affecting presentation, such as bandwidth, screen size, resolution, and browser type. As increasing numbers of people access our sites with mobile devices, we must get better at bridging the gap between desktops and handhelds. At 175K, Duke's heavyweight home page (pictured in Figure 5-6) is definitely not worth the 51 second wait on my Treo.

Figure 5-5. Business schools ranked by Google

Figure 5-6. The Fuqua School of Business on a Treo

Neither is Frontier Airlines, shown in Figure 5-7, which weighs in at 272K and requires almost two minutes to load. Ironically, these home pages don't look particularly good in any browser. This is not about a tradeoff between aesthetics and accessibility. It's about bad design.

In contrast, Google's 4K pages, shown in Figure 5-8, load within 10 seconds and still look sexy through the eyes of a Treo. Tastes great. Less filling. The duality of tai chi. The genius of the AND.

Figure 5-7. Frontier Airlines on a Treo

Figure 5-8. Google search results on a Treo

This is the philosophy that led me to create the user experience honeycomb, shown in Figure 5-9.[*] We cannot be trapped in a zero sum game that pits usability against marketing.

[*] First published in a Semantics article by Peter Morville called "User Experience Design" (June 2004). Available at

Figure 5-9. The user experience honeycomb in Japan

Instead, we should acknowledge the rich, dynamic, interconnected blend of qualities that shape the user experience. For instance:


As practitioners, we can't be content to paint within the lines drawn by managers. We must have the courage and creativity to ask whether our products and systems are useful, and to apply our deep knowledge of craft and medium to define innovative solutions that are more useful.


Ease of use remains vital, and yet the interface-centered methods and perspectives of human-computer interaction do not address all dimensions of web design. In short, usability is necessary but not sufficient.


Our quest for efficiency must be tempered by an appreciation for the power and value of image, identity, brand, and other elements of emotional design.


We must strive to design navigable web sites and locatable objects, so users can find what they need.


Just as our buildings have elevators and ramps, our web sites should be accessible to people with disabilities (more than 10% of the population). Today, it's good business and the ethical thing to do. Eventually, it will become the law. Standards-based design for accessibility also supports access via mobile devices.


Thanks to some ground-breaking research out of Stanford's Persuasive Technologies Lab, we're beginning to understand the design elements that influence whether users trust and believe what we tell them.


Finally, it's not just about the user. Our sites must deliver value to our sponsors. For nonprofits, the user experience must advance the mission. With for-profits, it must contribute to the bottom line and improve customer satisfaction.

The honeycomb hits the sweet spot by serving several purposes at once. First, it's a great tool for advancing the conversation beyond usability. More opening move than endgame, it gets people talking about qualities absent from the diagram and catalyzes discussion about goals and priorities. Is it more important to be desirable or accessible? How about usable or credible? In truth, it depends on the site's unique mix of context, content, and users, and any tradeoffs are better made explicitly than unconsciously.

Second, this model supports a modular approach to design. Let's say you want to improve your site but lack the budget, time, or stomach for a complete overhaul. Why not try a targeted redesign, perhaps starting with the "Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility" as a resource for evaluating and enhancing the credibility of your web site.[*]

[*] "Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility,"

Third, each facet of the user experience honeycomb can serve as a singular looking glass, transforming how we see what we do, and enabling us to explore beyond conventional boundaries. For example, I realized some time ago that while "information architect" describes my profession, findability defines my passion.

Of course, while there's value in examining these facets in isolation, it's also vital to understand the surprising ways they interact. In fact, after a decade of focus on defining the individual elements, many of the Web's leading experts have now begun to spend time in the areas of intersection and overlap.

For instance, in Emotional Design, usability guru Don Norman provides solid evidence that attractive things work better, citing the surprising results of research studies in which "usability and aesthetics were not expected to correlate."[] But they did, again and again, in scientifically repeatable fashion. Similarly, research led by B.J. Fogg at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab has shown a powerful link between credibility and desirability.] Users trust web sites that are well designed. They also trust sites that appear at the top of search results, further proof of a link between credibility and findability.

] [] Stanford Web Credibility Project,

And in Speed Up Your Site, Andy King connects the dots between file size, the psychology of flow, and the user experience, noting that the bailout rate or "percentage of users who leave a page before it loads" jumps from 6% at 34K to 30% at 40K.[§] King cites numerous studies that demonstrate the negative impact of slow-loading web pages on perceived usability, credibility, findability, and even content quality.

[§] Speed Up Your Site by Andrew B. King. New Riders (2003), p. 17.

And then there's Jeff Veen, who loves to raise eyebrows by claiming "I don't care about accessibility," and then explaining that "when Web design is practiced as a craft, and not a consolation, accessibility comes for free."[**] And, Jeffrey Zeldman, who teaches that designing with web standards not only improves accessibility for people with disabilities but also for people with handhelds.[*] By separating structure, presentation, and behavior into independent yet interrelated layers, we can simultaneously improve usability, accessibility, desirability, findability, interoperability, and forward compatibility, while reducing costs and schedules. The genius of the AND. In their own way, each of these gurus speaks of simplicity, interdependence, and balance. Much like Lao Tzu.

[**] "I Don't Care About Accessibility" by Jeff Veen. From

[*] Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman. New Riders (2003).