Howells.

“What Constitutes Good and Bad Web Design?” — a response

I recently enjoyed this article by Alice Rawsthorn in the New York Times. As an industry we seldom get a mention in the mainstream media, so I welcomed commentary.

Here’s a pithy summary:

  • A huge number of websites—particularly those of major art galleries like Tate and Centre Pompidou—are incredibly confusing to find even the most simple information.
  • She levies the fault of this at the web designer’s feet: “Shoddy Web site design is a curse of modern life. The more dependent we have become on the Internet for information, the likelier we are to suffer from its design deficiencies.”
  • A well designed site is “fulfilling its intended function efficiently and engagingly”, but “dispiritingly few sites manage to achieve it. A common mistake is to prioritize style over substance.”
  • The principal problem with many Web sites is that, “their designers were neither rigorous nor imaginative enough in planning the way we will navigate them”
  • She uses the example of Quo Vardis as an example of a well designed site that fulfils its function
  • Then, she uses the Milwaukee Police News website of a site designed to convey the complex and time-sensitive nature of its content well.

I agree with almost everything she says, but it’s everything that is unsaid that is missing, and which makes me uncomfortable with the piece. Of course it’s tricky to get into the minuatae of a website’s failings in a mainstream publication, but at the very least I want to explain why the web designer shouldn’t be blamed.

Let’s take a typical art gallery site as an example. I might not particularly like the site in its entirety, but I could love its design. In the context of the article, that could seem like a contradiction. It assumes that the site is a failure because it has been designed badly, and in many people’s minds design equates to style. In fact, there so many pieces of the website machine that can fail, which can have a devastating effect on the overall experience.

Firstly, it’s no secret that the last organisations to enjoy the cutting-edge in content management systems (CMSs) are those in the arts. Either there is no funding available, or they are locked into multi-million dollar government contracts with behemoth IT companies whose systems are held together with string and sticky-tape. Designing for antique systems is a challenge that I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone. Your beautifully crafted designs—and even code—can get mulched into a hideous mess when mangled by such systems.

Then, because the CMSs aren’t a pleasure to use, the people who are responsible for updating it have a hard time adding content. If it’s hard to add content, missing connections start to creep in and the whole experience is ruined. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed browsing the V&A site without stumbling into a 404 error page, for instance. Because adding content is a miserable experience, why would they even bother creating—or commissioning—joyful, well produced content, if it means a world of pain to publish?

Suddenly there’s a chain of circumstances that lead to website mediocrity, and yet designers only form a small part of it.

I’ve not met a fantastic web designer who also has the ability to structure and model content as well as a fantastic information architect can. Yet I’ve learned of projects where there has been little input from someone who can see the broader picture and goal of a complex site. In these cases the web designer is working from briefs that usually haven’t been validated by some solid architectural thinking. By the same token, bad structural thinking can only lead to messy design; but that’s hardly the fault of the designer.

Underpinning all this is the technical infrastructure. Sites have to feel punchy and quick for a great experience, and so many either don’t have the resources to achieve this, or their hosting team isn’t up to the job. Tate themselves felt this sorely with the Kraftwerk fiasco, a few weeks ago.

So, let’s take a look at what’s happened with all the cogs in the machine so far: the design agency who created the site is upset because their designs have been mangled beyond recognition. They could also be upset because they’ve worked from client briefs without any solid architectural plans in place. The content team are frustrated and demotivated because their CMS is little more use than a typewriter. The hosting team are frustrated they don’t have the money (or the will) to make things faster.

And yet it’s the web designer who’s suffering the blame.

Finally, I’d like to question Rawsthorn’s use of the Milwaukee Police News as an example of a great site. Absolutely, it’s a technical feat and compelling. But to me, it looks like a promo for a new cop drama starring Damian Lewis. And—while I haven’t tried; I’m only assuming here—I’d like to see how it works on Internet Explorer 6.0, which is exactly the sort of browser that someone using “older, cheaper machines with slower Internet connections” she refers to earlier in the article have at their disposal. The drama of the site will soon be lost.

To genuinely appreciate design for function, I would have liked Rawsthorn to reference the work of the Gov.uk team. They have done a lot of thinking around how the many millions of users in the UK need to access content, on any machine, and in any way possible. This is only successful due to the close-knit team of designers, developers, information architects, user experience professionals, and technologists, that have come together to make a speedy, simple, clear message, using design as it is intended: to make the site effective and functional.

Ultimately, a well designed website is the sum of its parts. The parts tend to be invisible to its visitors other than the visuals that are the end result of a long and complex process. The outcome is that the designer often gets the blame, and that’s a sad message to read in the mainstream media.

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