Geke van Dijk

Caroline Nevejan: Our next speaker is Geke van Dijk, connected to the Open University in England, she has worked for a long time in digital culture in Amsterdam; started ACS-i and later sold it to Lost Boys; Geke van Dijk.
Geke van Dijk: Hello. I’ve chosen the title “A Decade of Web Use”. When I was invited to do a contribution to the conference, I thought, maybe the most interesting or relevant thing I can do is speak about the decade of web use. My background as a person who has worked since the beginning of the 90s in the web industry was actually in user research. We were working in an independent research company who was focusing on usability research and later on other user research as well. And at the moment I am currently working in the UK doing PhD research but I will come back to all this later.

I think I have to stress at the start the focus I am going to be talking about. The perspective is mainly the commercial use of the web. But not so much what we tend to call e-commerce, which is very focused towards purchasing, but what I mean is web sites that are from companies or institutions, that might be governmental or non-governmental NGO’s, which are meant to explain and give information about the organization. And people, as consumers, make use of that information. So it is not about the artist web site or people’s personal homepages. This is the realm that I’ve been working in, the commercial use of the web. And I think that is where I can offer a contribution to the conference.

What I’ve done for this presentation is to look back for the past ten years, like some of the other speakers have done as well, just to realize what has passed in these ten years, which feel much longer actually. Not so much as to be concrete or nostalgic and talk only about history, but also to understand where we are now? Where we are coming from? And maybe look a little bit ahead, where are we going?

So what I started out to do, very simply of course, was to make a time line, where I focus on the discourses, the dominant discourses, in this decade. When you look at visions we share as intimate culture, about users of the web. But then when I was preparing the presentation I found out that it makes no sense at all to put it into a timeline. Because I do recognize these periods, and I hope a lot of you in the audience do as well, but the thing is; on a time line you suggest one thing is finished and then another one is there. We dismiss the dominant discourse of the period before that. Which is not at all true. I think these discourses are still very valid.

So I decided to try to do it differently and to use the metaphor of a pond. A pond where stones are thrown into it so it will stay in motion, every time you throw in another stone it adds to the dynamics of it. I think this explains better how we are mixing in our discussion about use, how we are mixing the echoes of discourses happening now and ones coming up from the past decade. I hope you will recognize a lot of them.

I will try to speed it up because I think the previous speakers went through the past ten years, and you will recognize especially from the session this morning, some of the characteristics per period.

The first stone that was thrown into the pond was around 1995 when the commercial web was born, and the focus of that time was very biased toward technology.

The second one… actually I have to stress that the years I put in are just to give an idea of when it was. Of course it is also something not meant to build in concretely. This is per person when you first encountered the discourse, but I am sure you recognize the discourses. So the second stone thrown into the pond was around 1998, where the focus was shifting more to usability and user friendliness of a web site, and this enters discussions about strategies for the development of sites and also the evaluation of sites.

The third stone was around 2001, when the focus shifted again more to the user experience. Usability remained an issue but it was moving towards the user experience, and terms like fun, desirability and pleasure entered the agenda.

And the fourth stone, more recently, is user value. So now days you more often hear that the criterion for a successful web site is whether they are really offering user value. Are they contributing to what people really want, and do they support the well being of people?

I will come back to all these periods in more detail later in this presentation.

I just want to stress again that the years are not that important, so it is more the idea of the periods and I hope you will recognize the metaphor of the pond and that it is not about dismissing earlier periods but recognizing new discourses coming into the discussion.

If we go back to the first period and look at the technology focused period the main question was ‘what can technology do?’ So the web sites that were developed at that time were feature driven. This period was about discovering what you could do with coding. Programmers who were doing the coding mostly did the design as well. Anyone who mastered the code was a web designer, and web design as a profession was not a really a discipline yet.

This meant that the evaluation of web sites was driven by a technological focus as well. The criterion for good design was whether the web site worked. The people, at that time using the web obviously did not object, because they were the early adopters. They were interested in the technology and not scared of technology and they were ready to accept inconvenience, as long as there were new areas to discover.

The opinion leaders of that time were the programmers. They were the wizards who were ‘in the know’. Also on the client side you found that in briefings about web sites or evaluating prototypes the team from the client side was very much dominated by people from the IT department. Most initiatives for web sites originated from the IT departments.

When we look at user research at that time it was very minimal. Actually we were just discovering it. There were some projects, but usually the techniques and methods had to be custom-developed. There was not that much experience with user research at that time. If we look at the main vision of a user in this period, we sort of accepted that users should adapt to the technology. We didn’t really realize at that time that it could be different, that the technology could be further improved rather than the user adapting to.

If we look at the next period from around 98 the usability concept and discourse entered our discussions. The main question at that point was ‘can we make technology usable?’ The starting point was still technology driven, what can the technology do, but there was an awareness that maybe not all users are technophiles, or even that for technophiles web sites can still be made more user-friendly. So you see, as you may all remember, that at that time web sites were much more visually attractive and more usable.

But also as other speakers have pointed out before, there was a sort of tension in that period. The feeling of some web designers was that some usability requirements were incompatible with making creative design, and some usability researchers thought web designers didn’t want to hear what they had to say. However I think in general most people who were open for improvement and curious to find out how to make better work were really open to the discussion and interested in incorporating it into web design.

By that time design was becoming recognized as a profession, as a specialization. Development teams now usually had one or more designers working along side the programmers.

The evaluation of what made a site successful changed. It now shifted to the criteria of does it look good?

The audience that was online grew to the early majority. These were people that did have affinity with technology, who were curious for it, but who were not necessarily educated in this field. They were willing to do a bit of exploring, but not too much. They would drop out if sites were too difficult or too freaky.

The opinion leaders of that period, as you can predict were mostly designers. They usually headed the presentations of concepts to clients. And also on the client side, in the briefing team, there was much more awareness of the necessity of creating good design. And in that period contacts with the communication departments from clients were very important.

User research was starting to pick up. This was of course helped by usability advocates like Jakob Nielsen, who did a lot of PR and brought in a lot of knowledge. The need for pre-launch usability tests, were becoming ingrained into the process. Clients started to pro-actively demand this from agencies to be part of the deliverables. Many sites were successfully adjusted before the launch as a result of usability tests done with user groups.

At that time the vision of the user was an early user, people with an awareness of technology but without a technology background. But it sort of went a bit over the top; if you see a lot of reports at that time we thought, well these are new people to the web, so we have to carefully guide them. The assumption at that time was that the learnability of the site wasn’t very important. People were prepared to invest a bit in learning a site but it shouldn’t be too difficult. It shouldn’t take too much time.

If we look at the next period, the focus was shifting to a new perspective or discourse of that time, and that was not so much on technology anymore that was shifting; it was more focused on the user’s experience. That was one of the key concepts at that time. The ultimate goal of a web site was creating a positive user experience. So a site had to offer fun and had to be a pleasurable adventure. This meant that the discussions about new web sites were dominated by the necessity to offer an element of fun.

This was very noticeable on the client side as well. There the marketeers suddenly entered the briefing teams. And they stressed the point very clearly that it should be fun. This is despite the fact that the site was not an entertainment site but perhaps a telecom site or a banking site.

In this period web design had matured into several specializations. Suddenly we were talking about visual design, interaction design, functional design, information design, audio design, etc.

Development teams generally included several types of designers focused on the different aspects of the site design.

The evaluation of a successful site in this period began to center around statistics that were brought in by the marketeers. We were looking at statistics that revealed the popularity of sites. So if a site was generating a solid ‘hit rate’, it was more about hit rates, than actually purchasing statistics that determined if it was a successful site.

In this period the late majority was entering the Internet. That included people that were not attracted per se to the technology but were attracted to the Internet because of its content and what it would offer them.

As I said, opinion leaders at that time were the marketeers. Their discourse was very dominant in the evaluations of whether a site was good or not, and they were the ones who collected the statistics about target groups and success rates of sites.

User research at that time, just as design, is a parallel development, as web design was becoming a profession, user research had also matured into several specializations. So we were not just talking about usability research, the testing of actual sites, but as well the user experience, which is more preliminary research; research about the culture and style of target groups; online panels were developed at that time for online surveys; click stream analysis; eye tracking diaries, etc.

The overall vision of the web user in this period was that people are not so much looking for the technology, but instead looking for fun and easy deals. It had more to do with the marketing idea about the popularity of the web site in order to attract users.

Now if I move on to a more recent period which is still very much in development, whereas the other three periods are seen more clearly, I think this is something developing at the moment. I should say the focus at this moment is more looking for a balance between what the technology can do and what can it offer to the users, and both of them are very relevant. I think the history of the decade has learned what to ask. The formats for web sites are more strategically chosen. It is less about what you should always use in a site and what makes all the sites good. It is more about what is this site meant for so which guide lines should be followed. So much so that you cannot generally talk about a good web site anymore. You have to look at formats of what the web site is meant for and then you can make your strategy and do evaluations.

If we look at design, it is a very natural part of any development team. Nobody can imagine that a site is built without one or probably more designers in the team. The criteria for what makes a site effective or successful has moved towards a specific evaluation, as I said before. Not only what a site is meant for, but also whether it is valuable for its users, and when does it deliver what they are looking for.

We could say that now the general audience is online. We can no longer distinguish between early adopters and late adopters. Today that does not make any sense. Most people have some basic experience with Internet. The only difference now is whether you have experience with a specific format that you’re focusing on. So if you do any user testing, it is not about having Internet experience anymore because we just have to assume that everybody has Internet experience, everybody, let me put it roughly, most people. But what we are looking for is, with this who has experience particularly with this format and who has not.

Who the contemporary opinion leaders are it is very difficult to say, I would guess, I would call it power consumers. People that generally know how and where to find what they want, and who are pilots or agents for their friends, family, and colleagues. The people who are saying hey you have to seen this, you have to see that, or that’s no use. I think we have come to that period with the Internet as well. So it is much more complex and dynamic, and the consumers who need a certain service find out by themselves if it is valuable and then tell others whether they should use it or not.

User researchers just as web designers are now generally accepted. We don’t have to defend it anymore. In most cases there is exploratory research before the concept development starts, testing and post-launch evaluations to adjust project plans before the launch date of a site.

The contemporary vision of web users should be that the web is so integrated into everyday life that we as users and consumers, we hardly think of it twice. We just use it. When we need some information we use the Internet just as you use other sources of information. You ask your friends, you look on the street, whether its shops or billboards pasted on the wall; you find your information, you discuss it with others and you use the web like that as well. So the web is not as much a goal but a means to use. It is not so special anymore. It is not a particular activity.

To sum up, my personal experiences, and I hope you recognize them, is that if you look at the past decades and form periods with dominant discourses, I would say they are all still very relevant. I think even, that it has enriched the discussion about the use and evaluation of sites by these different discourses entering the discussion.

I see at a conference like this that sometimes for the sake of getting something clear we have to focus and tune to one of the perspectives. So we can have a debate from the technology perspective or from the usability, or when Helen before was taking accessibility as a specific topic then you zoom in on one of the voices. But I think the metaphor could also have been instruments in an orchestra. Sometimes it is really good to listen to one instrument but all of the instruments together make up a good piece of music, and I think that could have been the same metaphor. It makes the music richer. I think we cannot dismiss the perspective as being out of date, just because it started earlier. We shouldn’t make that mistake. I think sometimes I hear it in some presentations but I think it is usually to have a good laugh, it is always nice to point out stereotypes and say, ‘that was a nice time, that was a geeky period’, but if you are really looking at the complexity and the dynamics of the reality that is going on we should consider all of these perspectives. That is what I really appreciated about the session this morning, each of the speakers were focusing in on one of these periods. The last speaker, Danny O’Brien, started also talking about the geeky period, focusing on the technology period. Then Rosalind was talking about the cool period of the designers. I think she spoke mostly about the late 90s, she stated that as well, because she said the report was from 1999.

But I think also the social history and identity has moved on as well. And the first speaker this morning, Michael, he spoke more about the period which I characterized as the marketing period, the user-experience period. Which was much more about venture capital entering the market and who would be the first one who has a dominant part of the market, and who would be the first one to claim a certain target group.

I think what didn’t come into the debate, maybe later in the day, was the fourth period, which we are in at this moment. Where I think we have even moved on from these three which were so nicely characterized this morning, and we are looking for a more balanced, a more subtle discussion where all these voices are still there, but there are more instruments in the orchestra.

I’ll wrap it up. I think I made the argument of effective formats, that it is very… it is impossible to talk about golden rules or guide lines in general for web sites. There are so many specific formats. There is so much variation for which format is effective for which situation. So you really have to look per site and per strategy and whom it is for. That is what I mean by looking at the user value.

My last point I want to make is bringing it back to my main topic, which is the vision of the web user. Our visions of who the web users are have changed a lot, literally, because there were differences, early adopters, late adopters, and late majority. There were literally different audiences, but now it is a general audience that is online. So sometimes it is difficult finding the right terminology, because ‘users’ is a word I use everyday, it is not a word to dismiss, but it also has the connotation of coming from the technology, using this technology.

Whereas customers, the term used by the marketeers has the connotation of buying; I have this service do you want to buy it. Consumers I like to use because it is much more broad, it is much more about you have a lot of things to do in your life and part of that might be using what is on offer. I think this is a discussion that will go on a long time.

In general we can say the web is integrated into our daily lives and our daily lives are very elusive, chaotic, messy, so we use anything we can to arrive at our goals, and the Web is one element within that. We can say the users of the web are very sophisticated and very active people who know where to find their information. If they don’t like the site they won’t use it, they will find another site. Telling others about that as well. But we are also as consumers very unpredictable and erratic. That doesn’t mean that if your site is really good, if it looks good, if it works, it doesn’t mean per se that people… even if people appreciate it, they’ve used it last week to book a ticket, it doesn’t mean per se that next Saturday, if they want to book a ticket they will do it again online. That is what the statistics just scream out to us. People use the Internet a lot, mainly to do research, not so much to buy, because we like to go to shops. And if it is eleven o’clock in the evening then of course you do it online, but if you have time and it’s the weekend and you want to go out you just decide differently. That doesn’t depend on the design as much; it doesn’t depend on the technology as much. It can depend on the mood. Or that somebody yesterday told you a scary story about worms, viruses or online security issues. I think if we look at visions of web users we should except that it is a messy, very complex, very dynamic and very interesting. This is the topic I am researching at the moment, for my PhD research. As producers we shouldn’t over focus on making anyone use a web site, regardless if it is perfect technology or perfect design. People will move in an out and they will know how to do that, and if they don’t feel like it they won’t.

That’s it basically. If anyone wants to give a reaction you can email me, I’ll put the slides online as well.