Disassociate Webdesign from Usability

a nielson critique

In response to a list of questions I received for a book about user experience (see below), I wrote the following answer:

This is not the time to ask for favorite sites and personal taste. We have long arrived in the age of   the Internet economy, which is currently going through it’s first recession. The web has become a world of lawyers and consultants. The overall function of web design has rapidly mutated. It is no longer demo design for the web as a whole, if that mythological space of the early days ever existed. Let’s check the web reality of 2000 and 1. I have copy-pasted the first 20 sites from a web top 100 according to traffic, taken fromhttp://www.100hot.com/directory/100hot/index.html

1.1. yahoo.com 2. 2. microsoft.com 3. 3. lycos.com 4. 4. aol.com 5. 5. altavista.com 6. 6. egroups.com 7. 8. excite.com 8. 7. go.com 9. 9. google.com10. 10. cnn.com 11. 11. cnet.com 12. 13. fortunecity.com 13. 12. chek.com 14. 14. looksmart.com 15. 15. ugo.com 16. 16. amazon.com 17. 18. snowball.com18. 17. usa.net 19. – brinkster.com 20. 27. quote.com

Innovative and creative web design has lost its hegemony over the overall look of the web. It is therefor time to rethink and redefine its position. Either it declares an overall war to mainstream US-American tech and news portals, which is unlikely. Or it could become truly obscure and develop its own parallel universe of beauty. More feasible is the creation of an exclusive global design class (similar and close to the ones in fashion, architecture and the art market). A professional high/hype culture class of experts, feeding into the world of education and the niche market of design (web) magazines. This process is already well under way. Those who feel unease about this tendency towards glamorous aloofness are not alone. We could take initiatives and question the current trend towards cozy uselessness. Webdesigners could reclaim the Net, for example through a critical engagement in open source software, peer-to-peer architectures and early design involvement in setting standards for mobile phones, settop boxes, hand-held computers and other appliances.

There is a growing need to break through the liberal impasse we face at themoment, where sophisticated web design still pretends to being avant-gardebut in fact it has lost grip on the web reality. Conceptual web design is indanger to, involuntarily, get marginalised. Or marginalize itself if does not develop a critical understanding of the rapidly changing economic environment it is working in. Window dressing in a social and cultural vacuum, the immanent problem of all design, has always been around – and will always be. The misuse and appropriation by corporations for their own profit sake is a dilemma everyone is facing. I am not talking about a decay or even betrayal of web design. Quite the opposite. Flash technologies have certainly created a second wave, a renaissance after the first “html” wave of the mid nineties which java had not been able to trickle.

What is more frightening is the somewhat unconscious isolation of web design, which can even be said of   Internet research as such. The New Economy is more and more dictated by the fluctuations of the stock markets. It is no longer driven by the will to pursuit technological innovation. It has become ignorant towards flash applications, streaming media or 3D virtual environments, avatar worlds, just to name a just few examples.

The “usability” discourse is undergoing a similar faith of slow regression.Research about “stickiness”, measuring user-friendliness of the design andfrequency of visits once served the rapidly growing user base who were notanymore tech savvy compared to the first adapters who were not distracted byinconsistencies. Navigation has become a non issue, thanks to usabilityefforts. Since then usability research has turned against itself, de facto advising companies how to fit best into the mainstream mono culture. Pressure on the Internet departments of firms to generate cash is gigantic. No one is buying the argument anymore that profile can be raised with funky experiments. The attention economy is dead. “Aggregating ‘eyeballs’ is not, in and of itself, a business model” Fortune magazine concluded recently. Attention may contribute to branding but has failed to regenerate the required revenues. I would therefor make a strong argument for web design to disassociate itself from “usability” speech and its unintended effect of streamlining the web. Despite all the good intentions of the usability researchers such as Jacob Nielsen, Brenda Laurel and others. It’s time to uncover other unlikely futures for web design through new alliances.


> The focus of the book is on user motivation and experience. We would > like you to do the following: > 1, Name your favourite website in each of the following categories: > a) chatting > b) watching > c) playing > b) managing > d) working > e) buying > f) learning > g) traveling > h) listening > i) sharing > j) laughing > > 2, Take one of these websites and answer the following questions relating > to it: > in one sentence, summarise why you’ve visted this site more than once? > > why is this site well designed? > > what does it do that makes it unique to you? > > what makes it ‘beautiful’? > > what makes it useful to you? > > what do you use this site for and how often do you use it? >> on average, how long do you spend on each visit? > > where do you use this site, at home or at work or somewhere else? > > what is the most successful aspect of this site, your favourite part? > > what is the most useless thing about this site? > > 3, name one non-pc internet device or other interactive networked device > and answer the following questions pertaining to that site/application:> > in one sentence, summarise what it is you like about this device? > > what makes it well designed? > > what does it do that is unique to the interactive environment? > > what makes it beautiful? > > does what you do with it, interact directly with things you do on other > devices, i.e. web to phone, phone to web? > > on average, how long does it take to use this device? > > how often do you use this device? > > where do you use this device, at home or at work or somewhere else? > > what is the most successful aspect of this device, your favourite part? > > what is the most useless thing about this device?