Understanding Web Design

I’m at An Event Apart San Francisco where Jeffrey Zeldman is taking to the stage. He’s going to talk about web design and what it means.

First question, “What is the thing that you need most?” “Empathy,” he says. He brings up a screenshot of Real.com. Everything that looks like a link isn’t a link. Everything that doesn’t look a link is a link …except the “Free Download” button. This site isn’t being driven by user needs, it’s being driven by corporate needs. Their mission is to compete with Quicktime and other media players but they also want to push the advanced player and make it hard to find the free player …competing needs.

Here’s another site: Consumer Search. You can find consumer reports there. They have a store of reports on how well products work or don’t work. But the site has no visual hierarchy, no sex appeal, just a long list of links.

Both sites suffer from a lack of empathy; empathy with the site’s users.

It’s hard being a web designer. The unmotivated need not apply. You have to constantly educate yourself. There are plenty of tutorials out there on using web design tools like Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver, and so on. But teaching Excel is not the same as teaching business. Knowing how to use Photoshop and Illustrator doesn’t make you a web designer. Good resources are hard to find. There’s that really good place in Florida (where Jade studied) that has a great curriculum but it’s the exception that proofs the rule. Once you’re out of college and in a job, you still have to keep learning. Jeffrey asks who often feels like they’re faking it and most of the audience puts their hands on.

The A List Apart Web Design Survey aims to answer some questions about working in web design. Last year’s survey showed that many people found that their education was not relevant to their job. In fact there seemed to be a correlation between how rich you are and how irrelevant your education is. When you break it down by job title, it turns out that graphic designers did find their education relevant but most developers are self-taught.

Web designers get no respect. Imagine you’re on a plane and you start chatting with the person in the seat next to you. If you ask someone what they do and they say they’re an architect then you make some assumptions about them; that they’re educated and respected. You don’t get that when you tell someone you’re a web designer. Part of the problem is that there is no standardisation of job titles. We call ourselves lots of different things. If you’re working with Fortune 500 companies that use lots of baloney titles, you feel you need to make up baloney titles for your company too. If you’re at a university, someone might be called a Webmaster. If you’re at a startup, someone might be called a User Experience Director. But they’re probably doing the same thing.

Another problem for people working in-house is answering the question “Who owns the website?” Usually it’s either Marketing or IT. There should be a separate Web division.

Another thing that the survey showed is that web designers don’t get rich. They make less money than people in comparable fields. This field also suffers from many of the same prejudices as other fields.

So who speaks for web design? Communication Arts is a magazine about graphic design. Every year they have an end-of-the-year round-up of the best in design. The problem with any kind of competition is that it fosters the same kind of design all the time. For example, when Jeffrey was a judge for Communication Arts, there was a beautiful site but it was half a gig in size. Jeffrey didn’t think that was worthy of a prize (although it really was gorgeous). In the 90s in advertising, it was much the same. There was a trend for edgy, sarcastic advertising that won awards and therefore prompted more sarcastic advertising.

Then there’s the Webby Awards, a very glitzy affair. David Bowie was the host this year. Jeffrey loves Bowie (he has bought his music multiple times) but is he necessarily the best judge of web design?

If you can’t rely on competitions and awards, you could turn to traditional news media. A few years ago Wolf Blitzer discovered blogs. They didn’t quite get it.

Jeffrey asks who reads TechC*nt. People put up their hands …they should be ashamed of themselves. Jeffrey, like me, doesn’t read TechC*nt because it just makes him angry. Who gives a shit about how much money people are making? Aren’t the ideas more interesting?

There’s the old chestnut about iconic web design, sparked by Armin Vit’s Under Consideration article. Jeffrey and Jason disagree on this one. Jeffrey thinks that lamenting the lack of a web design equivalent of a Milton Glaser poster is missing the point of web design.

Time for some practical lessons. Most importantly, we need to get away from the guitar solo approach to design. You should not be designing just to make other designers jealous. It happens a lot in design but it happens in development too (I’m looking at you, Ajax). Good design is invisible. It’s about the character of the content, not the character of the designer. Let’s get away from showing off get to empathetic web design. It means user-centred design but by abandoning that label we can side-step the religious wars between UCD and agile.

Here are twelve tips to empathetic web design.

  1. Start with the user. If you’re making a personal site, great, do whatever you want. But if it’s a site for other people, start with the user and stay there.
  2. Know yourself. Know your weaknesses. Know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. Jeffrey knows that he’s good at painting the big picture on a project but he’s not good at dealing with the details.
  3. Find the right client (or job). Find an environment or project where you can thrive. This ties in with tip number two: when you know what you like doing, you can seek out that environment.
  4. Sell ideas not pixels. Andy paraphrases this as sell the sizzle, not the sausage.
  5. I don’t know is okay. It should be acceptable to tell a client you don’t know something. If you’re afraid of saying that, that might not be the right client.
  6. Build trust. They need to know that you know what you’re doing.
  7. Bring out the big guns. Don’t be afraid to quote research at your clients. They won’t read it but they’ll be persuaded to trust you.
  8. Create a paper trial. Remind people what they already agreed to.
  9. Never underprice your works.
  10. Say no to spec. Don’t work on spec. Don’t work for free.
  11. Say no to rush jobs. They never work. The clients are always in a rush but they’re always late getting back to you. The reason it’s a rush job is because they spent months disagreeing about stuff.
  12. End with the user. When in doubt, go back to the user.

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