Thursday, November 9, 2017

Web users ultimately want to get at data quickly and easily. They don’t care as much about attractive sites and pretty design. (Tim Berners-Lee)

Wow! I never thought I’d be disagreeing with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. But there you go …

Now, there was a time when I would have heartily agreed with him. And my guess is that this quote is probably from a long time ago as well.

Yup, it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when information was paramount. The Internet was simply a place where you went for data, plain and simple. I think the idea was that having all the information in the world at your fingertips was enough. Anything that could possibly get in the way – and that included design and aesthetics – did indeed get in the way, and really shouldn’t be there.

(You can still see that approach in sites like Craig’s List, the Drudge Report, and even Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. In fact, Jakob just put out an article on what he calls “brutalist” web design – borrowing the term from architecture – discussing this very style.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, something called eCommerce then occurred. Yup, companies started using the Internet to sell things. (It wasn’t just random people and organizations dumping data there anymore.) Further, those companies wanted to use all the methods at their disposal to convince you to buy their stuff. 

At the same time, web coders started introducing all sort of techniques that could make websites less just pure HTML and more along the lines of print or TV or whatever the client desired. Finally, there were also studies done that showed that users preferred more aesthetically pleasing designs. In fact, comparative testing of the same site in a “brutalist” style and a more aesthetically pleasing one actually made users think that the more aesthetically pleasing ones were more usable as well.

The age of the graphic designer was at hand (and, honestly, we’ve never really looked back). Unfortunately, some of those graphic designers got a little carried away. In fact, given free rein, these folks went a little over board, and started making sites that were, not only attractive, but “different,” “fresh,” and even “challenging” as well. In other words, the design had ceased to help the user and business achieve their goals, but interfered with those, becoming something of an end in itself.

Now, here’s the thing …Usability and aesthetics need not be in conflict. In fact, a really great design will have them working hand in hand, seamlessly, to help the user and the business (if not necessarily the graphic designer) meet their respective goals as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Hard to believe, but I think that screen was Photoshopped!

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