I’m tired of looking at websites. I want to use them.

The world isn’t getting any simpler. All of us have woken up this century to find ourselves tied down to computers. Our work and life depend upon them. And now, even in light of our privacy being continuously violated, we’re (for the most part), unable to disconnect. So in this uncomfortable space, our relationship with technology, computers and ultimately the Internet, is pushing us to find better ways to ease our new found digital lives. And yet, each time we visit a website, even a new website, we bang our heads against the sheer idiocy of the experience.

“Why are they making me do this? Why so many clicks? Can’t they just give me what I need?”

simple tram

Who they are in this equation is lost on me, and I develop and build websites. For a long time, I’ve advocated principles of content first and a general de-emphasis on design. We don’t need more amazingly stunning websites. We need far simpler web experiences, that allow us to do what we want. And rather than turn everything over to some company to trust our private data, our address books, our personal surfing experience, we need to just learn how to build websites that allow a clean path of choice.

Don’t do everything for me. I can figure out what I need, if you can make clear what it is you offer.

The greatest insight I have had recently as a developer is that we don’t need to do much. We just need to get out of the way. We don’t need to provide deep hierarchical menus to allow someone to traverse our site, we need to produce our content well and allow the people who want to find our information half the chance.

So, although I can appreciate beautiful things, I cannot appreciate them when they come at a cost.

the role of design in a website

Design is not as important as usability when it comes to web development.

I’ve been trying to articulate this idea for some time now. It may be unpopular and many may disagree. I also don’t mean to disrespect designers or downplay the importance of their work. Rather, I am trying to impress upon future clients that content must come first, before we work on the design of a site.

Now I think I’ve finally found a good way to make this argument.

Design for a website is more like a book than a poster. The goal of the design of a poster is to attract attention, to draw someone’s eyes to the poster and make them take in the details. Whereas a book’s design is almost entirely about usability. Certainly character can be expressed with the selection of a font or colours used, but this is a playful element of design and does not function like the design of a poster. This, of course, does not address the cover of a book, which acts more like a poster. It’s aim is to attract attention. But I would argue that a website does not have a cover. When you visit a website, you are already there. It’s as if you are within the book, not looking at the cover. Only posters and promotions for a website can act like a cover.

Again, I make this argument because I’ve worked within organizations that have a lot of creative people. When discussing the development of a web site, they are always focusing on the design and they experience great dissatisfaction with a site if it has no strong design or simply looks bad. This may be appropriate at some point, but certainly not at the beginning of a project. Not when the content is still being gathered. Not when the social media strategy is still be developed.

Finally, to hit the point home. No one will leave a site if it has a bad or no design, but they certainly will if it is confusing and does not function well. They also may never find your beautifully designed site if you don’t spend the appropriate amount of time and effort improving the content and the way it is accessed. So content first. Design second.

How to build a website by not building it

I recently provided some free advice on how to approach designing a website for a University Division. It might be worth every penny paid for it.

First off, let me be clear: asking a graphic designer to design your website is akin to asking an Architect to design your landscape. Certainly there are graphic designers who have more experience, but I find this more rare than you would think. A website is not a thing or a place. It is information in motion: from production to delivery. To design a good website, you need to understand your content first, which involves designing and developing a true content strategy. This is more difficult than you think. You need to understand your audience, not just in the simplistic terms of ‘prospective students’. You also need to account for the fact that you won’t get it right at first and that your site must always be evolving. This is what many graphic artists fail to appreciate and respond to, in part because they are probably more used to producing objects. Again, a website is not an object.

Here are a few more random thoughts.

Your website needs to be built upon a content management system (like WordPress, which I recommend). This will help to streamline how it is built and and how content continues to change. It will also force your designers (hopefully) to recognise the dynamic parts of the site.

It must also be mobile friendly, which I recommend being accomplished with a responsive design. Have a look at the Faculty Website and resize your browser to see how the design changes. Depending on the design itself and other factors you determine by your content strategy, you will have at least 5 relatively different designs (based on the ‘breakpoints’). You need to be thinking about all of these layouts at the same time as you design, and it isn’t easy. It is common to not fully achieve this, but based upon your market, you make certain tradeoffs in the initial implementation. Costs will help to determine this.

Make sure your designers follow an agile development model, which is an iterative approach that will force them to adapt the design as new requirements are determined. This will provide you better feedback and enable you to better manage the project. All good web developers follow this model, at least in part. By the way, the waterfall method, which is to design everything and then build it, has been the standard since the 70s. It was introduced by Winston Royce as a flawed model, but given mankind’s ability or inability to appreciate irony, it has become the way many things are designed and built. Wireframes are almost entirely useless. Decisions will be made which will completely negate your wireframes. For example, when working on your mobile versions, your design sense will be challenged by physical constraints which are absolutely essential to a good product (ie. buttons are two small to touch).

Finally, it is unfortunate that I am no longer working at the University. I had plans to get that whole Faculty in shape in terms of its information. The Division blog, which I was beginning to work on has stalled. I believe that model is the kind of one you need to follow because it places content first and aims to create a low-point of entry for new content. This is so important, as it constructs a network of information, not a website. If you try to build this kind of system, your content becomes immediately shareable (via the social networks like Facebook, Twitter etc.). In my opinion, this will do more for your Division than a visually stunning site. My hope was always that people like you would begin to promote your own work, which would continuously add new and interesting information to the Division. Regarding curation, which becomes the dominate design framework, it needs to be an evolving process.

As for how your Division site will interact with the Faculty Website, my plan was always to thin out the Faculty site and make it mostly an aggregator of the content being produced within the Departments and Divisions. Although I called these other sites ‘blogs’, it is not nor was ever meant to be a derogatory term. I considered them far more important, but I was playing a little slight of hand, to wrestle away the centrally controlled system that was constructed and which simply is not sustainable. Do this project, by all means, but don’t get hung up on the branding (domain name) and visual separation from the Faculty. That is a non-starter and means far less than you think. The only thing that matters on the internet is how people find your information, and once they find it, how they understand it. A good design is one that makes that clear. Unlike a poster, it is not the thing that draws you in. The experience (UX) is what matters because it allows people to continue to use your site and to find more information. I think it is good that you want a simple site. The overall design should aspire towards minimalism, since it is the content and the graphics/images used in the content that will really be the thing that impacts the people who visit your site. Let your work sell itself.

So, I’m sorry that even in my attempt to give you some brief ideas, I go on and on. These ideas are dear to me and I feel very strongly about them, because I understand information. I have a history of presenting these points of view and finding them almost too much for people. I understand only too well that I am advocating for a complete redefinition of the classic website. All I can say is that these ideas are not original – this is the dominant discourse in this field. And it is how you should build your Divisions online information. There is no website. This is no real place to visit. It is something far more ethereal and yet far more powerful and useful.

Let me know if you are interested in hearing more. I also have some books which might help explain my arguments better. One in particular, Designing Disorder, is by the former design director of the NYTimes. It is a very small and straightforward book. And beautiful.

If we can work on redefining some terms, I am confident that I can give you some real ways to discuss this work with your designers that will produce a system – a network of information – that will accomplish what you need it to do. And it will still look great.

layout, content and structure walk into a bar: who’s first?

Mark Boulton (@markboulton) wrote an important article over the recent groundswell of support for the ‘content first’ methodology in web design.

In it, he argues that the idea that content is first, that we always can know what our content is before we begin to design for it, is wrong. He seems to be suggesting that it’s really structure which must come first, because we can’t truly know our content. He sites newspaper design using CMSes as the kind of environment in which you simply cannot know your content first.

Although I agree with some of this, I think that he is making a philosophical argument about how you can’t truly know your content. I think this is a dangerous idea, as the principles of content first will help all of us produce better sites. To know something truly is a myth. To know what something is like is perhaps all we can do, and Boulton does suggest this. The more you know, the better. Start there. If you understand your content, at least a little, you’ll be able to structure it better. But that’s the point: content first, structure next – then design for your content and how it is structured.

The real argument from Boulton that structure comes first misses years of experience from other design fields (which is funny since so many design fields are now looking to web design for their inspiration). Many physical design fields will instruct you to begin with program. You need to know what is going to happen inside your site, inside your building, within the furniture etc. In architecture, you don’t begin with the structure without first understanding who will use the building and how. This splitting of hairs argument does not help us think better about our work. It confuses us. Structure does not come first. The information, the data, the content, which we are trying to put online must always come first, whether we know it really well or only a little. How else can we structure it?

I know I am reacting strongly to Boulton’s article, because this idea is extremely important to me. I named my first content management system, Content First. My system was inspired by the idea that when we start to build a site using a CMS, we need to have a much more informal process, especially one not driven by design. When we begin, we’re still trying to sort out exactly what our site does. However, this not-knowing does not prevent us from beginning to structure our content. We start with some content, structure it, and then continue to define our content and repeat. Even Boulton points out, trying defining your content helps to structure it.

Web design is not print – it is almost never static, which means it is always about structuring general kinds of content, but still, you begin with the content. To even talk about web design like it is a one off, perhaps misses the point. It reminds me of the ‘Under construction’ signs that used to litter the net. We finally killed that idea by openly acknowledging that all sites are always works in progress. The content you write today could change tomorrow. But there will be similar elements: headline, byline, article body. And if the content significantly changes, then the structure and the design has to change.

When talking about knowing something, we should talk plainly. After all, when you hire a designer, you’re not going to tell them what your content is like. Being vague about it doesn’t help. You’re going to tell them what it is (in so far as you understand it). When we try to know something, we should say so with conviction. This helps us to move forward and to build. It helps the designers. It helps the programmers.