The Design Of Sites Author Interview
Posted on 05 Aug 2003
by Antonio Volpon (TheBigFox)
Rated 3.47 (Ratings: 11)
- More articles in Site Development
The title of your book is "The Design of Sites", and at first sight it may seem just another book teaching how to build sites. Scanning it, however, it's immediately clear that it's completely different from any other book with a similar title. Why? And how did you choose to organize it? What is the audience of the book?
A lot of books out there focus a lot on bad web sites, on commonusability errors that you should avoid. A lot of these are actuallypretty funny, but the problem is that they don't help you buildgood web sites.
Our book focuses on principles, processes, and patterns forcreating good web sites. By principles, we mean high levelconcepts that guide the entire design process. An exampleof this is understanding the needs and capabilities of yourcustomers before building anything. Another is understandingthe basics of color vision deficiency, to avoid combinationsthat are difficult to see by people with this condition.
By processes, we mean how to put the principles into practice.This includes things like the major steps and milestones fordeveloping a web site, how to run a survey, and how to run ausability test.
The largest portion of our book, though, is devoted to webdesign patterns. We've documented ninety patterns in areaslike navigation, home pages, content management, and page layout.
What are patterns and how can they be applied to the web? May you give us an example taken from the book?
Design patterns are a way of communicating common design problemsthat web designers face, as well as solutions that work in practice.
For example, it's not always clear what images you can click on.To solve this problem, designers often edit the images so that theylook like buttons you can press. As another exampe, it's not alwaysclear where you are in a web site and where you can go next. To solvethis problem, designers invented navigation bars that areconsistently placed at the top and the left of web sites.
The goal of a design pattern is to capture the essence of aproblem and a working solution, describing what the goals andconstraints are, as well as what things work and what things don't.Rather than re-inventing the wheel, it gives you a template andseveral examples to work off of.
We have an example pattern on our web site which describes theProcess Funnel. In the Process Funnel, you go through a seriesof well-defined steps to accomplish a specific task such as creatinga new account or checking out.
However, individual patterns by themselves are only marginallyuseful. What's really important is the pattern language, describinghow different patterns relate to one another. For example, theProcess Funnel might be part of an E-Commerce Site or an Intranet(two higher-level patterns). Also, when designing a Process Funnel,one needs to keep in mind issues like Context-Sensitive Help, Abovethe Fold, and Preventing Errors (three lower-level patterns).
Isn't it too early to analize the web and organize a list of best practice into patterns?
While it's true that the web is constantly evolving, things havedefinitely started to settle down. There aren't as many trulynovel and innovative designs as there were in the past. In manyways, this is a good thing, because people have become moreinterested in using the web to accomplish specific tasks ratherthan just exploring for the fun of it.
What patterns offer here are designs that make full use ofpeople's expectations. There was this interesting study doneby the psychology department at Wichita, giving people a blankgrid representing a web page, and asking people where theyexpected things like the navigation bar, search form, andads to be. As you might have guessed, people were used tonavigation bars being at the top and at the left, search formsat the top or top-right, and ads near the top.
What's interesting here is that there is a co-evolution of bothpatterns and people's expectations. Patterns are based onpeople's expectations and experiences with the web, and thesein turn are based on what patterns are out in use on many websites. It's an ongoing conversation.
The book and the patterns are based on the discipline known as usercenter design. What is it, how is important, and how does it relate to the "User Experience"?
The key idea in user-centered design is to keep customers inthe loop throughout the entire design process, getting continualfeedback on the usefulness and usability of the web site. Thebest way of doing this is by taking a design and iterativelygetting feedback from customers and reworking it until it fitstheir needs.
This is in contrast to a monolithic approach, where you mightspeak to the customers once at the very beginning, spend a fewmonths to build the entire web site, and then launch the site,only to find out it doesn't work very well. With user-centereddesign, the idea is to take lots of small steps, rather thanone big step.
There is also an important distinction to make here betweencustomers and clients. By "customer", we mean any person whowill use the web site you are designing. By "client", we meanthe people for whom you are doing the work, the people providingthe funding. For example, when building an intranet, theclients might be upper management, while the customers would bethe people who would actually use the web site. What we want toemphasize here is that it's really important to get feedback fromthe customers, because they will determine the success or failureof the site, not the clients.
A lot of people have been talking about User Experience recently.User Experience is more about the overall feel of a site, such aswhether it was fun and positive or an ordeal. User-centered designwould be one way of creating a positive User Experience, inunderstanding the needs and capabilities of your customers andmaking a web site that fulfills those needs.
Do your patterns cover all the aspects of Internet and Intranetdesign, or is there something you decided not to include in the book, and if so why? And are there other discoveries you would have put into the book if you were writing it today?
The 90 patterns in our book cover many aspects of web design, butclearly cannot cover everything. Our book is intended as part of anongoing conversation on web design.
We actually have ideas for several new patterns. In fact, one ideawe are looking at is design patterns for web applications, focusingspecifically on web sites that provide services like email andstock trading and so on.
As an aside, one of our original ideas for the book was to makethe patterns tear-outs, to make it easier for designers to organizethe ones that were relevant. That idea didn't pan out for variousreasons. However, we've just finished creating one-page versions ofall of the patterns, and for a limited time they are available freeto customers who purchase the book at Amazon.com.