Power to the People

by D. Keith Robinson

29 Reader Comments

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  1. I completely agree with your charge that tools and technology need to come second to creating useful interfaces. There are a whole lot of new technologies and services being thrown out there without a lot of usability being considered. We would do well to consider what AJAX brings to the design before implementing it because it looks flashy.

    For example, the Wordpress 2.0 beta introduces a lot of slick collapse and expand sections on the write page but it remains to be seen if it really makes it easier to use. It looks cool, but the old way gave you ready access to everything you needed without having to open a collapsed section.

    Technology without usability isn’t using the technology to it’s full potential.

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  2. The Gap’s website redirects me to a screen saying that I’m using an unsupported browser. And it’s the most up-to-date version of Opera

    And is it because they care about their users?

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  3. A lot of good points – it’s easy to get carried away with the technology.

    But a lot of the clients I deal with here in the UK are organisations with their own goals and objectives. Their websites were initially developed to reflect their own organisational structure and technology, and the users could go to hell.

    But now, weirdly, it’s sometimes swinging too far the other way – being purely user led and subordinating business goals to user preferences and topline feedback.

    Ultimately, a great designer has to find a way of combining the two – what the organisation wants to do achieve with its site, and what things its customers will want to achieve – and then choose the approach that flows naturally from the scope and specification that emerges.

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  4. I completely agree with what everyone’s pointed out so far. The user comes first, and a lot of the time your users, if you’re trying to launch some major web app, aren’t going to be extremely computer savvy. Break it down in laymans terms for the average user and make everything as easy as possible to use.

    as for Gap, well, their neglegance of some browsers will surely have some effect on the amount of people purchasing products online. And as for Ajax, I belive it’s a great technology, but I don’t think it’s quite ready for widespread use with mainstream users.

    anyway, great article. My next website design will most definitely be focused on the user instead of my own craving for creativity.

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  5. It’s the old adage about <insert name of new technology here> being a solution looking for a problem. Too many people think that because they can, they should, and that’s where it ends. And that’s what leads to Flash, PDF, and database-driven websites where pages have names like page.php?id=7752 … because nobody has stopped to think about the people who will be using it.

    These are people, bear in mind, who will type a full URL into Google and who will click on a vibrating “dialogue box” that says ‘You have a virus – click here to remove’ … these are people who need things made simple. Each and every tiny increase in complexity will result in lost sales.

    Any website that needs a “How to use” section is almost certainly going to fail for users – that doesn’t mean go without it, it means re-engineer the site. That might mean you need to reduce the technology and make it simpler, or it might mean you need to increase the technology and functionality. Either way, you need to examine how users are using the site before making any major changes.

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  6. The thing to remember is that less really is alwaus always more.

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  7. It’s Kanye West, isn’t it?

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  8. When I tried to visit Gap’s web site using Safari, and couldn’t, I went so far as to email the tech people. Developers should be beyond the “this only works in…” stage of web design. My philosophy is things should work cross-platform and cross-browser, and it something takes too many hacks to get there, I must be doing something wrong.

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  9. I can’t either visit Gap with my Safari version. How can such a big site like Gap afford it noto consider Apple users?

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  10. Update:
    You’ve been able to order pictures from Flickr for more then 2 weeks already. Plus you can create books, order stamps, and DVDs of your account. Tadaaaa: http://www.flickr.com/do/more/

    Just thought you might want to know.

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  11. As a web designer, I completely agree with the idea that new, trendy technologies should not drive the way we construct the web.  The web is for people, all types of people with all types of browsers and we should be designing accordingly.  I make the best effort I can on every project I am a part of.  However, having just completed work on a fairly substantial commerce site, I completely disagree with Gap’s new site being an example of bad site construction.

    As we began research for the commerce site, we asked our client and specifically a few of their less tech-savvy customers for examples of good online shopping experiences and also examples of bad online shopping experiences.  One site that made the list of good examples was Gap.  I don’t have exact comments from the users, but the basic idea was that Gap’s site presents me (the user) with everything I could possibly need to know in order to make a qualified buying decision.

    I completely agree with the users’ comments.  Gap’s site (while not necessarily working in all browsers, but in at least one browser on every major platform—I don’t need to point out browser stats, we all know them well enough) provides the user, even the least tech-savvy user, with loads of information about every product in a simple and effective way and then makes it incredibly easy to purchase those items.  In my humble opinion, that’s a job well done, regardless of what underlying technology was used.

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  12. You make some valid points about the overall user experience, but why are you trying to sell me on Basecamp, Textmate, etc.?  I can understanding highlighting a few case studies, but you are flat out promoting these products as part of your piece.  Also, what concrete proof do you have that 1-Click made it simpler to donate to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort?  Or is this just your opinion?  Honestly, you could’ve written the same piece without relying on trademarks for critical authority.  Just my two bits.

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  13. Let’s face it, there are many, many people out there who don’t like using computers at all.

    So the correct design solution would be to provide the service by phone or by fax or something these some people actually like, not?

    As much as i appreciate the idea to focus on goals instead of new fuzzy technologies and the way this argument is presented in this well-written article, i am a bit tired of this constantly repeated paradigma that everything should be made for people who actually are interested in nothing and do not like to use anything “new”: it should be “easy and simple”.

    This brought us to the uninventive, boiled-down interface culture we have today—tho it was incresing sales of computers. Everything is optimized for first time users who do not seem to have the required attention span to read two paragraphs of instructions.

    For me this can really result in feeling offended when i have to look at reduced options, step-by-step interfaces, big “hints” where to click and in what order …

    To connect amazon’s ridiculous patent on “one click shopping” with the saving of lives is a bit over the top. It was made to sell more products, using affect-driven “i want to have it maybe”-shopping. So while customers brood over if they really want to buy something or not, amazon makes it easy to decide in the direction of yes.

    Now, if a national catastrophy occurs and donators are unable to make an electronic transaction for it and instead need such an affect-driven aid, if they cannot remember that this catastrophy occured for long enough, if they lose their interest in it after 30 seconds—; well this is a culture i would rather like to avoid.

    I think interfaces should be there to help users to act responsible, controlled, competent and souvereign with a computer. Interfaces can also act educative. Things can be simple or easy, but not too simple or too easy. Too simple and too easy promotes a culture where people click on anything that moves or is blue and underlined.

    This is quite close to what we have now.

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  14. To David (#11)—I wasn’t actually trying to showcase The Gap as a bad example.  The main reason why they’re even mentioned is because of the graphic I highlighted.

    To Dino (#12)—I was using examples of products I like, it was not intended as any kind of sales pitch.  I can see how it comes of like that, but it was unintentional.

    To Dragan (#13)—You make some good points.  However, the idea is that most interfaces are not easy.  If you disagree with that then I can see how you’d have a problem with what I’m trying to say.

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  15. I tried visiting it with Opera, Konqueror, Firefox, Lynx – nope, nothing, null. It keeps telling me to use IE5, NS7 or Mozilla. I don’t have IE on in my Linux-box.

    I must admit, it’s the most inaccessible page I have ever met.

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  16. I don’t work for GAP and I don’t like their clothing.

    I looked at the source for a few pages, and guess what – not a single table used for layout, its using CSS.

    The markup (strict XHTML) didn’t look too bad either imho.

    So the site requires JavaScript and isn’t working on some browsers.  Bad? definitely.  But didn’t the author mention its a new site?  I’d imagine they will work out these problems.

    I agree the message about the new site isn’t very wise, but they do mention an ‘extraordinary shopping experience’ as a result of the changes.  The author was not picking on Gap, it was an illustration of his point.

    Lastly, I don’t agree that the site really ‘clunky, and awkward’.  Perhaps slow, I’m on a very fast connection, I didn’t notice.

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  17. Keith’s main point (the nut para, for all you journalism nitpickers) was that designers should “understand what people want, and give it to them in as clear and simple a way as possible.”

    To meet that rhetorical end, Keith rightly used Gap.com as an example of what not to do. It’s been four months since the Gap redesigned and redeployed. Four months?! We wrote an article on them at Publish.com in September (http://www.publish.com/article2/0,1759,1861854,00.asp). And still, the site has problems.

    The Gap has clearly failed to reach their goals, and they’ve clearly failed to give people what they want: convenient shopping, simply done.

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  18. My company produces software for a specific job in a specific industry.  The interface isn’t super-easy, but, if you explore the menu options, it should become clear after a day or two. 

    For some of our users, this is way too hard.  They call and ask questions that reveal their ignorance to industry standards.  Standards that should have be taught to them in the part-time college course they took to get the job.

    For other users, the system allows them to enter data extremely fast and report on that data with a reasonable amount of flexibility.  They recommend the system to colleagues and praise it when they call me “just to see what’s new”.

    Should we dumb-down our interface for people who are too lazy/stupid/stubborn/scared to learn their job requirements and take an interest in their tools?

    Software can only do so much.  After that, skill and knowledge must bridge the distance.

    For instance, in(near) the beginning, there was DOS.  Command-line interface.  You had to memorize the commands or look them up.  Then there was GUI’s.  Click on what you want, drag and drop. Most users said “yay!”.  MS made a lot of money.  A while ago I tried Basecamp’s “Tada Lists”.  You type in list items, and, using special mark-up, the software “understands” what type of item you just entered and handles it appropriately.  Sounds like a command-line interface to me.

    Maybe I’m just a cranky coot.  Maybe I’m just tired of “certified” users asking me why the hammer I gave them won’t pound in a screw very well.

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  19. technical knowledge vs. people skills – the job market loves people skills, even in technical fields.  on the job training can make up for a general lack of technical knowledge.  people skills come through experience and observation not readily available through training.  from an educational point of view, psychology and sociology equal programing and aesthetics in importance when it comes to well rounded web designers ready to tackle real world issues.  we work in a service industry.  technology provide a means to an end, serving people.

    “The more you know the better your solutions will be.” – allow me to argue semantics for a moment.  i disagree with this statement because of the connotation of the word “know”.  knowing, to me, implies an absolute understanding and we live in a world constructed out of quantum probabilities where absolutes do not exist. 

    i perfer understanding to knowing.  understanding implies a willingness to intigrate new data into itself, even if that new data contradicts previous interpretations.  understanding leaves the system open.  knowing considers itself complete and therefore tends to favor closed mindedness. 

    someone who “knows” what users want will move forward secure in this knowledge, loosing sight of the fact that this knowledge relies on assumptions and functions as a convienent model; a simple metaphor at it’s core.  each project cements this knowledge as testing provides feedback in support of the assumptions.  eventually this security blanket of knowledge may lead this hypothetical designer to forgo testing alltogether, or to ignore data from unhappy users dismissing those users as atypical.  this designer has stopped seeing users as a changing, organic entity (or, more technically corect, a collection of entities) and confused his mental map for the human territory.

    the users in our heads serve as models that stand in for the users in real life.  we provide services to these real users, not the convienent models in our heads.  therefore, we should approach each project as if we know nothing and seek to gain fresh understanding for each new set of problems, their circumstances, and the users faced with these problems. 

    this post brought to you by “e-prime”:http://www.nobeliefs.com/eprime.htm

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  20. When I have redesigned web apps for work or built sites at home, I’ve always used two groups to test the projects’ friendliness.

    I have asked the most technically unsavvy users to test the site.  If it fulfills the business plan and function, but the user either can’t navigate coherently or does not fully use the site, then I go back to the drawing board.  Usually it is a case of paring down and providing a more simple way to do the same thing.

    At home, I let my kids—apprentice geek 4, 11 and 12 year old boys—loose on whatever site I’m making.  They are brutally honest (“Gee, Dad—that really sucks.” or “Cool!”) with their comments.

    In both instances, simple and effective wins out over flashy tech-heaviness.

    Just my $.02.

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  21. I absolutely agree, many use new techonlogy just for the sake of it. Sure AJAX is cool, but being able to bookmark something is way cooler for me, my dad and my dog.

    Let’s make a test. I recently developed something at work (a product filter), where many will see AJAX written all over it.
    Have a look at the movie on my “Blog”:http://www.stefanseiz.com/archives/2005/12/ajax_just_because_we_can.html and let me know wether this is AJAX or not? Should open an interesting discussion.

    URL to the “Article”:http://www.stefanseiz.com/archives/2005/12/ajax_just_because_we_can.html
    http://www.stefanseiz.com/archives/2005/12/ajax_just_because_we_can.html

    URL to the “Movie”:http://www.stefanseiz.com/movies/Ajax.mov
    http://www.stefanseiz.com/movies/Ajax.mov

    PS: Textile sucks. It wouldn’t let me create two links on one line ;-)

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  22. Does using AJAX still allow for section 508 accessibility?

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  23. I am using firefox 1.5 (final) on linux, and was blocked from the site. I emailed the gap webmaster with this information and a request not to block unknown browsers. The following is the response I got this morning.

    ———————————————————————————————————

    Thank you for your e-mail.  We apologize for the difficulties you
    experienced on our site.  Currently we support AOL, Netscape Navigator,
    Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Firefox for PC users.  Unfortunately,
    we temporarily do not support Microsoft Internet Explorer for Macintosh,
    or the operating system Linux.  Our developers are aware of this issue
    and hope to have this resolved soon.

    ———————————————————————————————————

    I suspect that this is a clasic example of a blanket “deny” rule and then some allows for their known working browsers. I made the suggestion that they consider allowing all browsers and adding a notice for the ones that they knew were not working. I suspect FF 1.5 is fully functional, but that their regexes are not open ended enough!

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  24. My company is in the middle of designing a completely new ecommerce application for selling vacations online.  The current application is good, but not good enough.  The idea is to move more people to purchase online, instead of the call center.  That means we have to create a better experience for the guest.

    The IA’s for this project are very excited about the newest technology available, ie. AJAX.  The problem is, they have no idea how to use it properly.  This very argument occured a couple days ago in a wireframe review.  AJAX is great, but as your article mentioned, only valuable when used in the right way for the right things.

    I am forwarding this link to them, and the other web developers at my company.  Hopefully this will make them think before trying to create something that is just cool.

    Long live the guest!!!!

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  25. Browser detection on gap.com is based on UA self-description.
    Using FF 1.5 on Ubuntu Linux 5.04 and switching the user agent string to IE on Win XP (via User Agent Switcher extension) I can access the whole gap.com.

    As you can guess nothing is wrong and as far as I can see all that cool (?) layout renders properly. Yes, including menus scrolling up and down and all the rest.

    I did everything, including an order, stopping only when requested to give real money.
    It worked.

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  26. That Gap.com example is perfect. I’m getting blocked from their site using FF 1.0.7, Ubuntu 5.04, but I can access it using IE 6.0 Wine. As far as I can see, there’s nothing too exciting about their so-called innovative tools (the layout and menu look fairly standard to me, unless their old ones really sucked) and nothing that Linux can’t cope with. “You spoke. We listened”. I wonder if their customers told them to block Linux users.

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  27. I think amazon did a great job with the one click buy button. No doubt alot of time went into making it but to patent the idea is a little much in my opinon, but none the less a great job

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  28. I don’t understand companies like GAP that allow technology to prevail over their brand experience. They should see usability as an opportunity to go beyond their competitors and develop a user experience that is on-par with their brand. I e-mailed their website technical support when I could not visit it in Safari any longer. They responded and politely told me that they do not support Internet Explorer for the Mac (my e-mail to them said nothing about Internet Explorer). Then they had a canned message suggesting that Mac Safari users can solve their problem by downloading Firefox. I have nothing against Firefox and use it all the time, but I wouldn’t consider forcing users to switch applications to be a solution. Their online brand experience no longer lives up to their in-store brand experience. Too bad.

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  29. You’d have thought that the practice of telling users to download a different browser would have died five or ten years ago. Sheeeesh.

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