Needing Science, receiving Art
By David Walker (Google profile)
The divide between Art and Science which C.P. Snow once dubbed "The Two Cultures" lives and thrives today in Web design. Anyone who doubts the point should examine the fall-out from a Jakob Nielsen essay titled The End of Web Design.
Nielsen, the best-known expert in Web site usability, has the Scientist mindset with a capital S. He's an engineer by training and a believer in gathering data about how people actually use the Web. He's also a dogmatic essayist, in the best traditions of the essay form and the Internet. In his controversial essay Nielsen essentially asked Web designers to stop thinking different. He cited Jakob's Law of the Internet User Experience: "Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know." He called for designers to "tone down their individual appearance and distinct design", to concentrate on working out how to support specific user tasks rather than designing fancy new user interfaces.
And Nielsen appended to his own column a telling commentary from a hypermedia consultant, noting that today's printed book had for good reason evolved a single dominant interface style - standard book size, standard text size, a few standard typefaces and so on.
Nielsen has been saying for years that designers should spend more time thinking about their users. Far more than anyone else, he's been responsible for convincing people that the Web is currently too hard to use, and that Web interfaces need to become more predictable. But until now, he has never come right out and said that much of what many Web designers do is - well, dispensable. That a Web designer's proper place might not be at the cutting edge of digital art, but in a quiet office, tinkering within a very narrow design framework. That Web designers might one day be relieved of the task of creating obscure, bandwidth-hogging, Flash-driven rollover effects. That Web designers might end up in the same sort of useful, unglamorous niche as - gasp - book designers.
The Artists predictably ran for the barricades the moment the Scientist made his suggestion. The Hesketh Web design mailing list, for instance, exploded with bizarre comments about Nielsen's credentials, his style and his motives. Hesketh list founder Steve Champeon, himself author of a book on Dynamic HTML user interfaces, attacked Nielsen's "tired proclamations and predictions". Jeffrey Veen, of Webmonkey fame, sprang to the defence of "innovative" interfaces. Designers of all sorts dogmatically asserted that Nielsen's dogmatism proved his error.
Now, I like beautiful Web sites more than most; I lapped up David Siegel's Creating Killer Web Sites back in 1996 and I visit Communication Arts Interactive every week or two. But the evidence of the past five years really does suggest that most Web users cannot tolerate endless visual innovation. Too many people find too many sites too hard to use. The Web is primarily a medium for performing tasks and gathering information, not for absorbing browser-based art. In such a medium, design's primary purpose on the majority of sites must be to support user goals - the sometimes overstated goal of Nielsen and others on the Scientist side of the divide.
So the simple and relatively user-centred Amazon.com flies high, while its ambitious multimedia counterpart Boo.com crashes and burns. So a succession of Web portals - Yahoo!, Lycos, AltaVista, Microsoft and more - converge on a standardised design. So the Artists' attempts to create fresh, new, innovative user interfaces come to nothing, because the vast majority of users want to get things done with a minimum of fuss.
And as a new generation of Web sites tries to evolve without the endless cash streams of the 1998-2000 dot-com boom, the Scientific approach to Web design will only grow in popularity. More and more site managers will want to find out whether people can actually use their site to accomplish tasks. Less and less will care whether their site looks hip or beautiful.
What's most astonishing is that no major site design firm in Australia or even in the US appears willing to aggressively preach this reality. Your site may need a very simple, fast-downloading, utilitarian interface, but try finding a firm who will fight to design it. Clients need Science. All too often, the Web design profession gives them Art.