Illuminating the Challenges of Web Design

Cross-post from the Digital Fellows blog:

I have always wanted an Artichoke Lamp.  I could never afford one (or really any piece of mid-century decor), so when I found a relatively inexpensive substitute that looked really cool, I jumped at the chance to make it a part of my home.

The Norm 69 is an award winning DIY lamp that has a comparable look to the Artichoke Lamp without the steep price.

It’s also a pain-in-the-rear to put together.

From Normann Copenhagen:

Extraordinary in its form, the Norm 69 holds a special place in the Normann-Copenhagen legacy. As the first product launched in 2002, this stunning lamp comes in 69 pieces that anyone can assemble without the use of any tools or glue. Lends extraordinary light to any space.

After a couple of minutes you understand the concept of how to fold the different elements. Once this is done, just follow the detailed instructions and after a little while you are the proud owner of your very own handmade Norm 69 lamp – made by you.

This description is totally misleading – within seconds of opening the box I knew I was not in for an easy or smooth construction project.  First, I had to watch a youtube video to learn how to fold all of the various pieces because the instructions that came with the lamp were very confusing (judging by the video’s 42,000+ hits, this seems to be a common first step).  Second, while the creators tout that you don’t need any tools, if you don’t want cut-up fingers or broken lamp pieces you are definitely going to need something to help with bending the plastic into the right shapes (I used a Black Stick – a tool from my computer technician days that, to this day, I cannot live without).  Third, the description carefully notes that you will have your very own lamp “after a little while”. For me, a little while was over 3 hours – with sore fingers and a few busted/cracked pieces – and that’s only because I had a partner that helped me assemble the lamp.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the lamp does look really cool, and I don’t regret purchasing it (in fact, you could say that I am a proud owner of my lamp, especially since, yeah, I did build it).  This story is not meant illustrate my frustrations with lamp-building.  Instead, it’s meant to highlight my frustrations with designs touted as “easy to use” or “intuitive to navigate” that are actually more difficult than the designers claim.

When I first started this fellowship I hadn’t been very concerned with web design. The last time I had created a website (other than through social networking sites) was during the GeoCities era.  I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with WordPress (after all, there are over 60 million WordPress websites out there), but I had never used it to design a site of my own.  Since I’m now responsible for creating websites on the CUNY Commons, I had to learn how to use WordPress to design informative and aesthetically pleasing websites.

WordPress is a content management system, which means that you can control most of the elements of a website from a central interface (the Dashboard) without much need for manual coding.  This makes the software extremely user friendly, as it allows someone with virtually no web development experience to jump right in a create a website through one-click page creations, drag and drop navigation organization and theme packages that come with their own complete design schemes.  WordPress was designed to be easy to use and intuitive to navigate and, in turn, it is supposed to make web design easy and intuitive.  And it is easy to use – within hours of my first time using the software I had made a website.

After creating a handful of websites, I began to pay more attention to the way in which I was designing sites.  I didn’t focus on layouts, color schemes or header images, though.  Instead, I started to focus on the way I was presenting information to potential users: would they find the site as easy to navigate as I did?  This was not an easy question to answer (in fact, there are tons of heuristic resources available for testing the usability of websites).

You see, WordPress really is easy to use as a website creator.  However, website design is an entirely different beast that WordPress can’t teach you – at least not through the Dashboard.  While WordPress is designed to put website creation at your fingertips in an easy to use, intuitive to navigate package, it doesn’t guide users through the finer points of making a website usable.  This isn’t a design flaw with WordPress, just as my lamp-building trouble isn’t a design flaw with the Norm 69. Rather, the issue lies in the assumption that the people who have come across these products – a content management system and a DIY lamp – have the ability to make something wonderful with them without any additional tools or skills.

Once I had started to think about these things, website design became more and more challenging. It wasn’t about finding interesting layouts, images, or color schemes anymore. Instead, a good design meant that my site had a clear taxonomy of navigation choices – that the correct items were groups together under the best categories, that the search function actually provided accurate results, and that users who visited one of my sites for the first time would have a really good idea of where to go to find what they were looking for. Web design has become akin to the process I undergo when writing an academic paper – how can I best present my argument so that it is clear, with consistent premises and a conclusion that is persuasive and elegant?

There are some people that pride themselves on putting the Norm 69 lamp together in under 35 minutes.  These people have obviously practiced to reach such an impressive time, the same way I’ve practiced writing paper after paper to become a decent academic writer.  While it’s possible to create a website using WordPress your first time out, designing a good website is a bit more difficult than having a good layout.  The platform may be easy to use, but the design know-how takes considerable practice.

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