Digital Web Magazine

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Forging a partnership between designer and user : Comments

By Sarah Horton

September 1, 2004



September 2, 2004 2:24 AM

Sounds nice in theory.

In reality this is just another set of asumptions.
Assume giving control to users is A Good thing and Nice Idea. Well it may be so.

Assume users want to control something (assuming they do know how).

Assume users care to resize browsers (Try it. Honestly.
Have some 10 sites opened and fiddle around with your browser. Or provide some reliable statistics how many users prefer to surf with browsers maximized. No try to resize browser from maximized state). Digital-web is pain to read. Webstyle guide is even more so. is pleasure to read. and are too. The reason? I bet you know it.

How about assuming that users come to use, not to customize?

There was an discussion and much was said there, some good point made.

Regarding books – they are products of hundredes years of evolution, polished almost to perfection. Was print media constrained by format common for the most books from the very begining of the industry? I doubt so.
What we have now is the product of long evolution.

And I honestly cannot see why optimal line lenght working
for books all of sudden should cease to work in browser.
Just because the media is flexible? How far flexibility
is from dissociation?

No, I am not against flexibility. Just give me 35 ems wide column to read in comfort. Spare me from navigation
spreading across my 21” monitor.
Don’t try to flood all available space just because you can to. And for the God’s sake, don’t force me to resize my browser!

Thank you.

Jeremy Keith

September 2, 2004 7:29 AM

Rimantas, those websites you mention as being “a pleasure to read” cease being such a pleasure if I view them with a browser width less than 800 pixels. As you so succinctly put it:

“for the God’s sake, don’t force me to resize my browser! “

I realise that most people don’t surf with small windows but if we get into a numbers and statistics debate then we’re just going to end up in a majority vs. minority mindset (instead of majority + minority: accessibility).

The assumption behind this article is that users aren’t stupid. I think that’s a fair assumption. Users may not be knowledgable but that’s something we can easily change by showing them how to control their experience better.

The alternative is to assume that users are stupid, don’t know what’s best for them and can’t or won’t learn. The implication being that we designers do know what’s best for them and that we’re crippling their experience “for their own good”. That seems like arogance to me.

In fact, in my experience, users are quite willing to learn and adapt in order to better their experience. Designers, on the other hand, are sometimes the most stick-in-the-mud people I’ve encountered.

This is a well-written thoughtful article. I can see its message being taken up by users but I imagine it’s going to be likie water off a duck’s back to most designers.


September 2, 2004 10:03 AM

Rimantas post echoes my own feelings on the matter.

On a previous redesign of a site, I had moved from px-based font size to keyword font size. Whereas before no one complained about the text, all of a sudden I started getting complaints that it was both too small AND too big.

At the same time I also moved to a liquid layout which I thought would be a great improvement, but we maintain about 500 pages, all with widely varying content and layout (within the general template), and without good min-width support a lot of nastiness appeared that we never noticed until someone brought it to our attention.

You speak of giving people the chance to control their environment, but that assumes that they want to. With the ubiquity of the web, you have to realize that many many people (probably a majority depending on your audience) are strictly looking for some piece of information. They don’t care about the design or the font size or anything else so long as it doesn’t get in the way of their immediate task. To that end we are justified in making certain decisions for the user, because they will accomplish their goal quicker and with less frustration.

Of course I’m all for leaving things as flexible as possible for those users who appreciate that, but I think that demographic is over-represented in the web design community discourse because the type of people who crave that control are likely to be designers themselves.

The bottom line, as with all design conundrums, lies in compromise and audience analysis. All you can do is make a judgement about what works best, then implement it and do some usability testing. Certainly the medium is far too new to have a universal set of best practices, and I’m not yet convinced that abandoning classic design in favor of flexibility should be a hard and fast rule.

Scott Chesnut

September 2, 2004 10:51 AM

I find it interesting that the first commenter, Rimantas, points to a very good article about line length, which refers to another excellent article on the subject at Max Design, which prominently quotes the Web Style Guide co-authored by Sarah Horton who wrote the very thoughtful article above. It points out that we’re all in this together after all, and maybe we can avoid a two party system featuring the Design Nazis vs. the Accessibility Dweebs. All of us are still learning and struggling with what’s best for the user on a daily basis – even the experts. The experts deserve credit for bravely exposing themselves in an open forum and making us consider different sides of the issues.

Nick Finck

September 2, 2004 12:37 PM

Rimantas: I agree about having text flood the page. However, I have to ask, what browser and platform are you on? It sounds like your browser doesn’t support maxwidth... Digital Web Magazine works perfectly in Firefox at any resolution for me… no long full screen text, instead it is nicely wrapped at about 4” on the screen.

Nick Finck

September 2, 2004 6:24 PM

Perhaps the issue can be resolved for IE using this method. I’ll see if we can implement it and see how it pans out.

Michael Ward

September 3, 2004 2:16 AM

I type in my Address bar and press enter. I then wait for the page to load and type in my search query, and press enter.

What happened?? Nothing, because Google took your recommendation not to use default text boxes.

I now have to hunt for the search box with my mouse pointer. Cheers, makes Google really usable…

Of coure, your rule might apply in a lot of situations, but lets not lose sight of that fact that they are not universal.

Sarah Horton

September 3, 2004 9:14 AM

I appreciate all the comments that people are making about my article. I expected some difference of opinion because I, too, have trouble recognizing the boundaries around the user environment.

For example, yesterday I was setting up a page with internal page navigation links at the top of the page. Once I made the links, I thought, “Gosh, it sure looks busy with all those links underlined like that. I

Scott Chesnut

September 3, 2004 9:33 AM

Doug Bowman released some more liquid design experiments today that readers here may be interested in.

Nick Finck

September 3, 2004 12:42 PM

In an effort to please some of the readership here I have started developing some solutions to the line length issue. Feel free to comment on that thread as requested.


September 3, 2004 4:19 PM

Wow, that was a real surprise.
Funny enogh, went just the other way.
Guess we will have some time till pendulum stops.
Nick, I am using Firefox/Win and IE/Win (I’d be glad not to use it, but I am forced to).

Nathan Logan

September 8, 2004 4:47 PM

The entire fixed/liquid width issue does not have a universal answer (or at least one I have heard that is convincing). The decision for any given site depends on the user to whom that site is catering. The Google example given by Michael Ward is spot-on.

Rather than bicker back and forth about which choice is universally better, I would love to hear some discussion about the absolute best decision (if there is such a thing) based on the user one is trying to reach or the goals of your particular site. In fact, Sarah started down this path, but mistakenly assumed that all sites have the same goals (namely, accessibility as number 1).

Truth be told, I think that some/most sites would choose usability for the majority over accessibility for all.

Anyway, if these absolute arguments are to be made based on site goals/intended user, I guess the first place to start would be to try to define the most common site goals or user groups (and combinations thereof) and then go from there…

Now that would be an interesting article.


September 9, 2004 10:36 AM

Interesting article but I’m not quite sure I agree with the passionate plight for the oppressed user who has become the victim of the dictatorship of web design.

As a User Expereince Professional, I have not been made privy to any research that seems to indicate an overwhealming need to increase user control over the environment delivered to them.

I do not believe users want the responsiblity that a high level of control would place on them.

The example of simply providing additional content to a help menu sent up HUGE red flags for me. My expereince has taught me that not only do users dislike the onus placed on them for making the environment what they want it to be, but also shy away from having to take the extra step to peruse through a help menu.

I agree with what was said in an earlier comment that a user comes more to use than to customize.

Sarah Horton

September 13, 2004 8:09 AM

This is an important conversation, so thanks for starting things going.

When we talk about user goals, we tend to aim just a notch above the most basic user goal: functionality. When a user sits down to the web, her first goal is to use it. In order to work the web, she needs to access the content and use the functions. When basic functionality is present, she can move on to second-level goals: finding information, making a purchase, making connections, etc. I cannot imagine a site that does not need to be functional. So, yes, all sites do share a common goal.

Where we run into difficulty is in thinking that we know our users: that we know what they come for and what they need in order to use the web. We know what some users come for, and what some users need, but if we design only for what we know, we miss the mark. There is a diversity of needs and preferences that we cannot hope to design for

Nick Finck

September 13, 2004 1:49 PM

Sarah: Well said. I am curious, though, about "knowing our users." Wouldn’t you say doing a fair sampling of qualitative and quantitative user input would help you understand the majority of a sites users?

What I mean by that is, by using things such as in-depth web analytics, user testing, focus groups, user surveys, and user feedback… couldn’t we come to the conclusion that our site has x number of basic user profiles (personas) and base our designs on their needs while trying to also accommodate for the unknown (i.e. allowing flexibility in our designs)?

Sarah Horton

September 15, 2004 6:02 PM

Nick, I agree that user research is effective and necessary, particularly for aspects of the interface that are not flexible and cannot be modified by the user. Users cannot change a site

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