Digital Web Magazine

The web professional's online magazine of choice.

The End of Usability Culture

Got something to say?

Share your comments on this topic with other web professionals

In: Columns > Innovating the Web Experience

By Dirk Knemeyer

Published on November 10, 2004

Strike a match. Close your eyes. Hold the light high up in the air. Sway back and forth. C’mon, pay a proper tribute. The usability paradigm in Web design is about to end.

And sure, it’s hard to let go. After all, we’ve certainly had our fun with Jakob:

Usability culture has unquestionably made the Web a much more usable place. Given the way the Web generally worked just five years ago, the role of usability and related disciplines to the evolution of the Web was vital.

But usability culture has steered the Web development ship long enough. It’s time for a new approach. To understand the urgent nature of making that shift, we need to understand how we got where we are today.

Web History 101

The origins of the Web lie in disciplines like computer science, academic research and human-computer interaction. The initial and ongoing power of the Web, particularly storing and distributing increasingly interconnected data and information, is due in large part to these roots.

But the shortcomings of the Web are also reflected here. We call and think of people as users. We focus on analytical order to the detriment of creative exploration. We adhere to a dogma that insists on quantitative proof and rigor at the expense of common sense. The lineage of the Web reflects the bent and pace of academia far more than that of professional practice.

About 10 years ago, marketers tried to take over the Web. The initial dot-com build, boom and bust was fed by the mainstreaming of the Web and fueled by the vision and fascination of marketers. Like children hypnotized by a shiny new toy, they turned the Web into a quagmire by creating sites that did not work and clumsily applying general principles from the design of other media directly to the Web. Their mistakes were exacerbated by the newness of the media. Since the Web was a new technology, people had no expectations for how the Web should work. It also didn’t help that Web designers were making the same mistakes as the marketers—trying to transfer print design skills to the Web. Despite all the money and media hype being poured into the dot-coms, much of the Web was fundamentally broken.

This proved to be the perfect entrée for academics, deeply rooted in human-computer interaction, to take back control. The space needed to be cleaned up. And as though pressed into action by the Wolf, the cleaners pulled out the hose and got to work. Usability gurus began to stage major events and go on tour. And library science found a prominent place in the sun, formalizing information architecture as an integral part of successful Web experiences. In fact, even when Web practitioners wanted a label that spoke to holistic design and development, they termed it “user experience,” again reflecting a very inhuman and sterile approach to the people we design for.

And aside from that nasty word, “user,” this shift of power has proven an incredibly good thing. The Web actually works! And as we focus on making it even more powerful by taking advantage of XML, the semantic Web and the search revolution (for example), these and other very positive developments are enabled to some degree by the paradigmatic focus on creating a Web that works better. And the tail is truly wagging the dog—much of the planned functionality of Windows Longhorn reflects these Web-centric developments. But that is only part of the story.

On the flip side

The yang to our present yin is a dearth of mainstream creativity, visual differentiation, and sense of active design. For example, the financial services industry spends a tremendous amount of money on Web sites, having moved a large percentage of their overall transactions online for both business and consumer activities. Compared to a few years ago, their Web products are very usable and obviously reflect a great deal of research, feedback and testing. But, looking at their home pages, can anyone tell the difference between three major financial institutions?

screenshot home page screenshot home page screenshot home page

Lots of blue and red. Small pictures of smiling people. A dizzying amount of links and drop menus. The top-tab metaphor assiduously preserved. While the relative design quality of each home page is a point for another discussion, the home pages of these financial institutions offer essentially no visual distinction.

A 2002 Stanford University study on Web credibility, which included a special look at the financial services industry, reveals that consumers place more emphasis on “design look” and “information design” than on “content evaluation.” This is the opposite of what those working in the industry think. Further, the study went on to reveal that “design look” received the most comments from consumers in all categories as a sign of Web credibility—46.1%, almost twice as many mentions as the next category. Visual design is every bit as important as usability, findability, and accessibility. It is perhaps even more critical in swaying the perception of today’s more Web-savvy site visitors.

Now, these financial services companies are not failing out of stupidity. Take Citi as an example. Two years ago I watched an extensive presentation on Citi’s brand execution, and they appeared to have a strong vision and the ability to manifest that vision in various marketing tactics. In fact, much of their general identity advertising on television and print is truly inspirational. Yet, despite a sound strategy and effective execution in other media, Citi remains wholly undifferentiated on the Web. Even if we concede that their home page appears slightly better than BankOne’s or Bank of America’s, if you squint your eyes you really can’t tell the difference between the pages. There is no meaningful differentiation. Without differentiation, consumers perceive commoditization. And nothing reduces income for an industry, company or individual quite so much as being perceived as a commodity.

As another example, last year I was consulting for a major software company, and we put printouts of the home page for every major player in their industry on poster boards. From only a modest distance, our team could not make out which site belonged to which company. We had to look hard at the small logos tucked predictably in the upper left corner to figure it out, despite having spent time on all the sites in the past.

What were these companies spending their Web development dollars on? Their sites had good architecture, followed standards, and generally worked well. Like so many companies over the past five years, they invested in the more analytical, scientific, quantitative elements of Web design, those that have risen to the fore through usability culture. And the trend came through loud and clear, with one boring, plain, expressionless site after the other. In industry after industry we can see the same thing. The limited degree of innovation, flair or creativity is numbing. And it is a trend that seeps into consumer companies as well as those in more traditional business spaces. Clearly, something has to change.

So... is usability culture to blame?

Any information artifact—whether a brochure, environmental signage or a Web site—reflects the approach, skills and biases of the project leader directing the process. And the largely stale and uninteresting visual and experiential nature of what is on the Web represents the power that usability culture is exerting over the design process. It is creating design rooted in quantitative analysis, driven by the insights, recommendations and experiences of people who are not trained or experienced in visual design. Certainly, these are people with essential skill sets who invaluably contribute to the design process. But they do not necessarily have the perspective or ability to direct the overall design.

Project leaders can come from any of a variety of backgrounds, including engineering, usability and information architecture; I am not advocating that Web design be led exclusively by marketers or designers. The critical factor is ensuring a balanced view and execution. Thoroughly tested usability and a well-constructed architecture are only part of the story. Business, brand, experience design, programming, hardware and network analysis—among other things—must be incorporated and given appropriate weight. This requires more than knowledge and experience. Leading a successful Web project demands a healthy respect for how these varied disciplines interrelate, and the courage and focus to push for solutions that not only meet the quantitative metrics but also strive to innovate, differentiate and delight.

Design as competitive advantage

Traditional design flies in the face of usability culture. It is largely based on:

It comes from the gut, it is rooted in heart, and it has the ability to surprise. The great designers of past generations, from Tibor to the Eameses to Paul Rand, were characterized by styles that were more about the essence of their approach than a repeatable process or look. While research, testing and thoughtful analysis were a part of their process, at the end of the day their spirit and soul were just as evident in the finished product as the analytical components. Style and feeling are the very essence of good design.

Yet so much of the Web is devoid of that soul. This is due in part to technology constraints and in part to the practical need to make the Web a friendly place for new participants. While companies are able to market themselves in innovative and effective ways in many forms of media, their Web sites are without heart. Instead of showing the creative sensibility present in their print or TV ads, their sites exude the heavy influence of a usability culture.

Design is more than just aesthetics. It is a sensibility that is often visionary and is about seeing beyond the surface. Design skills are getting mainstream attention and a current business buzzword is “innovation.” Anticipating the central importance of design as the lever for competitive advantage, Stanford University is investing in the creation of a pioneering design school. A new trend is beginning, away from the analytical bent of the researcher and toward the creative nature of the designer.

Keep the baby, toss the bathwater

The usability culture that has pervaded and defined the last few years needs to go. This is not a criticism of those skills or people. In fact, the reason the Web is healthy in so many ways today is thanks to the gains we’ve made during this time. But the pendulum has swung too far in that direction.

The only way to bring things back into balance is to wrest the focus from that extreme and create a culture that is holistic, balanced and every bit as daring and creative as it is thoughtful and analytical. Only through a balanced approach to the Web will the media enjoy its full potential. This is a trend that will happen on its own, and sweep us along with it whether we want it or not. But we have a chance to take control.

Practically speaking, that means a few things. We need to:

  1. Find new heroes. Who are the great digital designers practicing today? There are some, but they remain relatively unknown. They need to step forward, take the initiative, assert their skills and abilities, and take center stage from the researchers, analysts, and academics. And the design community needs to support these people, extolling their virtues with the same vigor we show buying the books and pushing content from our current sacred cows.
  2. Think bigger. With very little innovative work out there, we must push the boundaries of our own minds. Sure, we only have so much screen real estate and resolution to work with. Yes, we are limited by programming and hardware boundaries. We will be awkwardly zagging while most of our peers happily zig in lockstep. That’s how many of the great movements in history got started.
  3. Be courageous. The easiest thing in the world is to line up statistics and best practices and use those “objective” guides as a war hammer to bludgeon away any attempts of creativity, innovation and experiential design. These are the tools of a usability culture and, while they still have a role in the process, they cannot overshadow that vital spark of originality. Flying in the face of these “proofs” is not easy. But, at certain times and in certain ways, we absolutely must.
  4. Learn from the past. Not allowing a usability culture to rule does not mean abandoning it altogether. Good architecture is vital. Having usable pages is critical. Adhering to standards and following conventions is important to a degree. We need to pull, push, stretch and sometimes tear those boundaries, balancing the best of where we are now with the inevitability of the change we will lead next.

At the end of the day, the culture that we all inhabit will be a better one—a little more balanced, a lot more fun, and eminently more interesting and successful.

So c’mon. Stand up next to me. Light that match. Close your eyes and raise your arms in the air. Let’s enjoy this new world together.

Thanks to Frances Karandy for her assistance with this article.

Got something to say?

Share your comments  with other professionals (62 comments)

Related Topics: Usability, Web Design, Interaction Design


Dirk Knemeyer is a Founding Principal of Involution Studios LLC, a digital innovation firm located in Silicon Valley and Boston. Dirk is responsible for managing the business and for providing design strategy, brand innovation, and training services to organizations around the world. Dirk is on the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) headquartered in Vienna, Austria, as well as the Board of Directors for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience, based in New York City. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the User Experience Network (UXnet). He has published more than 100 articles—many on the topic of design strategy—and regularly gives presentations all around the world.

Media Temple

via Ad Packs