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The End of Usability Culture : Comments

By Dirk Knemeyer

November 10, 2004


Edwin van de Bospoort

November 11, 2004 12:08 AM

I agree with you Dirk. Although I don’t find in Europe that the usability guys really have most control in digital projects. Most are still lead by businessconsultants or engineers. With a backround in Industrial design engineering I’ve been raised with the understanding that good design consists of 4 integral parts. Ergonomics, marketing, aesthetics and engineering. Leave out one, and it is suboptimal.

Jonathan Baldwin

November 11, 2004 12:12 AM

So we’re all turning into decorators, is that it?

This article is more a pitch for cool design than for usability. The study quoted is one out of many others that show that long term usability is what keeps a site at the top of people’s ‘must visit’ sites.
The financial institution pages look similar because that’s what financial institution web sites look like, in the same way that vodka bottles are expected to look ‘russian’, newspapers look like newspapers, cereal boxes look like cereal boxes – it’s a common visual language. If thousands of writers manage to be ‘crative’ without creating their own words and language, why do we designers seem to think we can’t be creative if we do the same?
Make a financial web site look ‘creative’ and people won’t trust it.

What’s the point in having a ‘creative’ web site if people can’t use it?

You’ll be sugesting ATMs should make you sit through a five minute Flash presentation before offering you a ‘creative’ way of getting your money out next. Design is like an iceberg, only 10% of it is visual.

As for design being about natural creativity and intuition – rubbish. I have taught design and written and researched on design education and I can tell you that ‘mystifying’ design in this way only serves to create a gulf betwen the people who see themselves more as artists and less as solvers of communication problems. It also stifles creativity as students are made to believe they haven’t ‘got it’ and encouraged to stare into the distance for weeks until their soul connects with their (insert whatever stupid arty farty phrase the tutor comes up with to avoid having to actually teach).

Design is an objective practice, and creativity is learned, not just ‘there’.

Big John

November 11, 2004 12:38 AM

Dirk is saying what I have been thinking for a while. He’s right that this change will happen, like it or not. Given proper usability, pleasing design will sweep all before it.

I just wish Explorer would go ahead and die, so that the real power of CSS styling could be exploited to the full! The design potiential available in advanced CSS is a waiting time bomb, held back only by the fact that the web is currently so IE-centric. We can’t use the full versatility available only because of that fact, but take it from me, once freed of those shackles the designers will go nuts with all the goodies modern CSS has to offer.

Some experimental sites do this already, and those techniques are something to see. Go Firefox!


November 11, 2004 1:07 AM

The final point you make, that web sites must be usable and accessible, is an essential part of the foundations for this article. I agree that some sites have not exploited the possibilities of creative design enough leaving them bland and indistinctive. There is an argument for a more visual exciting world that engages people more.

However, considering that there are still a huge swath of people not accustomed to using the web for more than checking the news and hotmail, creative impulses of designers still need to be restrained. This is due to the limitations imposed on it by weak browsers and the lack of technical nouse that many people suffer from. Amiddle way would be good and so I agree with the main points of this article, although err a little on caution.

Make a financial web site look ‘creative’ and people won’t trust it.

Finally, I just want to give my reaction to the above comment. This point seems to be based on a negatively biased subjective interpretation of the word creative. Creativity opens many doors (as well as closing some) and at the point where industry professionals understand the need for sound functionality of web sites they also realise that being distinctive makes people want to use their site. Creativity does not equal chaotic navigation schemes or guess-the-link pages. It means applying outside creative thought processes within the box of web standards.

Georgi Varzonovtsev

November 11, 2004 1:18 AM

In my opinion, the author is just saying that now is the moment in which the next iteration of the progres in web design is beginning to happen. We’ve been at a similar position five years ago, when visual designers “ruled” the scene and the voice of usability guys was barely heard.

I think that the web needs this reinvigoration of the visual design because good visual design really creates competitive advantage (good – standing out and adequate). Usability is much more about standardtization, i.e. being part of the majority, not standing out.

So now we need to restore the equilibrium between visual design and usability.


November 11, 2004 1:56 AM

I think this is perpetual topic ;)

I agree with Edwin van de Bospoort. Equal importance should be given to usability, accessibility, searchability, copy, technical and aesthetical aspects of website. Only then website is a complete product. But it is difficult to achieve.

Regarding originality of the website. In my opinion originality should be characteristic of the certain brand or visual identity of the company in the first place. Then it can be adopted accordingly in website design. In other words—build exceptional brand identity first and only then exceptional website. It is more difficult to call designer a

Matt Goddard

November 11, 2004 2:04 AM

I can understand your argument, but how can the “usability culture” end when it still hasn’t successfully penetrated main stream thinking?

Bland design is what you should be arguing against not usability.

Small Paul

November 11, 2004 2:08 AM

Regarding users possibly not trusting a financial website with an innovative look, I’m not sure I entirely agree – I think the quality of the design might sway some people to make up for any it put off. But there is one implication of the article I’d like to take issue with:

“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

Ben Ellis

November 11, 2004 2:20 AM

I also find myself tending to agree with Edwin van de Bospoort. Design should be considered a whole, more than just a sum of the parts, and for me this means balancing usability, accessibility, standards and aesthetics with the needs of the audience and client.

They are so inter-related that when one is deemed more important and put on a pedestal by the current

Gerard van Os

November 11, 2004 2:33 AM

I’ve not come accross the black-and-white way of working and thinking that Dirk describes his article. Having said that, this may also be one cause for usability having such a low profile in most of Europe.

Anyway, in the projects that I’ve done here in the Netherlands usability was never “in charge” or the main responsible of product design. The direction that we took was to optimize usability within a given design/marketing/technology framework. We basically think of usability with all its techniques to find what people/users/visitore think or like best as a tool in ones toolbox that helps creating good and usable products. Working and thinking like this has made it possible to create and succesfully market innovative products (physical, software or web based) and yet still think about and help the ones who have to use it day after day.

This is also the way that I teach it to Industrial Design students: (design for) usability is another tool in your toolbox, next to drawing and creative skills, that one can use to give direction to usable innovative and appealing products developed by creative product designers, technological wizkids and marketing hotshots.

It’s all about balance, I think.

Diego Prado

November 11, 2004 3:37 AM

For some time I have been thinking about this patronization of webdesign caused by the application of usability “rules” upon them. And I agree that this causes some loss of creative design, specially in large corporative sites (that are the ones who really invest in usability).
The problem I see in seeking a balance between usability and creative design, is that usability itself is based in patronization… The fact that a site element works better in a certain area of the screen (such as the main menu works better in left side, the logo in the upper-left corner, etc…) is because it has been placed in those spot in the great majority of the sites on the web, and people got used to find those elements there.
If we can’t break this chains usability places upon design, it’s almost impossible for a designer to innovate. Sites end up all similar one to the other.
But I also think there’s no need to be always like this. Some sites demand a large application of usability upon them. As financial sites do… Their business sites, and when dealing with money, usability makes a large difference in helping the user-computer relationship, lessening the chances of a user to get lost and ending up not buying, investing, or whatever… But there are sites, where usability can be more flexible, and design more creative. The institutional site of a company, can be more flexible, can innovate, can experiment new paradigms of design.
Given time, we’ll find the proper balance in each type of site. Until this happen, designers must experiment for themselves, instead of waiting for large companies to allow them to experiment with their sites. If this don’t happen, the web won’t evolve, and this padronization of websites will go on.

Steven Urmston

November 11, 2004 4:11 AM

Kieth Robinson made a great analogy, “we seem to be building quite a few functional log cabins, and a whole bunch of pretty dollhouses that no-one can live in.” It is obviously about balance, and in certain sectors design and creativity have taken a back seat role in favour of usability. This is an area that needs to be addressed for the sake of the web.

The web is still young, and change for the better should be welcomed. The placing of a logo in the top-left is not because it is inherently better that way, it’s just become an established rule within a very short period of time. Web Designers should not be afraid to change this, if it results in better websites.

However, usability will continue to be a focus for most commercial sites, where their market is varied (older!). Innovative, creative sites are not going to secure my Mum’s business, as although she spends a healthy amount online, still struggles to get to grasp with any website that breaks the established design she has become accustomed to. Once we are providing for a market that has grown up with the web, there will be much more room for innovation, and personally, I can


November 11, 2004 4:31 AM

As has slipped out a few times here, even in the article itself, it’s all about balance. I operate on a small-to-medium scale as a freelance designer and developer, so a holistic approach to the web just seems natural and obvious to me. I guess on larger scales you get a greater division of labour, more specialisation, and hence the tiresome froth of ego-wars between the various disciplines.

I guess there may be an evolutionary usefulness in this, but just on a personal level, reading this piece (and the same goes for its equivalent 5 years ago from someone trumpeting “the end of design frivolity”) just makes me want to round up the “usability gurus” and “design experts”, put them on an island and let the have at each other ;-)

Ivan Linderman

November 11, 2004 6:07 AM

As a user, I want “plain vanilla” websites. I want to obtain information as if I were blind. I want functions to always be in the same places. (Imagine telephone keypads with the numbers sometimes arranged vertically rather than horizontally.) I am satisfied enough in obtaining information, or accomplishing tasks, without embellishment. Frankly, I’d like to walk into a department store and not experience visual cacophany. I certainly don’t need this on the web. Designers can never know what I (or any other user) want.

I am happy – pleased; liberated even – that I can control how information is presented to me; that I can change fonts, colors, and the like. Let me determine the design. Don’t make decisions for me.

It is characteristic of our age that we are Baroque; Rococo even. We are afraid to tolerate silence – even visual silence – persisting in endless embellishment; forcing presentation to overcome content.

On the other hand, if you have the time to lounge about, sure: Design away.


November 11, 2004 8:06 AM

Eh, I beg to differ. In the immediate future, I think visual design (how something looks) will become less important than usability. We’re moving beyond the desktop when it comes to Internet use. So how something looks will become less imporant than how it works.

As for the web credibility study: That’s not necessarily an endorsement for edgy design. I think that was more about sites like this.

Rya Nichols

November 11, 2004 8:55 AM

To the comment above, there is something your forgetting. An earlier comment pointed out about design, and that it is sensible and is about communication. What your forgetting is that your conscience PREFERENCE for your font, color, size, whatever, might be pissing off your unconscience mind at parsing information. Your brain works in the same general way the rest of us westerners do, you parse information using spatial associations and visual heirachy. In short you might be picking out preferences that make it harder for you to read, but you won’t even be aware of it.

I think a lot of people forget this about design, it is not AGAINST usability, it is it’s marriage partner. You can’t design something that’s completely unusable, but is good design. What your talking about there is good ART. That is completely different. Design must communicate a message, and if it is successful, then the page is now usable. In things like interaction, then the message is..‘hey here is the navigation, or hey, here is where you type.’ So the concept still applies.

Differentiation simply means a good designer knows how to break human ineraction conventions, but is skilled such that they can still show the user ‘Hey here is the navigation’ and thus it is still perfectly useable. If they break usable conventions and do not communicate the message well, then didn’t they just fail at design too? If they succeed and the navigation and content are quickly understood and parsed…didn’t they just suceed at usability?

Joshua Porter

November 11, 2004 10:10 AM

As a usability guy who designs a lot of web sites, I have a couple questions about this article.

My first question is this: Dirk, did you choose your current bank based on the “creativity, visual differentiation, and sense of active design” of their web site?

I didn’t think so. You probably chose it because it was nearby, had good interest rates, your parents used it, they offer online bill pay, or something else that has very little to do with the look of their web site. My assumption may be way off base, but I have a hard time believing that this is a critical issue in choosing a bank. Your critique, though interesting, really doesn’t convince me that these banks need home page help…yet.

I have another question about credibility: do you think that amazon or ebay’s customers judge any new book-selling or auction site as more credible than the one they currently use, based simply on their initial impressions of it (visual design)? It certainly seems to make sense that, given nothing but visual design upon which to make a judgment of credibility, that visual design would win out! This makes sense for initial impressions, but I think it would be helpful to observe more real behavior (like people actually choosing banks to use in real life-with real money) before we generalize these findings to say what you’re saying. Meaningful credibility is not an instantaneous judgment, it’s based on behavior over time.

I agree with your idea that design can be a competitive advantage, but I don’t believe that your examples back it up.

I agree with your assessment that usability is mainstream, though I don’t think that most people view it that way. It’s practiced by every single person who builds a web site and makes some judgment about how well people can use it. The most common example is either by counting page hits or the number of comments: to give credit to these things is to do usability! But I don’t dare make that assertion often, because usability seems to be such an ugly word to some people.

Finally, I completely agree with the last four things that we need to do. We should always try to find new heroes, think bigger, be courageous, and learn from the past.


November 11, 2004 10:56 AM

Rya(n?) hits the nail on the head. Design and usability are the same thing! When the author of the article states that web design is too much about quantifiable results and not enough about inspiration, let me just point out that businesses are all about the bottom line. If you can’t quantify that spending an extra 100k on making a revolutionary design will increase the bottom line then there is no point.

Folks, web design is not advertising! There is a reason for the level of creativity in advertising; ads are ‘used’ simply by viewing them, and the function is to impress. People by and large do not go to websites to be impressed. And frankly, I don’t choose a bank based on how ‘cool’ they appear to be… a car maybe, a bank never.

If you want to visually differentiate a site, you can do so, but be aware that it’s going to cost more to make it as usable because you’re abandoning things that are known to work in favor of something newer, better and UNTESTED. Sometimes this is what you need (car websites for example, or see the excellent shimano xtr website), but businesses are all about the bottom line, so unless you can show that a visually stunning website will net more customers than a usable one, there’s no reason to spend the extra money.

Usability has become a force in web design because web design has a lot of problems to solve. Many more problems, in fact, than any other medium in the history of the world. Because websites convey text, pictures, audio and video across a dizzying array of platforms with different physical characteristics, and ties this with the ability to perform tasks such as banking, ticket purchases, etc, making sure that a website can be used is no simple matter. In advertising, the interface is simple, the user looks and reads. In web design you must anticipate how the site will appear the user, what they plan to do, where they will navigate, and for what reasons, etc.

The author sounds bitter that web design has become less creative, but let me be the first to say that customers (almost as annoying as users, eh?) are different from us because the majority couldn’t care less about ‘web design’ or ‘usability’ or ‘creativity’. The web has exploded in popularity because you can do things on it. The Stanford credibility study just says that people judge credibility based on visual design, not the creativity of visual design. I’d be willing to bet that people trust an elegant corporate vanilla site like those bank websites over something they’ve never seen before no matter how ‘well-designed’ (whatever you take that to mean) it is.

If you want to push the envelope and get creative, then do that on your personal site, or convince your clients to shell out the cash to do it, but don’t tell us that this is what the web ‘needs’. People are as creative as they ever were, if you don’t think so go read the News on K10K for cryin’ out loud.

I tend to place this article in the category of grandiose ideas from people who want to be revolutionaries. The field of web design does not shift based on big abstract ideas. It is created by a sea of designers, programmers, engineers, managers, and other individuals all trying to meet their individual needs. Really good ideas spread quickly, but still can only be a small part of the overall paradigm. If you wanna change the Web make a really kickass design that makes people see the light, don’t preach to everyone about what they need to do.

Personally I think Jakob Nielsen spouts too many simple rules and blindly states conventional thinking as fact, but I have to give him credit for at least addressing concrete issues instead of just talking abstractly about the entire field of web design as if that were something under our control.

Chris Moritz

November 11, 2004 11:16 AM

I think Tiffany might have a point.

Isn’t it more likely that the lesson to be taken from the Stanford credibility study is that user will have a negative impression of poorly designed sites, not necessarily plainly designed sites?

Of course usability is a part of design. However, I’m a little skeptical of the idea that the usability/standards crowd are ‘running the show.’ If we’re to take the current level of usability thinking, combined with web standards coding techniques, and use that as a new minimum to expand upon design-wise, I’m all for it.

However, I think it’s more likley that the people who’ve felt marginalized by the increased importance of quantifiable results will twist the sentiment expressed here into a dismissive shield if they get the upper hand again.

“Bah, you usability guys have too much power. Let’s go back to the good old Kioken days, with ultra-mega-mega animation and 6px type (yes, I’m looking at you Shimano)!”

I’m not a fan of the fact that there’s still an adversarial relationship between usability folks, standards-aware coders, and graphic designers, but there is. I’m loathe to see the progress made on demostrable value, explicit utility, and actual task-completion drowned out in a power-play by the super k00l Flash designer crowd.

Mark Burgess

November 11, 2004 11:43 AM

When I look at the three banking home pages I do see differences — the content. Admittedly, the differences are small, and not especially easy to discover, but they institutions do have different accounts, interest rates, branch locations, etc. etc. So what if the designs are similar? As a potential customer I dig around looking for the services I’m interested in, and if I don’t find them (whether because the services aren’t there, or because I can’t locate them) I move along to the next candidate.

It’s like a book. If I remove the covers, all novels are pretty much indistinguishable — until I start reading the words. Does that mean the cover design is an important differentiator? Not really. What’s important is the name of the author and the title of the book.

Similarly, evaluating a Web site without paying attention to the content, the interaction, the name of the company, etc. is an academic exercise that has little relation to the real world, where these things are intertwined in all sorts of messy ways.

Our user/customer/reader is not covering the logo with her thumb and blurring her eyes when she looks at the site, so why should we?

Matthew Smith

November 11, 2004 12:06 PM

I gotta disagree with this article for two reasons:

1) Google, Amazon and Ebay – some of the ugliest sites on the net – are among the most popular. The study you mention weighs perceived “credibility”, but doesn’t go far in linking that to actual buying or surfing habits. The important question is: are people using your site effectively and are they buying what you’re selling?

2) Information Architecture and Usability aren’t things customers SHOULD ever consider – because they don’t understand what they are. Of course they’re going to give the most weight to the site’s appearance, because really, that’s all the average user understands. Good usability is invisible and should remain that way. Asking the average consumer what’s important in website design is a lot like asking the average moviegoer what the best camera lens is. They don’t need to understand its importance to enjoy the results.

Yes, sites are starting to look dry and boring – but the only people who seem to be really worried about it are designers. The rest of us just want to do our online banking or order books or download recipes in the quickest, easiest way possible.

Chris Moritz

November 11, 2004 12:11 PM

Take a look at the Test: How Strong Is Your Brand? portion of this article A Direct Marketer Looks at Branding

Is this what we should be focusing on? Not a re-alignment of priorities or a subdueing of concerns of usability, but an additional requirement? Should web sites have strong enough branding that you could hide the logo and the address bar and still know where you’re at?

Josh Williams

November 11, 2004 1:05 PM

Wow, I know this was a touchy subject, but I didn’t expect as much naysaying in the comments as I’ve just read. First of all, I have to totally agree with Dirk here… I think it’s important to note that usability is essential. However, as one commenter above said best, good design embraces usability by default, it does not put usability on its own plane.

Beauty and order can, and should, coexist perfectly. We do this with everyday items. Why can’t this be done more effectively on the web?

Sadly, America is not as up to speed on this concept as Europe is, but that doesn’t negate it. The Volkswagon Beetle or MINI Cooper are excellent examples… hop inside and you’ll find intuitive dash controls, menus, gauges, window switches, etc. But you’d be a fool to say either car is “plain vanilla.” People buy both of those cars for one primary reason, and that is good design. The design of both cars is also inherently usable.

On the flipside, step into a Hummer H2. The H2 is a killer SUV. The Bling Factor is high. But the usability of the knobs, gauges, and menus pales in comparison to that of a Volkswagon, BMW, or Volvo.

Design is beauty and order. And you can even break both effectively if you know what you’re doing. Either way though, you’re left with a world that is most decidedly not vanilla.

Garrick Van Buren

November 11, 2004 2:09 PM

This article’s premise that financial services companies have similar looking websites because of Mr. Nielsen is baseless. Direct competitors in all industries have similar looking websites because the are in the same industry and have a similar culture. This culture drives the website – including visual presentation.

As other commentors have stated, the author of this article is promoting visual design for the sake of visual design. The best, most effective design keeps in mind the holisitic system, including development and maintenance. This is designing for the usability of all the audiences – from the customer back to the production team.

Monica A Fry

November 11, 2004 2:41 PM

As a usability analyst employed at a bank, I’d be interested to see your version of a redesign of a financial institution’s site that is more cutting edge and pushes the boundries a bit. Feel free to take a shot at

Another item that struck me in your article was the number of people that will comment on the visual aspects of a look/brand. This comes as no surprise b/c the average end user doesn’t have the vocabulary or the eye to notice the nuances of usable design. Someone who can easily recognize slick photography and cool logos may struggle to articulate their overwheling feelings as a result of the 7 + or – 2 principle being violated. I think by nature, we comment on that which we feel confident about discussing. I’m not convinced that the trend you note is 100% valid.

Rok Sesek

November 11, 2004 3:15 PM

This discussion looks like a fight about who’s more important and who should therefore be in charge (be the boss) of the web sites’ production – web designers or usability experts. In general neither of the the two! As said before by the others, the two sides should work together as equals.

What amazes me is that none have pointed out that there are many different types of web projects and sites and that the first questions should always be about the purpose (why you do something or why something exists) and the objective (what are you trying to achieve) of the site and the project. Only after you get these answers you can argue about the importance of design and usability at the particular project.

So who’s the boss? The project manager is – because he’s setting the course…


November 11, 2004 4:41 PM

How this became a usability vs. design discussion I’ll never understand. It’s not about one or the other, or at least I didn’t read that. It’s about as Josh aptly puts it “good design embracing usability by default.”

There is a sweet spot somewhere in a Web design and it’s somewhere in the middle of IA/Usability/Design/Brand/Content/etc. When you put these things at odds with each other, or get into an “either/or” mindset you won’t see the full potential of your work.

Don’t create battles that aren’t there—let your clients do that part. ;)

Ted Rheingold

November 11, 2004 9:30 PM

The UPS team, whoever they are, have done a good job of making a business site engaging and stylized. It’s not much, but compared to other ‘function-first’ sites it’s got surprising flair while being completely usable and intuitive

Dogster and Catster, while not business sites, are examples of highly usable sites with engaging memorable designs.

Gary Cooley

November 12, 2004 10:07 AM

Drik makes some excellent arguements. However, I agree with Jonathan Baldwin. I have produced Web sites for the last 10 years, make 100% of my income that way. I’ve done my own studies on my sites, and those of my customers. And since we have sites producing millions in direct sales for our customers, I can say with confidence that for us, and our customers, usability and Jakob continue to rule. However, we will always be glad to read what people like Dirk have to say, and we will do our best to keep an open mind. When the evidence sways more toward “cool”, that is what we’ll do. Thanks for a well argued position Dirk.

Michael Almond

November 12, 2004 10:52 AM

I enjoyed your article and think it is a refreshing and challenge topic. I also agree with many of your points-but not all of them.

I disagree with the statements:

“Style and feeling are the very essence of good design.”

Art, not design, is about feeling and expressing ones inner life; It is essentially storytelling. Design is in a way, is the opposite. Storytelling in reverse; communicate ideas in an orderly manner. Sure, design has style, beauty, and can communicate more than meets the eye. However it is not about the artist’s personal story.

In effect, design is transparent. (That’s what I learned way back when)

“Yet so much of the Web is devoid of that soul.”

If you spend your time mostly on banking sites you have a point, but I have been moved to tears by various articles, posts and connections of ideas discovered. I guess it depends on which road you take on that highway. I found many roads and paths that lead to very personal storytelling. Art indeed, I should say.

While you have many inspiring and positive ideas, you might be missing a “bigger picture” as well.

You state “A new trend is beginning, away from the analytical bent of the researcher and toward the creative nature of the designer.”

This is followed by a call for collaboration. You state both ideas even though they are conflicting through out the article.

It is fun to tease Jakob (hell, I did in an article) but why is it that in discussions of “what the Web is about” do many feel the need to obliterate others particular vocations in order to feel they are needed, as if there isn’t room at the table for all of us.

I suspect that the article has generated such passionate responses (and so many) because this seems to where we are right now in our internal discussions.

We are actually behind in many ways, try to catch up with those who have found many roads on the highway that lead to wonderful places.

Thank you so much.


November 12, 2004 11:08 AM

Again, I see the point being missed in this. Gary, you mentioned “cool” — that’s your addition. I didn’t get “cool” out of this at all. I got the idea to use strategic design (which would be user-centered) to create a competitive advantage.

Usability + Creative Design.

What Dirk is concerned with is the absence of either. A few things to think about:

— Have you ever had a stakeholder pull a “Jakob Nielsen says?” without understanding the true issues. I have.

— Have you read about or seen a Web site judged solely on it’s perceived usability? Not taking into account business goals? I have, many times.

— Have you noticed that in certain circles you get more recognition for a Valid (Web standards-wise) site than for one that is actually showing ROI? Yep, that too.

— Have you ever tried to prove the value of usability without taking into account visual (creative) design, etc and found it hard to sell?

I could go on. This is what I think is meant by “Usability Culture”. The idea that somehow “design” is against usability is silly. On the web they are part of something bigger.

Sure, I’ve seen the opposite of this more often, but that doesn’t make it any less true, and I’d argue against that as well. It’s about balance.

Each project is different, each site holds different goals and a different audience. They should be treated as such. Unfortunately rules, guidelines and standards consipre against this at times. When this is the case creative and strategic design needs to take over.

I guess I see Web design as a bit more of an art than a science. There is room for creative usability/IA/what-have-you in my mind and it’s there that the big ideas live.

I’m rambling…sorry.

news junie

November 12, 2004 2:18 PM

I agree, and I wish everyone would move to Flash.


November 12, 2004 3:10 PM

Whatever the well known people/companies on the web will do everybody else will follow. That’s the way it has been and that’s the way it will be. In the end, the average client doesn’t really care if his site is valid or not, as long as it looks good to him. It is the designers job to make the sites as usable/valid and as pleasing without sacrificing either.

As long as can still get my daily does of pron I’m good, lol.

Tim Lucas

November 12, 2004 4:00 PM

Just want to point out an Australian banking firm that is doing things a little differently: BankWest.

Their current campaign “Join the Rebellion” has some great marketing and a website to match:

Too bad their main website doesn’t have such a fresh approach:


November 12, 2004 8:12 PM

It really isn’t as complicated as we all seem to make it out to be. There are some folks who are drawn to visual and there are some who could give a rip. Most people are drawn to what makes them feel good though, even if they can’t explain why. A beautifully designed site makes you feel good even if you aren’t sure why. If life was all about usability we would all be driving around the same colored cars and wearing navy blue suits. Design is very important in every area of life but it seems we designers are the only ones that know why.

mark rush

November 13, 2004 3:46 AM

i agree, im always being called by the two extremes represented here, Ad agencies who want some glorious flash filled wierd intarfaces design and the hardcore alt.html ‘ers who believe that graphical text is outlawed (as well as a mass of other petty issues) – im designing sites like and using xhtml in a different way, to work with a complex design, instead of chipping away at it.


November 13, 2004 2:25 PM

Dirk, I wrote a little piece taking up where this article begins. My trackbacks aren’t working, so I thought I would put the link directly here.

One point that I forgot to put in the article is that so much of the perception here is about where you are in the UX chain: innie/outtie; east/west; US/nonUS; media/technology/other; etc./etc.


November 13, 2004 5:50 PM

It feels good to let go of usability and standards. Not abandon… just let go. Kinda like skating for the first time. You reach out and hold on to the railing around the rink for dear life. Then slowly, you start to get a “feeling” for why you are holding on. Balance. Little by little you let go of the railing until you are skating freely. You never forget about the importance of balance… you just don’t latch onto it the way you initially did. It’s intuitive now. You don’t really need to think about balance because you’ve developed muscle memory. It’s second nature. In time you start doing little figure eights. Next thing you know you

Andrei Herasimchuk

November 13, 2004 5:51 PM

“This discussion looks like a fight about who’s more important and who should therefore be in charge (be the boss) of the web sites’ production – web designers or usability experts. In general neither of the the two! As said before by the others, the two sides should work together as equals.”

Indeed, it is a fight to some degree because someone has to be charge. In business, someone needs to lead and drive the vision. And product design by committe fails

While it is true that good design is inherently usable, it is also true that the the task is called “design” which is done by a “designer.”

If usability folk want to be designers, then I’m all for them taking that title to heart and putting their money where their mouth is to lead design projects. Until that time, it should be up to designers to make the final calls on design decisions, with feedback and data from usability. Having usability drive design decisions is simply the wrong way to design products.

Designers should lead design projects, because that’s what designers do. If the end result is a poorly designed product, that just means the designer was not good enough, not that the design process should somehow require usability to drive design decisions or hold equal weight in the process of product design.

Sara White

November 13, 2004 11:19 PM

While I agree that the visual design of many sites has stagnated and could benefit from some creativity, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of usability. The fact is that there are an astonishingly high number of sites on the web that are far too difficult to use, plain and simple. Before web designers can start focusing on creativity, they need to make sure that their sites meet the requirements and goals of the target audience. After all, the average web user isn’t going to care about the creative colour scheme or incredibly innovative layout of a site if he or she can’t figure out how to use it.

So I think that in this case, creativity and innovation have to apply to more than just visual design – they have to encompass the entire user experience, making it easier to use at the same time as its aesthetics are enhanced. Usability, information architecture, programming – all the areas of web design need to be brought closer together in order to achieve this.


November 14, 2004 7:44 AM

He is not suggesting anyone give up or abandon usability and standards

All he is saying is that our medium is young, we’ve learned allot so far and now it’s time to move to the next level… of course that would include bringing with us everything we’ve learned along the way. Especially usability and standards.

This is not about whether design or usability are more important it


November 14, 2004 5:50 PM


Thanks for the very thoughtul comments and strong conversation on this article. I’ve been offline since Thursday morning and was overwhelmed to return Sunday and find so many interesting perspectives.

Rather than try to get through all of these individual comments – and thanks to the generosity of the great staff at Digital Web – it looks like we are going to do a follow-up article that addresses a lot of the insight here and fleshes out the basic thesis in more detail. I look forward to continuing the conversation after that.


Peter J. Bogaards

November 15, 2004 2:29 AM

A quote from the article: “The origins of the Web lie in disciplines like computer science, academic research and human-computer interaction.” I think you missed an essential one: the concept of mind empowerment as stated by Engelbart et al. in general and the discipline of electronic (technical) documentation in particular. Like the hypertext/hypermedia community, the TechDoc community has been completely taken by surprise by the proliferation of the Web. The powers of business, marketing communication and artistically/aesthetically oriented visual design have pushed them completely aside. And they still have not recovered from it.

In general, I agree with the Leitmotiv of the article. Providing more balance in the Design of information artifacts. On the other hand, as long as the overall majority of these artifacts are still unusable, there remains a need to emphasize the analytical aspects of these artifacts.

Great article, though!

James Melzer

November 15, 2004 7:55 AM

Standing outside three different well-designed urban bank buildings, can anyone distinguish them on the strength of their visual design? Of course not. Banks all look the same – they look like banks. They all must convey permanence and strength, so the options of materials, style, and massing are pretty darn limited. Why does the author expect that comparing and contrasting bank’s websites should be any different? Since the brand message being conveyed is nearly identical (strength, permanence, trustworthiness), is it any surprise that brand distinction is basically irrelavant? And frankly, if there is any single industry that ought to be dominated by the business tasks of its customers, it is banking.

Frank Manno

November 15, 2004 10:14 AM


I found this article truly inspiring… It definitely makes one think about the often overshadowed aesthetics of web development.

Thanks for shifting the light!

Jim Hoekema

November 15, 2004 11:22 AM

Nice of you to mention the office of Charles and Ray Eames, where I worked in the closing years.
My two cents: Of course usability design is part (and a major part) of overall design in any interactive medium. But by “usability” people often mean “usability testing” — and testing is not design. Testing reveals problems, but simply reversing the conditions of the problem is seldom the best solution. (I think even Jakob has acknowledged that point, though it often seems hidden.)

Nick Finck

November 15, 2004 1:27 PM

James Melzer: Standing outside three different well-designed urban bank buildings, can anyone distinguish them on the strength of their visual design? Of course not.
I disagree here, James. Have you ever stood outside of an Umpqua Bank? There is a point here. Design and the user experience can go a long ways to making your product, service, or site stand out from the rest.

John B

November 15, 2004 4:06 PM

I love this article, partially for the content which I agree with, but moreso because you’ve managed to upset both sides in one of the biggest ongoing pissing matches in all of Web site/application design/development. Bravo!

Regnard Kreisler Raquedan

November 15, 2004 6:30 PM

I’m really wondering if such a usability mindset was ever adopted by a great majority of all web designers. New web designers I know usually rely on their creativity because it’s the one “already there.” Standards adherence and usabililty follow next.

In my opinion, people who surf the web expect something from a website and it is on the level of usability that addresses these expectations. The design is what differentiates it. It’s like you knowing a house has doors and windows, but you know each house is made unique by its design.


November 16, 2004 8:52 AM

Nick Finck: Design and the user experience can go a long ways to making your product, service, or site stand out from the rest.

Exactly. Keith posted an article on the Kano Analysis and Customer Needs. The upshot of the article, imho, is that customers rate their product/service experience on a number of different levels including overall presentation.

Personal observation

This morning I had to go out and buy winter tires and rims for our new auto. I took a drive through the area in our city that has all the auto dealers and service centers. I stopped in at a couple of places and without even thinking about it I decided to go with a little shop that not only offered a good price but had a nice store front, friendly staff, an attractive waiting room and a free cup of coffee. Looking back on it, the places that offered a good price but only had a so-so store front and a some what tidy waiting area didn’t even register with me. In the end, I went for the overall experience.

Chris Jensen

November 16, 2004 9:44 AM

I love to read the comments posted in response to any article that dares to weigh the values of design and usability. Few topics can stir the hornet’s nest to such a degree and still leave much of the audience clueless, defensive, and blinded by their conviction that they’ve got it all figured out.

In a way, Dirk’s article this reminds me of that ‘Sack Full of Hammers’ bit that appeared on “another network”. His point seems to be a natural derivative of the hammer article mantra: “hey, don’t forget about the content”. Folks, am I paraphrasing too much to summarize

Marilyn Langfeld

November 16, 2004 7:02 PM

Finally, a push for design in addition to usability. Of course they go together, because excellent design is not decoration. It adds dimension to content, it doesn’t obscure it.

Re Chris Jensen’s comment above: When you say that, “homogeneity among bank sites, or any other industry sites, is most often a product of repeating what is known to work,” it makes me think about categories of websites. My feeling is that there are many categories of sites, and that similarities within a category are to be expected. Why shouldn’t bank sites work similarly, present similar choices, etc.

I think a missing piece of the puzzle is that usability guidelines have focused on ecommerce sites. And then have generalized from that specific type of site. Rather than adding a long comment here, I’ve just written about this in more detail on my blog, which can be found inside my website. I don’t have a trackback function, but have linked to this article. Thanks for stimulating so much thought on the topic.

Ben Hunt

November 17, 2004 12:27 AM

I agree with Dirk on many aspects. We definitely need a balance, but I disagree that usability is a separate discipline from design, and I also don’t think that the design industry needs to be freed from the grip of usability experts, as Dirk suggests.

Usability has two meanings:
1) Usability testing (/engineering), where you produce metrics about a product’s ease of use by testing it on real people.
2) Inherent ease-of-use.

Ease-of-use is a key factor in the success of design. Design is an exercise in problem-solving in communication. If it don’t work, it don’t work, design fails. So ease-of-use can’t be distinguished from design.

Usability testing should be separated from the design discipline, and integrated into the design process as a discrete exercise. It lets us test our ideas and find the optimum mechanisms/ideas to succeed best.

However, as Andrei and others have said, the usability discipline shouldn’t drive the design process. It can’t anyway, because it can only test what already exists! It’s not creative, it’s reactive by definition.

So, the idea that usability gurus have held sway in the web design field for too long is ludicrous. All Nielsen and others have succeeded in doing is to keep ease-of-use at the table long enough for it to get a permanent seat in designers’ consciousness, which has been a great achievement that justifies some of the blunt commando tactics employed.

I’ve published
an article in response to this.
The Sphere of Design is an attempt to illustrate the natural tension between functional richness and visual richness in design products. It also argues that the either/or argument should now be put to rest.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

November 17, 2004 2:57 AM

So, design is dead, long live usability. Usability is dead, long live design. Usability and design equally important, long live innovation.

It’s easy to write long texts on how everyone else isn’t paying enough attention, how everyone are in a box, how more attention should be paid to detail X, or detail Y, or how innovation is lacking. But then, once you finished writing your article, take a screenshot of your own web site.

Now look at it from a distance.

Where is all that innovation you are talking about? Lots of links, small logo tucked away on the top-left corner of the screen, hell, most open source content management systems come with a similar design out of the box.

Do something genuinely innovative; then tell the world about it. Until then – it’s just a rant.

Mag Newz

November 17, 2004 1:53 PM

I just want to thank Dirk for taking the time to write this article, thus causing all who read it to THINK about this specific topic. It’s really all about “Action / Reaction.”

My reaction was to respond with this post and hopefully get others to think about what reactions they may be causing with their own actions.

Remember the butterfly effect!


November 18, 2004 3:19 AM

An interesting article.


Look at the screens of most major operating systems from a distance. Can you tell the difference? They all have the same icons with little inscriptions below, some picture on the screen and a panel at the bottom (usually) with a small button in the lower left corner. The windows also look similar, you cannot really tell the difference without using a microscope.

Does this mean the end of usability culture in the market of OS? I highly doubt it. I would rather suggest that all systems look similar because they perform the same function and try to do is as best as possible. Similar functionality results in similar looks.

Nick Finck

November 19, 2004 9:48 AM

Not to kill this thread, but before adding your comment you may want to check out the follow-up article The End of Usability Culture, redux. It may answer a lot of questions you have about this article.


November 29, 2004 6:58 PM

I read the follow up article. “The tide has shifted, and our masters

Marcus Haas

December 6, 2004 12:24 AM

This is a great article and just what I wanted to read for a long time. You can have both of both worlds Design and Usability.
I will have a look at the folloup now ;-)


December 21, 2004 10:52 AM

Very interesting comments. The design and content of any site should absolutely fit the needs of the visitor and be usable. The look of the site should set the tone for the visit. Just as you wouldn’t want cheerful graphics and splashy colors on a site that sells caskets, you need a business-like site for a bank. Users will return to sites that meet both criteria.

Lin Lay Geng

May 4, 2005 10:10 PM

All my life have been dealing with visual design, I believe visual design is playing an important role in usability applications. As it represent the theme, of perhaps you would say like business-like, technology-like, fashion-like or education-like. Too much art design might disturb the usability, so I guess we use both in balance way.

Tolly Lee Won

November 9, 2005 8:51 AM

I bet Dirk hates the design of Digital Web Magazine. Me, I like it. It’s a style of presentation that befits the content, and actually helps me to search and read. Consequently I’ve just spent nearly an hour reading, when I had planned to do other things. Well done to the visual designer!

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