An interview with Jeffrey Veen

By Craig Saila

Digital Web: In your keynote at WebVisions 2003, you’ll be discussing ways designers can still innovate within the current economic environment. You’ve just come back from Milan, Italy, where you did an Adaptive Path workshop on the topic. Are Web designers there experiencing similar hurdles as those in North America?

Jeffrey Veen: “Hurdles” is a polite way to put it. The Web has been following an enormous pendulum swing for some time now. Back about five years ago, when I was still at HotWired, we could do no wrong. Every stupid idea was a new paradigm and the foundations of a new economy. Now, things are just as silly. Nobody will touch the Web, and everyone is running away screaming.

But whatever. It’s cyclical. There are amazing things happening on the Web, and, interestingly enough, most businesses couldn’t imagine living without it. We’re spending an increasing amount of our time at Adaptive Path trying to understand the value of a quality user experience. Why should companies invest in the Web? And how much of that investment should they earmark for the kinds of things we’re interested in: information architecture, usability, user-centered design? These are the questions that we hope will help companies feel better about the risk involved in building Web products.

Digital Web: How can limited resources, such as tight deadlines and slim budgets, help a designer?

JV: I’ve always firmly believed that constraint breeds creativity. Difficult situations breed astonishing results. That’s why I’ve never minded that, for example, browser technology was so limited. It made designers fight to find ways to communicate.

Tight deadlines and other resource constraints do the same thing. If you’re doing any amount of user research—and you better be doing at least some user research—large budgets can actually hinder you. It’s easy for Web teams to get stuck in what we call “analysis paralysis.” They have so much information that they can’t act on it. Likewise, I’m frustrated by massive projects that span multiple quarters and have hundreds of dependencies and deliverables. I’ve never once seen a project like that come in on time or never have major revisions along the way. I’m much more interested in quick wins. Have a vision for where you want a product or Web site to be in nine months, then see what you can accomplish in a couple of weeks with the staff and resources you currently have. Keep chasing down the next quick win, and eventually, you’ve got significant change. This doesn’t necessarily work for every project in every company, but it’s certainly a good way to build some credibility and heal the immediate pain you may be feeling.

Digital Web: Are there things about today’s climate that are reminiscent of what you encountered in the mid-nineties at HotWired?

JV: Not really. That time was something unique. It would be like trying to compare what is happening in music today to what was going on in San Francisco in 1969. Sure, there are influences everywhere, and lots of interesting things going on now. But that was a particular time and a particular place. And that’s not just nostalgia, either. It was also an incredibly difficult time, full of huge personalities and a complete disregard for anything that came before.

Digital Web: What are some of the key changes in the way cutting-edge design is done now compared to when HotWired was launched?

JV: Heh. Well, for one, we’ve got a bit of experience behind us. We may only understand the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Web, but at least we’ve got that. In 1994, we had no clue what we were doing. We would try stuff, it would fail, we would throw it away and try something else. That seems like such an incredible luxury now. I cannot believe how much stuff we launched without one simple usability session, or one end-user interview, or even a beta test. We just threw it out there. And we learned a lot, but in an extremely expensive way. I don’t long for that at all.

I’m still pleased to see good experimental and “cutting-edge” design happening, though. I’m amazed at what the kids are doing with Flash these days. I’m fascinated by how blogs are embracing RSS to finally bring some semantics to the Web, albeit in a sort of backwards way.

Digital Web: As you alluded to earlier, when it comes to developing for the Web, sites generally follow certain usability/IA conventions. How can they benefit the design process?

JV: It’s important that all designers understand the difference between conventions and innovation. Conventions are crucial for a functioning Web. Users—myself included—have little interest in relearning basic interactions on every Web site they visit. For a long time, I’ve used the analogy of a television remote control. How would it be if each of the hundreds of channels you get had their own remote, with different key mappings for volume up and down? It would drive you nuts. Many Web sites drive me nuts.

Innovation, on the other hand, is still going strong. Like I said, we’ve only uncovered the tiniest bit of what this big network is capable of. And God forbid we insist on a bunch of “rules” for how everything works now. Let’s exploit some basic conventions, and then pound on everything else to see what’s better.

Digital Web: You’ve mentioned that your book, The Art & Science of Web Design, in part, grew out of your frustration with where the Web was at. Are you less frustrated now?

JV: Oh, sure. Or maybe I’m frustrated at different things than I was then. I started that book way back in 1999. At that time, the browsers were an absolute mess. There was virtually no support for basic Web standards. We were spending all of our time creating two separate versions of our Web sites. So, yes, I’m glad Netscape 4 is pretty much gone now. And we can markup our pages in XHTML and style it with CSS and it pretty much works. Hurray.

I also encounter a lot more open-mindedness from designers working on the Web today. Back then, I would encounter a lot of snobby “transitioners”—people who had been working in print for years and were now moving over to the Web. And they had it all figured out and knew how to get around the stupid constraints of Web browsers. Remember when Web sites used to have huge home pages constructed entirely out of images so that designers could have control over typefaces? Thankfully, that’s mostly a thing of the past now. We all understand that speed is crucial in usability and, therefore, success. The designers who are left now—the ones who have succeeded—are the ones with an aesthetic that is based on what the Web is capable of, and not some antiquated notion of graphic art applied as decoration to some obscure technical requirements.

Digital Web: Has the standardization—or some might argue, in the case of Internet Explorer, the stagnation—of the browser market helped or hindered today’s Web design?

JV: Well, as I said before, the baseline standards support in ninety-eight percent of today’s browsers makes me happy. It really was painful five or six years ago.

That said, I’m not all that optimistic for much innovation from the browser vendors in the next few years. Microsoft continues to retreat into their OS, and with so much market share, it will be difficult for anyone else to push forward with new standards. That means it may be 2010 before we can really start to use some of the more interesting bits of CSS3 or XForms in daily production. That’s depressing.

Digital Web: So what are some of the best things happening for Web designers right now?

JV: There are a couple of things. First, the Web team is becoming a department in its own right now in many organizations. For a long time, for a lot of companies, the Web lived in marketing or worse: IT. That meant that those traditional departments would influence the thinking behind much of what was happening on those Web sites. In the case of marketing, many Web sites became “messages” that had to be “communicated” to “customers” rather than conversations and interactions. Likewise, with IT departments, content-rich Web sites were treated like software development projects. Find a misspelled word? Open a ticket in the bug tracker under the category “content defect” and we’ll put it in the queue. What kind of editorial process is that?

So today, many companies are realizing that the Web is their primary connection to their constituents, and, as a result, they are creating Web departments made up of multidisciplinary teams that report up to the executive team. In fact, I don’t think it will be long before we see more progressive companies creating CXO positions—Chief Experience Officers.

Also, specialization is creeping into our industry and that’s a great thing. We’re seeing Web design split into disciplines like interaction design, information architecture, usability, visual design, front-end coders, and more. Even information architecture is subdividing into content strategists, taxonomists, and others. I think we can safely say that there is no such thing as a “Webmaster” anymore.

Digital Web: There’s a lot of interesting work happening now that designers have begun using CSS to its full potential. Is there another promising technology lurking around the corner, or do you think designers will continue to push the limits of what is available now?

JV: Nah, let’s forget about “the next big thing” for a while and focus on really honing our craft. I miss the tradition of apprenticeship in our industry. When I started as a journalist years ago, I worked closely with editors who had been in the business for decades. I learned so much from them—and very, very little of it had to do with cutting-edge technology in the newspaper industry. They were much more interested in telling stories, telling them fairly, and working hard to get the next ones. We could use similar discipline with our work on the Web. We have so much yet to learn from anthropology and ethnography, cognitive psychology, and, yes, even graphic art. Some new flavor of XML or whatever isn’t going to change any of that.

Digital Web: Finally, in your keynote, you’ll offer a framework of how Web designers can overcome today’s challenges. As a preview, and for those who can’t make it, will you suggest some of the ideas you’ll mention?

JV: I’m going to talk a lot about top-down versus bottom-up approaches to design. Top-down design is about big-picture thinking: global navigation and task-based architecture. It needs to be driven by your users’ goals and motivations, and I’ll discuss ways in which we get at those, then translate them to Web interfaces. Alternatively, bottom-up design is much more focused on content and features and the real library science stuff. It’s about massive amounts of information being deconstructed and re-organized in a way that’s both intuitive and informative. And I’ll be showing some great examples of how these sorts of classification systems are being used in really innovative ways. It should be a lot of fun.