Thursday, March 04, 2004

Beware of Yourself
The trap of self-referential design

Those of us working in web development (or possibly in any area of technology design) run the risk of designing self-referentially. When I speak of being self-referential, I'm talking about the wrong-headed assumptions we make about what the user needs, about what works and what doesn't, about what's good and what's bad.

One of the most obvious manifestations of self-referential design is the web site whose content is organized according to the various inscrutable departments of the organization or company. The user has come to our website to find a part for his broken refrigerator, not to drill down through the structure of our international and regional divisions or to browse the fascinating offerings of our human resources department.

To create a usable website, the web development team has to get inside the user's head and design according to the user's goals. We discover these through research, including a process of interviewing and observing users.

But I've noticed other instances of self-referential development that are more subtle. Over the years, we develop personal preferences and myths about what works and what people like, so that at development planning meetings, I am likely to hear phrases like these:

"When I go to a website, I never ...."

"When I go to a website, I always ...."

"I hate ___ website because ...."

"What happened to me one time ...."

"Everybody I know ...."

We all see the world through our own glasses, and it's hard to take them off and try out someone else's. This requires that we constantly test and challenge our own assumptions and opinions and work hard to become intimately familiar with the user's point of view.

Remember: Just because you were once on an email list where things went wrong and everybody got a lot of unwanted messages, that doesn't mean that all email efforts will end in disaster. If email lists are configured and operated properly, they can be an effective communications tool.

Remember: Just because you hate rich media on web pages doesn't mean we shouldn't use it on our website. Rich media such as Flash can be used very effectively, for example, in web-based tutorials.

Remember: Just because you hate using a tabbed format for navigation (or a left-hand navigation bar or rollover menus or whatever other interaction method we might be considering), that doesn't mean that it won't work for our users.

Al Bredenberg