Why do corporate websites suck?

Can you imagine living in the oxymoronic hell of being a corporate web designer? I mean, you start life as a sensitive aesthete who can draw a decent picture. You go to art school, you master the Adobe Creative Suite, you worship at the altar of Milton Glaser and Christopher Alexander, can quote Tog on Design, and play a mean round of the Jakob Nielsen drinking game. You took a seminar with Edward Tufte. Your motto is “don’t make me think.”

You get a job at a big online publication or company and get the dream assignment: “Build us a kick ass web site. Engage the user. Tell a story. Distinguish us from the competition.”

The wireframes and the information architecture begin to emerge. You sell your vision to managers who think art is embodied in the oeuvre of Thomas Kinkade, painter of light; those managers who’s taste is only in their mouths. You get a green light. Go execute. People trust you and your vision.

And then, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem about your life – The Hollow Men – “…between the conception and the creation … falls the shadow.”

Enter the most dreaded people in the world of design: the “stakeholders.” Legal wants their boilerplate, PR wants a link. Marketing wants a star burst and swoosh around the promo. “Can you make the logo bigger?”

And so the old NASCAR race to deface your work begins. Suddenly everybody hates you. You get the feedback in your performance review that you’re too negative, you don’t collaborate. You seem very defensive about your work. You’re too emotional. You don’t understand the realities of the business.

You are accused of being a gatekeeper, a temple priest, an impediment. You listen to yourself argue in one design review after another and your own voice makes you sick. You try to take the side of the user, but that sounds so lame ….. Screw the user. Real men make money. We’re a business. Screw the user. Spam ’em. Whack em with a popup. Make that rich media ad autoplay – loudly. Use the <blink> tag. A lot. What do they expect for free? We gotta sell stuff.

Then the metrics geeks arrive. They proclaim that no one at Google is allowed to make a qualitative design decision without metrics. They want to A/B test everything. What the hell is the Taguchi Multivariate Methodology? Do you think Picasso left his Blue Period because of fricking metrics? Suddenly the web site becomes a lab for testing everything from palettes to pictures.

Last month a web designer named Dustin Curtis wrote a nasty open note to American Airlines and declared that AA.com sucked. I use AA.com. Pretty much every week. It isn’t pretty. But heck, it lets me print my boarding passes. Dustin thought it sucked badly enough to declare he would not use American any more, and to back up his critique, he presented a lovely alternative.

A user experience designer responded. A person a lot like the one I just described I imagine.

Over at Fast Company, a blog post pointing to Curtis’ work spawned a fascinating series of comments. Read them. Then tell me … why do corporate web sites suck? (except for Apple’s, which somehow has some holy status among the design world).

The interesting thing is committee design versus centralized “dictator” design. Can a design dictator be trusted to understand the business exigencies of a company? Or do committees build towers of design babble?

I don’t know. I declared after my fourth redesign at Forbes.com that:

  1. Never trust a designer
  2. Web sites are screwed without designers
  3. I am not a designer
  4. Neither are you

Now I basically figure the Marissa Mayer process at Google is the only one worth following, but damned if I have seen it at work. HIPPO seems to dominate all design eventually and I am also guilty.

Horizontal designs and scrolling to the right

I’m noticing more and more web sites that rely on a sideways or horizontal-scroll where the content extends off to the side, not down south below the screen, but to the right.

I see this in apps as well as sites.

Example number one: TweetDeck. Need more searches or hashtags to track? Add them and they populate off to the right, not below the scroll.

Second example: Julia Allison – faux internet celebrity has a “lifecast” – Non-Society — that scrolls sideways.

Third example: Google’s News timeline (which I really dig design-wise but haven’t fallen in love with yet as a navigation for my news needs).

Fourth example – The New York Times’ Adobe Air reader – hit the right arrow button and it’s like turning the page.

Example five: Kindle. Hit the bar on the right edge of the device and you flip the page just like one licks one’s thumb and reaches up and to the right to turn the page on that old copy of War and Peace.

Is this trend driven by the gradual death of the 4:3 “square” monitor ratio in favor of the 16:10/16:9 wide “letterbox” mode now standard on most laptops and flat panel desktop monitors? I think so. As we lose real estate on the vertical scroll the horizontal real estate on the screen begins to dominate. Web sites that assumed (in the dark ages of HTML 2.0 and Web 1.0) a 800×600 resolution, tended to constrain their content in a “snake” of text that scrolled downwards, vertically, sinking below the bottom bezel of our monitors and laptop screen. PgDN and the down arrow keys were essential navigation aids for the reader in the first wave of page design. Now? We’re going to the right and I expect to see more of it.

Make My Logo Bigger Cream

Make My Logo Bigger Cream

Thanks to David Lamborn and Kelly Skaggs at the Lenovo Design and Usability team for this nice link. Anyone who has spent months on a beautiful ad or web page, only to see the accelerators, swooshes, starbursts, and calls for “a bigger logo” and “less white space” is going to feel the pain of this.

Democratic design: Yipes Stripes

Design Matters » Blog Archive » Yipes Stripes

David Hill is VP of Design at Lenovo and the company’s first blogger. It’s been a great experience launching the Design Matters blog and getting David’s voice out into the world. Early on David requested a poll so we provided him with one. He quickly learned the best way to earn engagement from his readers was to ask them a question. Do you like wide-screen or 4:3 aspect ration LCDs? Do you use the page-forward/page-back buttons? Earlier this week he posted about an issue that came to our attention in early 2006 when customers complained about the stripes being removed from the front of the two ThinkPad mouse buttons. So David asked (John Bell at Ogilvy’s Digital Influence Mapping project might classify this as an example of customer co-creation) and the crowd replied.

I’ve been long interested in a more formal customer collaboration — something beyond a suggestion box approach — something tangible where the customer could get some true skin in the game. I have looked at Slim Devices as a great case example of how it could be done. The question is what is the right coillaboration infrastructure for getting it done? A straightforward wiki perhaps? Something more iterative, like a threaded bulletin/forum? While David shows the possibilities, I don’t think a WordPress blog with the Democracy plug-in is the solution. There must be something more robust, something used in software development perhaps, or the open source community, which would be easy and sophisticated enough for a layman or a serious human factors engineer to work within.

“Now we are reconsidering this change, perhaps we went too far in simplifying the interior. Although the utility can be argued, the familiarity is also important for a brand so strongly connected to itâ€s design as ThinkPad.Iâ€d love to get your feedback on this topic. Weâ€ve included a new poll to make this easier.

David Hill”

Situational Design — The gadget fits the setting

Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Cell Phone – Products – MSN Tech & Gadgets

“One reason Asians and Europeans have high expectations for innovation and sexy designs when it comes to cell phones is that they live in densely populated countries and must rely on public transportation.

“If you spend an hour on the train every day, then you will want a cell phone with the latest functions,” says Franklin Chang, a research scientist who has worked in Germany and Japan. “If you are in your car, you aren’t going to be spending your time playing a game on your cell phone.”

This is an interesting notion from the point of view of product design. The degree of attention a user gives to the product determines the appeal of functionality, user interface and design. The iPod, which is held up as a classic example of design innovation and simplicity, spends most of its time in the user’s pocket. You don’t have to look at it to use it. A Treo, with its multiple functions, email, and browser, is designed to be stared and poked at. Great for a train rider, useless for an auto driver unless they have a death wish. Notebooks are generally touched all the time. One doesn’t play much off of them other than an occasional DVD on a plane trip. The rest of the time it’s mouse-mouse-mouse/type-type-type.

Anyway, interesting article on why European and Asian cultures tend to get more sophisticated and innovative gadgetry before Americans. Blame it on the car.

Design Matters launches

Last Friday Lenovo launched its first “official” corporate blog (there are countless Lenovo employees who blog, some of whom can be found in my blog roll). This one is called “Design Matters” and its blogged by David Hill, Yao Ying Jia and Tom Takahashi — the three global leaders of Lenovo’s design group. I’m the cheerleader in the background.
We’re taking a slightly different approach to corporate blogs, eschewing the notion of a single monolith because we believe we need to segment the conversation down various niches — leading with design because design is what distinguishes us from the market. In the future we’ll roll out more on everything from promotions and coupons to philanthrophy and evangelism.

This is only phase one. Phase two gets very interesting. Stay tuned.

Design Matters

On blackness

I bought a black Nano last spring. Today I  understand that Apple charged me a premium for the color. Black suits me. I am not a white kind of guy, though I am a white man. But I don’t go for that white look that Apple has carved out over the years. So, when the Nano came out, I bought a black one. Black makes me happy. Black is why I like my Thinkpad. It isn’t silver. It isn’t purple. It’s just functional.

Apple’s introduction of a black MacBook is leading to some discussion on why there is a premium being charged for black. Would Lenovo charge an extra $200 for a white Thinkpad (ewww, ewww, I have blasphemed)?
This whole “what color is your laptop” thing makes me think of a nasty comment made by Bill Gates around the time Steve Jobs introduced the Next workstation in the late 80s. I have to paraphrase, but he said something like: “You want a black PC? Get a can of spray paint and I’ll make you a black PC.”

Okay, so I am not the kind of consumer who buys different faceplates for my cellphone. I don’t reskin my applications. I screw up my WordPress theme everytime I get artistic. I earned an “F” in first grade for coloring outside the lines. I think less is more when it comes to design. If it’s classic, if it looks like it will endure, then I will buy it.

So Apple climbs on the black bandwagon. That’s cool. First they climbed on the Intel bus, then they climbed on the Windows bus with Bootcamp. Now they are on the black bus. I wouldn’t buy one for obvious professional and legacy reasons (working for PC Week in the early 80s made me highly allergic to the Mac, and I still, try as I might, lack the Mac chromosome). But welcome to the black camp Apple. Hope you offer a bottle of windex to every owner, I had to sink my Black nano inside of a leather “incase” to stop the scratching and pigging it up with finger oil.