The Dancing Angels of the 1950s

As history marches onward, the days of the black and white television fade away. The years of huddling around the radio waiting for tidbits of news and information witnessed only in the hazy glimmers of old movies. Modern users are information overlords, commanding legions of data wherever they roam. With the tap of a button they unlock their ZipCars and honk its horn at a crowded parking lot. A few swipes across their smartphones and groceries, DVDs, or Christmas presents arrive at their doorsteps.

As history marches onward, the days of the black and white television fade away. The years of huddling around the radio waiting for tidbits of news and information witnessed only in the hazy glimmers of old movies. Modern users are information overlords, commanding legions of data wherever they roam. With the tap of a button they unlock their ZipCars and honk its horn at a crowded parking lot. A few swipes across their smartphones and groceries, DVDs, or Christmas presents arrive at their doorsteps. They watch Colombo on their iPads, occasionally typing a few words to research the arcane corners of Peter Falk’s oeuvre. They are connected 24 hours a day, in real time, to video, audio, breaking updates about every part of the globe, and nearly every person in it. This is the glorious present: information at our fingertips, everywhere, about everything. We all decide, we choose, we are denied nothing. We are masters of our informational domains.

Not quite.

For every capability we are given, we are forced to make a choice. A choice not just what we might look up, be entertained by, or communicate with, but if we should be working, if we should be communicating, if we should be paying attention to what’s in front of us in real life, or in our digital lives. And that’s not even touching on the regrets one can have with so many unexplored paths, the opportunity cost of even picking an excellent choice is quite high when you have so many other choices to pass on. The reality is that having too many choices is just as bad as having too few.

One of the primary challenges for web developers or for any content delivery system is finding a balance between what choices you offer your users and which ones you prevent them from having to make. To truly leverage the web and all its capabilities, we need to let go of some long held conventional wisdom from the heydays of print magazines and newspapers.

Historically innovations in information delivery take a long time to be fully understood and utilized. As you might imagine, this is due to strategies developed for other mediums being applied to the new one These strategies are then slowly overcome by people using the new medium’s capabilities to their fullest. Take for instance the idea that the web is a new way to deliver magazines. There’s a home page (table of contents?), various major sub pages (departments), detail and third level pages under those (stories), and then the various odds and ends that don’t quite fit (back-page feature, crossword puzzles, etc.). It’s all very linear and tidy, and a thorough waste of the capabilities of the medium. It limits users choices, but in frustrating ways. It often mirrors the way the internal organization views its information and not its audience. It doesn’t let its audience engage or refine their experience, and it doesn’t improve in user experience from visit to visit. It’s a tragedy of most people viewing the web through the wrong metaphor.

Let’s try on a different metaphor for building websites and see how it changes the choices we’re making. Let’s imagine that we’re designing the user experience of a website the same way Ford probably designs driving a car. Instead of you picking up a magazine and reading different sections, probably front to back, you are grabbing the wheel of the experience, you decide where you go, you decide when it’s time for the windshield wipers. Cars are designed to give the driver (user) a wealth of information, some of which is constant (mph) and some of which is optional (radio station), but all of which is geared towards making your car feel responsive, enjoyable, and easy to use. Lots of effort is focused on ergonomics, on placing things at the driver’s fingertips, of consistency of control and predictability combined with adjustability. Windshield wipers went from non-existent, to on-off, to variable intermittence, all providing their users with finer grained control within a defined spectrum.

What are some good examples of this philosophy in action? Let’s look at two very popular and very driver centric websites -- Google and Facebook. One of the first things you might notice is that they are both essentially “single page” sites. Very little emphasis is given to the table of contents, they eschew hierarchy, and they avoid “tag clouds” and other “one size fits all” filters of data.

Google is extremely driver focused; the main page is a search box with almost no information on it at all followed up with a page of results that expand under the search box. Millions are won and lost due to the subtle intricacies of which results are surfaced, but the focus of the website is all on helping the user find useful data. There are just enough controls, filters, and ways to modify your search to let you refine your experience, but not too many to overwhelm. Google elevates the user to participant, not just audience member.

Facebook is a little subtler in how it presents data to users. Users are presented a river of information that streams to them throughout the day, but they’re allowed to prioritize, hide, and organize the river into ways that are meaningful to them. The river in essence looks and functions the same in each scenario. Where as Google starts with a blank search each time, Facebook presents you with a search that you are constantly refining to your own tastes. You can filter friends from feeds, block content, and interact with items. Facebook highlights potentially interesting and related information from the feed into sidebars and focus areas (Upcoming Events, Birthdays, Games, etc.). They’ve turned a huge amount of data into what feels like a single web page that’s interesting and works well out of the box. By putting the emphasis on the site visitor, they’ve also done a lot of hard work to prevent the user from having to figure out how to curate and manage this torrent of data themselves.

What I’m driving at here is that your website shouldn’t be a magazine, it shouldn’t be the latest copy of a bad idea, it should give users the thrill of a throaty V-8 engine, the comfort of heated seats, and all the controls they need to get where they want to go. I’m excited about where the technology of the web is, and can’t wait to help you build something useful and essential for your users.

Nate Parsons