Stop Building Websites For You

On a November day in 2006, I took my then-girlfriend, now-wife to see as much of the 175,000 sq ft of the The Biltmore House as we could in a day. I distinctly recall it being obscenely cold. We looked ridiculous in all the photos we took, teeth chattering, bundled to our ears in enormous, ineffective scarves. 

And then, during a slightly-warmer indoor tour, “You’ll of course notice that these thresholds are marble. Throughout the residence, any room that has running water, any wet room—bathrooms, showers, kitchens, even the indoor pool—is denoted by a marble threshold instead of the standard wooden ones elsewhere in the house.” 

Actually, I didn’t notice it. Who would? It’s a threshold. No one is thinking that hard1. They just want to walk through doorways and get things done. Like normal people.

Which makes me think about the way we build websites.

Listening to normals trying to figure out websites informs me that we still have work to do in making websites easier to understand for all.

There aren’t many professional web designers I respect as much as Naz. And he’s dead-on with this critique. Read Write Web wrote an article on Facebook logins that was the #1 Google result for “facebook login” for awhile. “WTF is this bullshttttttttttt all about. can i get n plzzzzzzzzz,” is typical of the 2000+ comments on that article from people who, obviously, had a ritual of searching for “facebook login” instead of typing in a URL (what’s a URL, anyway? they might say), or saving a bookmark. Google interviewed 50 Times Square passersby and asked the question, “what is a browser?” The answers were somewhat less-than-encouraging, especially for those of us who get obsessed with pushing the boundaries of design and interaction on the web2.

Everything we take for granted, every stride we make in learning more about the web, our computers, how technology works, etc. is not normal. You are not your audience, at least not all of the seats. When we design websites for us, we confuse more people than we help. For every “you’re an idiot for using IE6” footer message I see on some young designer’s totally awesome CSS3+HTML5+JQuery whizbang website, there are at least 50 people walking around IN NYC who don’t even have a framework to respond for why you think they’re an idiot—not that they’d ever come to your website. (Which begs the question, who exactly are you writing that cleverly scathing footer copy for anyway? But that’s a post for another day…)

Take this site for example; it was a fairly basic, three-column grid with a minimum of images. It had been this way for three years. But would my grandma know what the “open navigation” link meant up there in the righthand corner? Would she have clicked on it? Would she have even seen it? How would she know there was more content hidden away under a Javascript slider? Because I did? I vote unlikely, so I changed it. 

Make great work, but keep in mind who you’re supposed to be making it for.


1. Except maybe architects.

2. I’m super-excited that there are people pushing the boundaries of web design and technology. It’s amazing to watch. I geek out. Just don’t forget we’re all freaks; we’re not normal people.