October 03, 2005
KISS: Scott's thoughts on design
This week’s assignment I found to be the most difficult so far as I have never really paid much attention to how websites are designed or structured or given much thought about it (Read: I’m not a “design” person). As I read through Professor O’Malley’s argument for academics to take the web seriously, I realized that in a sense he was directing his argument to scholars like me (if I may call myself one). As he wrote: “the whole profession tends to regard thinking about the way things look as vaguely suspect or superficial.” Heck yea! In fact, the more “designed” a website was the more I disliked it since I use a dial-up connection. I do not care about layout/graphics/images/color schemes, etc. As long as I could find the information I needed quickly, I was happy. But O’Malley may be right when he writes “. . .the consistent argument here is that the design of sites matters.” I took his class last semester and learned much from him so I’ll go along with his argument for the sake of it. After all, he may be right, but I'm not so sure (at least for historians??). Perhaps though I’m of the ilk represented by Steve Krug’s web usability book title (as quoted in the Cohn & Rosenzweig article) Don’t Make Me Think? I don’t know, my head hurts.
As I mentioned in an earlier assignment I am not comfortable criticizing subjects that I know little about so I’ll stick with what I know. I frequently work with the U.S. Navy and I know something about maritime and naval history. As such, I thought about examining how the U.S. Navy’s history website compared with the greatest sea service that ever set sail on open water, the Royal Navy, as Professor John Sumida (U of MD) used to call the British fleet. I assumed both websites would be highly professional and probably designed by one of the better web design firms since the military is the best-funded organization in a national government, right?
Talk about contrast! Once again, the U.S. is trumped by our cousins across the pond. This is an example of a well designed and structured website: Royal Navy http://www.royal-navy.mod.uk/static/pages/211.html
This is an example of a “poorly designed” website:
Naval Historical Center http://www.history.navy.mil/
As you would probably expect, the official website was detailed, well laid out and structured; all of the information a naval historian would look for was right there (we typically are looking for engineering specifics, dates, information on personnel, or ships’ histories). As Larry Gales points out, viewers have an affinity for scanning information, not reading it – the Royal Navy’s site gives it to you in a “short and sweet” manner. Are the majority of users “stupid”? or just impatient. Definitely the latter and designers must pay attention to this fact.
There was a problem that I had with both websites and that was finding their history site from their main index pages. In a sense this is a pretty serious fault I’ll admit but the Royal Navy’s was actually easier to find and once there, everything I could want to know from a website was easily accessible. Although I had the U.S. Navy’s site bookmarked, I attempted to find it from the U.S. Navy’s main index page and did after a 10 minute search. But once there, it wasn’t too difficult to find the information I might need. That is not to say that the U.S. Navy’s much more simply designed site doesn’t have it’s benefits (easier download) but it was generally much more cumbersome to find any information you might be looking for.
Overall, I compare designing websites to the Skunkworks’ aeronautical engineers’ philosophy of K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Stupid—the Skunkworks was the nickname for the super-secret design lab at Northrup that designed the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird). As Jakob Nielsen’s article noted, real users do mind complex design. “These users are just like anybody else: they just want to get their work done. They have neither the desire nor the time to learn the idiosyncrasies of individual websites.”
Posted by sprice7 at October 3, 2005 08:02 AM