Searching for the center of design

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“In the user experience community, we’re valiantly fighting against the infection of chooser-centered design, and the antidote we prescribe is user involvement.”Design is driven by many considerations. But on each project I’ve worked on, there seems to be a consistent center—a driver that determines priorities, direction, and the metrics used to measure success.

The most common driver I’ve encountered is “chooser-centered” design: Whoever runs the show sets the agenda. That doesn’t always mean the VP is in charge–the “chooser” might be a gung-ho lead developer. As Cooper illustrates in The Inmates are Running the Asylum, techies who are focused on the latest whizzy server platform can be just as unbalanced as a CEO obsessed over expressing the corporate mission, or a creative director who prizes aesthetics to the detriment of all else.

The key isn’t to point fingers at the culprits—it’s to find solutions. I know I’m preaching to the converted when I point out that client-centric, portfolio-centric, technology-centric, marketing-centric, and business-centric approaches abound, and all are flawed. We see the symptoms across the Web with CEO mug shots and vision statements on the homepage, or edgy visual design that wins awards but not customers. So what’s the answer?

In my mind, I hear your response: “We know better. We have the answers!” In the user experience community, we’re valiantly fighting against the infection of chooser-centered design, and the antidote we prescribe is user involvement. It’s the common rallying cry of the UX community: “Put the user in the process! Embrace user-centered design!”

Unfortunately, it’s the wrong answer.

Let me rephrase that—it’s only a partially right answer, and not the key consideration either. User-centered design (UCD) suffers from three significant drawbacks that disqualify it as the ultimate candidate for the center of design.

  1. In placing the user at the center of the process, UCD often ignores other aspects and the process and projects become unbalanced. In reacting to the prevalence of chooser-centric decisions, we grasp UCD with such zeal that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Kent Dahlgren’s CHI-WEB post Usability Contributed to My Layoff vividly illustrates the consequences of extreme user focus.
  2. Putting the user at the center of the process and setting the metrics for project success implies that user-centered design is the “right” approach. Assuming UCD is THE right approach suggests that there is a sort of moral imperative to pursue a user-centered methodology. This has a number of detriments. For people who tacitly adopt the moral imperative position, attempted evangelism can come off with a preachy “I told you so” attitude. When others don’t buy into doing things the “right” way, they are often dismissed as unenlightened luddites who don’t understand the importance of what we do. Thus, some practitioners develop a UCD inferiority complex–a resentful feeling that we’re not appreciated or understood. Often this results in the practitioner’s return to more comfortable territory–conversations within the UX community about methods or tools, or how engineers or marketing just don’t get it. And that leads us to what might be the biggest drawback of UCD.
  3. UCD information is rarely put in terms that resonate with others outside the field–the reality is that user-centered design evangelists often aren’t user-centered at all. We might address ROI, but in the same sentence we use jargon like contextual inquiry, controlled vocabulary, or experience map. While jargon is useful inside the community, and business decision makers are smart enough to pick up our vocabulary, it points to a deeper problem. We naively expect our audiences to learn our lingo, rather than understanding their needs and addressing executives and other decision makers with language and messages tailored for them. We don’t practice what we preach.

None of this means that user-centered design is wrong or worthless. But it’s only part of the picture–necessary, but not sufficient. To see the complete picture requires stepping back and developing a balanced perspective. Individually, practitioners often recognize the other factors at play, but collectively we don’t express the recognition very well.

To connect with decision makers and the people who influence them, we should treat them as “users” of the user experience message. And in this case, being user-centered means not blurting out “User-centered design is the answer!” at the first available opportunity.

While there are a number of alternatives for approaching user experience evangelism, I’m going to share one perspective that has worked for me to begin conversations with decision makers. I call it value-centered design.

(Before we go further, a caveat: Value-centered design isn’t the ultimate answer either, but I hope it helps in your own efforts to connect to decision makers).

mcmullin_090803.gifThe basic premise of value-centered design is that shared value is the center of design. This value comes from the intersection of:

  • Business Goals and Context
  • Individual Goals and Context
  • The Offering (While it sounds like the title of a low-budget horror flick, “offering” is general enough for a wide variety of situations. For a particular project, this might be a product offering, service offering, or content offering)
  • Delivery (How do we get it from the business to the individual?)

Consideration of these goals leads to a particular offering from the business to the individual, delivered through a specific channel. Together, the offering and delivery method create a solution that drives return on investment for the business, and “return on experience” for the individual—return where she gains some benefit for the time, attention, or money invested in the experience. Both parties are satisfied, and this satisfaction establishes the foundation for sustainable initiatives and an ongoing relationship. Meeting business and individual goals creates value, and that’s largely what design is about.

When value is explicitly placed at the center of design, we no longer have to explain what we mean by user-centered design. Our user experience toolbox merely becomes part of the complete picture, working to produce a great solution that meets individual and business goals. User needs are set on equal footing with business needs, and the solution is explicitly a means to achieving those ends, instead of an end itself.

While space doesn’t permit great exposition on the implications of value-centered design, I want to address some key questions I get from my peers in the user experience community.

  1. Isn’t VCD incredibly generic? Isn’t everything about creating value?

    Well, the generality of value is what lets VCD speak to a wide variety of people and situations. However, it’s important to remember that VCD isn’t just about value as a platitude or ideal; value explicitly comes from meeting business and individual goals. The meeting of goals puts individual user goals on the same plane as business goals, which tremendously changes the conversation with business decision makers. In fact, when value is defined this way, everything isn’t about creating value. All those different centers we touched on–award-centric, technology-centric, self-centric approaches–all fail to generate value because they don’t satisfy both individual and business goals (and sometimes neither).

  2. Isn’t VCD just a reframing of current ideas?

    The quick answer is yes. But it’s not “just” a reframing. It’s a reframing that does two key things: puts the user into a business context as an equal player with business goals, and uses language tailored to business decision makers. It also helps me get over my personal “I told you so but nobody listens to me” complex that I seem to share with many in the user experience community. Most importantly, “value” provides a common platform for taking current ideas and introducing them to a much broader audience in a way that “user” can’t.

  3. For something so broad, what real concrete tools come from value-centered design? How can I apply this in my daily work?

Well, I hope B&A will let me talk some more about this at a later date, but for now, here are three ways I apply VCD day to day:

  1. Building buy-in for user experience;
  2. Applying user experience tools to the business side of the equation (ask me sometime about business personas); and
  3. Creating a framework for looking at projects and the tools that they need to generate value.

Of course there are more questions about value-centered design. It’s not perfect, and it’s still evolving within my own practice.

Value-centered design starts a story about an ideal interaction between an individual and an organization and the benefits each realizes from that interaction. How that story ends is still being decided with every new project we pursue. I hope that VCD will spark the first chapter in some great success stories about using a balanced approach to create lasting, sustainable value for businesses and the individuals they work with.

Jess McMullin is a user experience consultant who helps companies innovate products and services. Through value-centered design, Jess works to maximize return on investment for his clients and return on experience for their users. A founder of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, he runs the popular IA news site iaslash. He is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Jess can be reached at banda(at)interactionary(dot)com.

What’s Your Idea of a Mental Model?

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“We should create these mental model descriptions during user analysis to document users’ current understanding. Then, during a design phase, we should create the target model to show the mental model we want users adopt.”

As usability and design professionals, we often use the term “mental model” loosely. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a clear English definition, though there are several serviceable academic ones (for some examples, see Johnson-Laird, Girotto, and Legrenzi’s introduction and Martina Angela Sasse’s excellent Ph.D. thesis on the subject).

Even in these works, however, mental models aren’t defined more specifically than a mental representation of something. How, then, do you tell people in other disciplines, such as managers or developers, what they are? I often use examples to convey what a mental model is. If I tell them that I recently ordered a steak at a restaurant, they might assume that I was met at the door by a host or hostess, seated, and presented with a menu. They assume these details, and others, that I never actually mentioned because they have a mental model of how restaurants operate. To illustrate the consequences of having a mismatched mental model, I describe a person who goes into a buffet restaurant and waits for someone to take their order. The person’s mental model of how that restaurant operates doesn’t match the actual situation, and he would experience confusion and frustration until he modified his original model to include buffets.

Defining mental models by example is not sufficient if we want to treat them more formally, however. All mental models have a few key characteristics:

  • Mental models include what a person thinks is true, not necessarily what is actually true.
  • Mental models are similar in structure to the thing or concept they represent.
  • Mental models allow a person to predict the results of his actions.
  • Mental models are simpler than the thing or concept they represent. They include only enough information to allow accurate predictions.

But how are mental models constructed? We need to know the parts that each mental model contains if we are to document them correctly.

This article proposes a formalization for mental models. This formalization is still in its infancy—I have not yet used it on a major design project. I’m hoping it will stimulate discussion and feedback about mental models and how we use them. It is also designed to be practical, however, and it can be a useful way to describe users’ perceptions and expectations during the design process.

Why do we need to document mental models?

Mental models should serve as an analytic tool, allowing us to clearly document users’ current mental images, vocabulary, and assumptions. Once the mental model is documented, we can create a target mental model—the model of the product that we want our users to have. If there is a difference between the two, we can design the UI and user assistance material to transition users from their current models to the target model. Additionally, we should be able to provide clear and credible specifics when we tell our colleagues that there is mismatch between user and system mental models. This formalization lets us do that.

We can portray mental models using several key parts:

  1. An image (needed if the mental model is of a physical thing)
  2. A script (needed if the mental model has a process)
  3. A set of related mental models
  4. A controlled vocabulary
  5. A set of assumptions

An Image. If the mental model is of a physical object, the model should contain a simplified image that serves as a template for that object. Consider a graph. For most people, it has a vertical and horizontal axis, representing the upper right quadrant of a Cartesian plane. There are probably labels near each axis. There may be a legend. The “content” part of the graph may consist of lines, data points, bars, or other visual things that show a relationship among data on two dimensions. We can easily represent this type of mental model as a schematic diagram. It doesn’t include every last detail of what might appear on a graph, but only the essential things that would lead someone to identify it as a graph.

A Script. If the mental model is of a process, it should contain some sort of description of that process. The best way to present the script will vary—it might be a series of steps expressed verbally, a flowchart, or a decision tree. Perhaps a finite state diagram works best. Let’s consider the process of creating a graph from a spreadsheet. First, you might check to see if data has already been entered. Assume it has. You then create a graph and tell it in which rows and columns to find the data. If the spreadsheet application’s designers wanted it to be helpful, it might take a guess at the axis titles based on row or column labels for the data spreadsheet or database. Then, you have to choose the display style (line, bar, etc.) and choose any other settings there may be (background color, graph title, legend details, etc.). Maybe you want to pull in data from other sources too. Finally, you’ve got the thing looking the way you want. Does it show a useful relationship? Does it solve the problem you are trying to solve? If so, you might want to polish it up and use it in a report. If not, you might want to change settings, add or remove data, and so on. Scripts may be the same as task models, though they show a person’s expectations and beliefs rather than the true process.

Related Mental Models. Mental models are composed of other mental models. We can quickly get lost in a fractal mindscape, wondering where to begin and where to end. The art of documenting a mental model is choosing the right representation and showing how it relates to other models. For a particular model, list the two to four most important mental models that are its building blocks, and then list the two to four mental models for which it is a building block.

Take the car. A typical commuter has a mental model for personal transportation that includes her car, but may also include a bus system, subway line, network of friends with cars, etc. If she were a fleet manager for a police department, however, the car would also be a key building block of her fleet. Selecting the right related models shows designers how users think and relate to their larger context.

Controlled Vocabulary. Each mental model has a set of key definitions and variants. Information architects and librarians are adept at creating controlled vocabularies, and mental models should contain a small controlled vocabulary (see “What is a Controlled Vocabulary?” for a good primer on the subject). The model of the nuclear family has a set of definitions that include mother, father, and child. Each of these terms has a set of alternates, however. Define each term and state other terms that can be used for them. A mother, for example, is the female parent. Other terms used for mother include mom, mama, and ma. If it is important to the mental model, include any subtle variations in meaning for these alternates. If you document user mental models during analysis, the terms you identify and define can form the basis of the standard terminology for the product’s UI.

Assumptions. Mental models contain assumptions that allow people to predict behavior. Carrying forward the model for the nuclear family, we might assume that if the child misbehaves, one of the parents disciplines the child. There may be further assumptions about the method as well. There could easily be thousands of assumptions for a given model. The key is to state only those assumptions that affect the product at hand.

Using the formalization

The two mental models shown here are based on a combination of recent projects (I have modified the models involved somewhat). The first shows a user’s interpretation of an academic article while the second shows the system designer’s model for an article. The system’s model for an article includes two separate databases, one for the article’s metadata and one for the article’s full text. This solution was a compromise because including everything in the same database caused searches to take too long.

Many parts of these mental models are the same. There are some terminology changes, but the key difference is highlighted in the models’ assumptions. Users do not make a distinction between the back-end databases and presume that articles are stored completely in a single online catalog. This difference affects the Scripts shown. Because the databases do not have fields in common, the system needs a separate search page for each database. Users, however, will have trouble making this distinction and will expect to see only a single search page. The ideal solution to this problem is to restructure the databases so they can both be searched from the same search page. If that is not possible, the designers must help users develop a new model of the search interface through a combination of instructions, tips, and clear error messages and results pages.

Since this formalization is, in effect, a model of mental models, it does not necessarily include every aspect of an actual mental model. This method for documenting them includes only those details we need to conduct our analysis and complete our design. I see this technique as being similar to that of developing personas. Both are short, perhaps one or two printed pages. For any given project, there should usually be one or two major personas and perhaps a few more supporting personas. Similarly, there should be only a few mental models for a UI and perhaps a few more supporting ones.

We should create these mental model descriptions during user analysis to document users’ current understanding. Then, during a design phase, we should create the target model to show the mental model we want users adopt. Comparing the current and target models, we will be able to guide the users’ transition from one to the other, if necessary.


I’m looking forward to using and refining this formalization for mental models further, and I welcome any criticism and critique. My hope is that a tool like this can help us clarify our thinking about mental models and incorporate that thinking into our information architecture and UI design projects. We can then begin to use mental models with more certainty and conviction, including them in our design process in the same way we use personas, navigation architectures, and use cases.

Scott McDaniel is a user-centered designer with Cognetics Corporation. He has more than seven years of experience in designing and documenting software, networks, and telecommunications systems. As a designer, he helps establish vision and direction for products, researches prospective users, determines requirements, and provides detailed designs and specifications for both software and web. Scott first discovered usability upon joining the Society for Technical Communication as a novice technical writer. After several years of applying user-centered design methods to documentation, he made the switch to user interface design.

Leading from Within

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About this time last year, I was a student in a sort of impromptu seven-week “master class” on user-centered design, taught by Marc Rettig. When I heard about the class I jumped at the opportunity to be involved, not only because Marc was the instructor, but because it was a chance to be immersed in a totally positive and constructive design environment, one removed from corporate politics, strained budgets, and misplaced egotism. It was a chance to talk about, learn about and practice user-centered design techniques in a room with sympathetic colleagues—people who didn’t view me as the “usability police.” It was a chance to learn better how to understand users, without having to convince people that understanding users was a good thing to do in the first place.

The class was fast-paced, and although we covered a lot of ground in a short time, I loved every minute of it. But for every moment of the class where I felt totally in my element—challenged creatively, intellectually, working through problems I had a passionate interest in solving—I felt a twinge of disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to practice the same methods back in the “real world,” in my job as an information architect. I knew that, as much value as these user-centered approaches could add to the work we did for our clients, there just wasn’t room for them in the project budgets, or the processes, or even in the company’s overall culture at the time. I believe many of my classmates shared this frustration at the contrast between the “ideal” process scenarios we talked about in class and the reality of what we’d be able to incorporate into our jobs. At the end of the last class, someone said out loud what many of us had been thinking. “This is all great, we believe in the value of it, and we’re dying to go out there and do it. But, realistically, how can we possibly get our teams to work like this?” Marc responded, very simply: “By virtue of the job you’re doing, and the work you’re doing, you are all leaders in your organizations; you’ll create the opportunity to work this way.”

Since the final class session a year ago, that sentiment has remained with me and has materialized into a truth I’ve come to accept and embrace: Being an IA, at this point in time, also means being a leader—ready or not, like it or not. Information architecture is still a nascent field, and as a result we often encounter uncertainty in our organizations and with our clients (sometimes even within our own profession) about the role we play on a design team. Only as leaders, who are able to skillfully educate, guide, and influence those around us, will we be able to succeed as practitioners at the forefront of this emerging field.

While there are practicing IAs fortunate enough to work in companies that wholeheartedly embrace user-centered design (and an IA’s critical role within that process), there are many more IAs whose biggest challenge on a daily basis isn’t the work itself; it’s finding the opportunity to do the work, at the right time, in a meaningful way.

To create opportunities to practice fully as information architects, and in turn, contribute fully as a member of the larger team, not only do we have to become experts in the stuff of our profession—site architecture, user scenarios, prototyping, conceptual models, etc.—but we have to become skilled in things like change management, process engineering, negotiation, persuasion, team building, and organizational politics. And, in most cases, we have to exercise these skills from a position that is not, by default, one of authority in the company, possibly not even one of authority on our respective teams.

Because many of us don’t have the opportunity to influence change from the top down, we have to be resourceful and find ways to effect change from within. In other words, if we are committed to creating an environment where we are fully utilized, one that enables everyone on the team to do their best work for our clients and their customers, we have to take the initiative and lead from within.

What does it mean to lead from within? J. Donald Walters, author of “The Art of Leadership,” envisions a good leader as “an artist whose medium is the dynamics of human cooperation.” He believes leadership is a role that is people-oriented, not position-oriented, and as such is guided by principles that can be applied to any situation that involves working with and influencing others. He offers “principles for leaders to live by,” many of which are relevant and helpful to an IA (or anyone) interested in making change in their organization. Some of these include:

  • Persuade people with the power of your conviction. Involve others in your vision, and inspire them to also be visionaries.
  • Be a good listener, and be willing to listen to other points of view, even if at first they seem to conflict with your own.
  • Focus on the job to be done, more than your own role in the task, however critical your role may be to that task; always keep the big picture in mind.
  • Be willing to take risks yourself, instead of waiting for other people to take them. With this comes the obligation to take responsibility for failure, as well as success.
  • View your role as a service to others—clients, employers and coworkers; there is strength in humility.
  • Work with people as they are, not as you would like them to be. Realize that it takes time to bring people to new points of view; be patient.
  • Adapt your actions to reality (what can be) rather than theory alone (what you think ought to be); be flexible in your ideas of perfection.

While some people believe leaders are born, it’s more accurate to say that leadership is a set of learned skills and sensitivities, born out of a strong commitment to and passion for an idea. If you’ve accepted the challenge of creating change in your organization, there are a few ways to get started on the path to becoming a strong, successful leader.

  • Become an expert in your field. Immerse yourself in the subject matter—read everything you can, attend professional conferences, participate in discussions with colleagues. While passionate commitment is the cornerstone of good leadership, knowledge is a leader’s greatest resource.
  • Identify people in your life you consider to be good leaders, people who have been successful in motivating others to share their vision. If you can, observe how they work, and how they influence people around them. Take note of how they handle mistakes, and failures, and successes. When you encounter obstacles you can’t overcome in your own efforts, consider asking them to act as your mentor, to share their expertise and help you through the rough spots; chances are they won’t say no—good leaders know everyone benefits when they teach others what they’ve learned.

    If you’re unable to identify people in your personal or professional life you consider to be good leaders, you can turn to history for examples. Biographies of great leaders can be a rich source of guidance and inspiration.

  • Look for opportunities to take on active leadership roles, personal or professional. Start a special interest group, or volunteer to lead an initiative in an existing group. Non-profit organizations are a great learning ground for things like taking risks, accepting accountability, facilitating teamwork, and overcoming obstacles creatively—all skills that are critical to becoming a good leader.

One of the things I remember most about that class last Fall was the weekly update from a pair of intrepid classmates who combined what they were learning in class with an enthusiastic desire to change the way their company approached design. Motivated by a commitment to their customers, and supported by our instructor’s advice and encouragement, these two coworkers took each week’s lesson back to their jobs and applied the approach to a product under development (and then they came back to class and shared all the juicy details with us!). Even though they had setbacks and encountered resistance, it was encouraging to hear that—even in that short seven-week span—they made progress in the incorporation of users in their company’s design approach.

Making change can be an incredibly rewarding experience; it can also be an excruciating process, and along the way you may question whether it’s worth the stress and frustration you experience, or if you even have a chance of succeeding. Be confident that if you believe in yourself and your vision, follow your instincts, arm yourself with knowledge, and gravitate toward people who support you, you will be successful as a leader, and you’ll inspire others to follow along.

CEOs Are From Mars…

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I’m pretty much a professional half-breed. You see, with both a television production background and an M.B.A., I have spent the past 20 years trying to bridge, heal, soothe, mend and otherwise repair the pervasive gap that divides “suits” and “creatives” in the business world. Along the way, I’ve played a number of roles including ringmaster, referee, coach, ambassador and even secret agent.

In an ideal world, both sides would meet in the middle and split the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

What I’ve learned is that the antagonism, hostility and resentment often felt on both sides of the equation is the outgrowth of a basic failure to understand what makes the other side tick.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
I used to believe that hard-core businesspeople actually understood their Photoshop-toting colleagues but chose, proactively and aggressively, to dismiss their skills, capabilities and talents as inconsequential fluff. The truth is much worse: many businesspeople simply don’t have the slightest idea what separates “good creative” from “bad creative.”

I’ve had executives admit to me that they couldn’t tell the difference between two competing portfolios, designs or layouts if their lives depended on it. At the same time, it’s fair to say that many designers are equally oblivious to the underlying business issues that drive decision-making in their organizations.

But, here’s the catch: design teams are the ones most likely to lose out when business requirements clash head-on with design imperatives. Because executives must stay focused on bottom-line results, aesthetic elements that seem indirectly related to the company’s business goals are easily dismissed in the corner office.

The hard part is that these design imperatives are, many times, a large part of the bottom-line results. To bridge the gap that divides business and design teams, it’s important that IAs and designers:

  • understand and respect the fundamentally different world views that separate them from most business managers,
  • commit to meeting business managers halfway (or more) when it’s time to define and articulate project goals and expectations, and
  • commit to educating themselves more completely about business issues, ideas and trends.

The view from the corner office
Try to put yourself in the CEO’s natty suede loafers for a moment: As the keepers of the fiscal flame in an organization, most executives are, understandably, more focused on the more quantitative elements of a corporation’s daily life.

They’re tasked specifically with both generating revenue and saving costs. And, at the end of the day, will be measured and compensated (or penalized!) by results that are summarized at the end of each quarter on a spreadsheet. Qualitative factors including user experience, design, content strategy and customer experience are considered a means to reach end-of-year financial goals, not an end unto themselves.

In fact, compared to complex quantitative calculations and projections, design and content architecture issues seem relatively straightforward and simple. With no spreadsheet to consult, final decisions about design, customer experience and navigation elements might seem to be based on personal preferences, favorite colors and an armchair quarterback’s appreciation of what’s stylish and hip.

Most quantitatively-focused managers simply don’t comprehend the relationship between business strategy and customer experience, or how design and content architecture serve to facilitate and articulate strategic corporate goals in the marketplace. And, without a clearly articulated business rationale to support IA and design priorities, they never will.

Finding the middle ground
Most deadly of all is every businessperson’s deep-seated allegiance to their own creative point of view. As I learned in business school, you can never convince a “qualitatively challenged” M.B.A. that a) they can’t write, b) they have limited people skills, c) their PowerPoint slides are dull, or d) they have no creative aptitude.

Redefining user experience issues in terms of business impacts and “domino effects” empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command.

Make no mistake: when it comes to design and customer experience issues, most business managers have stretched themselves as far across the divide as they’re capable. In an ideal world, this would mean meeting their IA teams in the middle and basically splitting the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

In this context, it becomes imperative for IAs and designers to take action to close the gap. And while this may mean that design teams have to take on more than their “fair share” of the burden, it’s important to not lose sight of the overall goal: delivering the best work possible.

By learning to frame creative issues in business terms and to draw meaningful connections between design efforts and the corporation’s bottom line, design teams and their projects are more likely to survive the corporate gauntlet.

The intersection of art and commerce
First, it’s important to take a close look at the organization from the inside out. Understand who’s writing the check for the project and what results they are being held accountable for. Ask:

  • How do project goals connect to the overall mission of the organization (if at all)?
  • Who stands to benefit from the project’s success?
  • What expectations—right or wrong—are associated with the project?
  • How long will it take the organization to see a return on their investment in the project?
  • How will the projects success and/or failure be measured at a corporate level?

For example, many corporate websites are created, primarily, to reduce costs associated with customer service (e.g., call centers, product documentation, software upgrades). To that end, the extent to which call center volume decreases and use of web-based tools or FAQs increases provides management with some indication of the site’s effectiveness.

Then, consider your project and the organization from an “outside in” perspective. Ask:

  • Are internally-driven corporate goals aligned with real customer needs?
  • Which customer needs is the project meant to address?
  • How are your company’s competitors responding to these emerging needs?
  • How will the new project impact other stakeholders (e.g., vendors, partners)?
  • How is success defined in this larger context?
  • Are there any related examples in your industry (or in other industries) that you can reference and learn from?
  • Have similar initiatives worked for other companies?

In the case of the customer service-focused website described above, it would be important to understand whether or not users are likely to accept a new form of customer service. Would an online option solve a problem for them or cause additional complications?

Armed with these two critical perspectives, a design team can begin to craft arguments that are solution-oriented and in line with the corporation’s bottom line.

Returning to the online customer service solution one last time, a business-savvy design team would focus on those elements that have the greatest impact on a user’s customer service needs. In this case, superior content, information architecture and user interface design are critical to the customer’s ability to find information and, by extension, solve the immediate problem that brought them to the site in the first place. If a customer in need becomes confused by the site’s navigation or search capabilities, they will never return to the site. By extension, their opinion of a company offering such a sloppy and incomplete solution will surely diminish.

Defining these kinds of business issues and “domino effects” also empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command. By anticipating questions and providing managers with the language to describe each design choice and associated business solution, projects are more likely to be spared endless rounds of questioning and negotiation.

And don’t forget to embrace and support those rare business managers who actually understand and support of your design team’s issues. These managers can be terrific allies and can also serve as a resource while you’re crafting the business case for your project.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste
You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation. On an ongoing basis, make a personal commitment to increase your general understanding of business issues, ideas and trends.

You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation.

By taking the time to study various industries and macro business issues, it becomes clear that there are business basics that drive every company. By finding parallels and lessons in other industries, you can begin to make better sense of your organization’s issues and challenges.

Understanding, for example, that Southwest Airlines actually considers its primary competitors to be railroads and bus lines (versus other regional airlines) not only provides you with insight into their business strategy, but also offers a great lesson in thinking more broadly about the dynamics of your business.

Begin picking up a Wall Street Journal once a week or, very simply, browsing the business section of your local newspaper. For more in-depth stories, the Harvard Business Review, despite it’s lofty and journal-like appearance, is a wholly approachable and practical source for new ideas, case studies and best practices across a number of industries. In fact, I have often recommended an article called “The Ultimate Creativity Machine: How BMW Turns Art Into Profit” from the January 2001 issue. It describes the challenges faced by the head of BMW’s German design studio as he seeks to ride the line between aesthetic, engineering and business requirements. For yet another look at emerging business trends, monthly magazines Fast Company and Business 2.0 scour the world for the most innovative and radical new ideas, companies and executives.

Business classes and seminars offer an opportunity to connect with other students to share new ideas. They are also a valuable resource for expanding your network of professional resources. This face-to-face interaction is critical. Imagine trying to learn a new language without having someone else to talk to.

Can’t we all just get along?
Remember that corporations are living, breathing ecosystems that are given life by the people who populate them. By making a conscious effort to focus on the big picture and bridge the gaps that divide the organization, you are contributing to a company’s overall success and, along the way, making your day-to-day working life, ultimately, a little less stressful.

Alma Derricks is the founder and principal of REV, a unique business strategy consultancy that provides firms imaginative strategic guidance, new revenue-creation models and fresh insight into what motivates and inspires customers. She can be reached directly at .

The Evolving Homepage: The Growth of Three Booksellers

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Web design is expensive. Web designers earn upwards of $50,000 a year1, information architects earn even more.2 During the heyday of web design—the late 1990s—designing a large commercial website could cost as much as designing a medium-sized building. During this period, commercial websites were created and then often completely replaced with redesigned versions a short time later. Today the redesigning continues, albeit at a slower pace. What is the return on this design investment? A report on online ROI from Forrester finds that many commercial sites fail to even try to measure the effectiveness of design changes.3

What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies?

The web has been with us for about a decade now. We’ve seen some obvious trends, such as greater use of multimedia, search engines, and increasingly sophisticated markup techniques. But these trends were facilitated by changes in technology. What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies? Perhaps we can start by asking how websites have actually changed over time, and from that we can learn how websites should change in the future.

To start working toward an answer, I compared three eCommerce sites:,, and Much of the media’s coverage of these websites, especially coverage of, discusses the business models, corporate cultures, and finances of the companies. Since the medium of interaction with these companies is the website, it’s ironic that the media rarely critiques the site design and its effect on business performance.

Because it is the homepage that carries the most responsibility for guiding customers, I examined the homepages of all three sites from a number of years, using screenshots from the Web Archive4. Presumably these large retailers had a great deal to gain, and lose, with these substantial online ventures. By comparing design decisions over time among the three sites, I hoped to discover lessons from their extensive and expensive design experience.

The companies
Competition is fierce in the online bookselling market, currently erupting in offers of “free shipping.” All three companies have annual revenues in the billions of dollars.

Barnes and Noble, which runs a large chain of stores in the United States, claims the largest audience reach of any bricks-and-mortar company with Internet presence.5 Yet, both they and Borders were put on the defensive when Amazon’s growth rocketed. During December, 2001 attracted over 10 million unique visitors,6 compared to Amazon’s 40 million visitors.7

Borders is the second largest bricks-and-mortar book chain in the U.S. 8 In April 2001, after operating their own online bookstore for several years, Borders announced an agreement to use Amazon’s eCommerce platform to power a co-branded website.

Amazon claims to be the leading online shopping site, having expanded their selection to music, video, auctions, electronics, housewares, computers and more.9 By February of 2002, Amazon, which had pursued a get-big-quick strategy typical of internet companies in the late 1990s, announced its first profitable quarter.10

I first studied these sites quantitatively looking for clear trends over time. I then critiqued them in a more qualitative way based on my own experience as both an in-house website designer and as an information architecture consultant.

There are many criteria that could be examined in such a study. I limited myself to those that would, I hoped, reveal as much as possible about the business intent of the design. I looked at criteria such as the type and size of layout, the type and amount of navigation, the amount of images and text, and functionality specific to the industry. Detailed results can be seen in the attached spreadsheet (PDF, 75k).


Chart showing growth in length of homepages over time
Click to enlarge.
Note: Missing data due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.

All three sites use very long screens to display content on their homepages.
Using a browser window with a constant width, we can compare the vertical size of each site (all screen references assume an 800 by 600 pixel monitor). The homepage grew from a vertical size of about 917 pixels in 1996 to over 3,000 pixels in 1999. Barnes and Noble’s homepage has hovered around 1,500 pixels for the last several years. Amazon’s homepage, which began at only 626 vertical pixels in 1995, stands at roughly 2,156 pixels today. In a web browser, that equals five scrolling screens of information. homepage above the fold, 1999 above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.
Barnes and Noble homepage above the fold, 1999
Barnes and Noble above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.
Amazon homepage above the fold, 1999
Amazon above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.

Note: Incomplete web pages are due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.

All three sites evolved to use three-column layouts.
In 1995 and 1996 respectively, Amazon and used single-column layouts. By 1999, both of these sites as well as Barnes and Noble used three column layouts.

Amazon has consistently placed more links above the fold.
In 1999, the Borders site displayed only about eight links “above the fold” (the top portion of the screen that is viewable without scrolling). Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon had significantly more links above the fold in 1999, 30 and 48 respectively. Amazon averaged 43 links above the fold between 1999 and 2002 versus only 27 links for Barnes and Noble during the same period.

Through the years, the density of links on was half of that on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
The density of links has varied over time, but as of 2002 both Barnes and Noble and Amazon stood at about one link for every 15 vertical pixels of screen real estate. Historically, the highest link density at was one link for every 28 vertical pixels.

Amazon communicates using images and links rather than text descriptions.
From 1999 through 2001, Amazon used more images and fewer text descriptions than Barnes and Noble. In 2002, both sites used about 560 words per page, yet the density of words was 33 percent lower on Amazon; Amazon distributes the words across the page as links rather than bunching them together in paragraphs. Over time, Barnes and Noble is becoming more like Amazon in this respect.

All sites eventually included navigation targeted at specific audiences.
Audience-based navigation—navigation labeled for a particular audience—appeared on in 1998, on Barnes and Noble in 2000, and on Amazon as early as 1999.

Invitations to subscribe to an email newsletter were offered inconsistently. didn’t include this feature until 1998. Barnes and Noble included it only in 1998 and 2001. Only Amazon consistently included this feature from 1995 to 2002.

Online and offline design
So what lessons can we learn about how these sites changed over time? How has design contributed to Amazon’s high growth and significant lead over the others? In general, Amazon found a winning formula and applied it consistently over time. In my mind, the successful design elements emulated offline shopping experiences in many ways.

Personally, I was surprised at how long these homepages had grown. Combined with the three-column layout, each page contains a great deal of information. This is quite like the perceptual experience of browsing in a physical store. When you walk down an aisle in a bricks-and-mortar store you can visually scan the shelves quite quickly. On these websites, the long, scrolling pages are analogous to aisles (major groupings of items) and the columns are analogous to shelves (more specific groupings of items). With a similarly natural, efficient motion, a visitor can scroll down the page and visually scan the three columns of product listings.

Amazon homepage
Amazon homepage
(January, 2002)
Click to enlarge.
Barnes and Noble homepage
Barnes and Noble homepage
(January, 2002)
Click to enlarge.

Amazon’s higher number and density of links, and placement of those links above the fold, also reminds me of the aggressive product positioning in a physical store. It’s like walking into a food market and immediately being overwhelmed with rows and rows of colorful fresh fruit, stimulating our eyes and engaging our appetites.

The prominent use of images and sparse use of text on Amazon again harks back to physical objects with simple labeling.

The arrival of navigation intended for specific audiences seemed inevitable. Especially for the book market, a children’s section was developed surprisingly late on these sites given the disproportionately high revenues that come from children’s books in traditional shopping venues.

In general, many of the functions of these pages have become commodities: search engines, shopping carts, authentication and store locators. But Amazon’s extensive personalization sets this site apart functionally. Personalization mimics a personal shopper or a local store employee who knows you. While the online recommendations aren’t always right on, neither is a human assistant.

Rate of change
Many studies have found that our performance using a software application improves over time as we become familiar with its interface. Gerald Lohse and his associates translated this finding into the realm of eCommerce websites using statistical analysis.11 They also found that website visitors learn to use a site more efficiently over time and that this increases their purchase rate. In simpler terms, it means familiar sites are easier for people to use, so familiar sites are where visitors will make purchases.

It follows that sites that can be learned more quickly will more quickly become familiar, increasing the amount of purchases. So a faster learning rate equals a higher purchase rate.

Furthermore, Lohse found that familiarity with a particular website makes visitors less likely to switch to a competitive site because of the effort and time needed to become familiar with another site. He refers to this behavior as “cognitive lock-in.” Essentially, we are creatures of habit. He applied this analysis to several eCommerce websites by measuring the number of visits per person, length of sessions, and timing and frequency of purchases. He found the learning rate significantly faster at Amazon than at Barnes and Noble.

The rate of design change supports this finding. Amazon had no major redesigns from 1999 to 2002, only adapting their design gradually to changing needs. Barnes and Noble significantly altered their navigation in 2000 and 2001. implemented major homepage changes in 1998 and 2000. Fewer redesigns make it easier for visitors to remain familiar with the site.

Many design elements on these websites are reminiscent of physical store layout, an approach to web design we should investigate further. Like physical stores, those designs should only change gradually to keep visitors buying. Continued analysis of other sites will hopefully help confirm or deny these findings.

It may be a fallacy to state, “Amazon is a successful business, therefore their website design is successful,” since many factors have contributed to their business success. And yet it’s hard to imagine them having such great success with a mediocre site. A similar eCommerce site launching today could do worse than examine and emulate the design elements that Amazon utilizes.

View all End Notes
Victor Lombardi writes, designs, and counsels, usually in New York City. His personal website is