June 5th, 2008

If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design


On the web, in the age of Google, design has no margin of error, and there are no stupid users, only inadequate designs. Those were the main points of my critique of newspaper websites generally, and WashingtonPost.com in particular, which to be fair, apply to all online publishers, and really any website. I’m writing another post on this same topic because the issue is so fundamental to the future of media, news, publishing, and journalism, that it really can’t be over-emphasized or over-clarified.

In print, a design flaw is unlikely to cause a reader to abandon a newspaper or magazine entirely — they are a largely captive audience. But it will cause them to abandon a website.

Google understands this better than any web company, which is why they are the most successful. Google is obsessed with making sure its users never fail, no matter how “stupid” they are. Google makes users feel smart. That’s why they keep coming back.

Invariably, when I write about a negative experience with a website, e.g. Twitter or WashingtonPost.com, someone puts forth what I call the “stupid user” argument — essentially, I failed because I’m a stupid user. And if I were a better user, I would have been more successful with the site.

For example, I discovered that WashingtonPost.com has a local version of its homepage, which it displays to logged in users. Creating different versions of a site for different users is web-savvy. If I had been logged in, I would have found the content I was looking for on the homepage. That’s all good, and much to their credit.

Unfortunately, I never log in to WashingtonPost.com, although I read it frequently. Therefore, the “stupid user” argument goes, the failure to find the content I wanted was my fault.

Here’s the problem — my failure to find the information I wanted is not MY problem, because I went to Google and found it. I succeeded. The failure is the site’s problem, because I abandoned it and went instead to a site that would help me succeed without having to be smarter.

WashingtonPost.com and, to be fair, most other sites that require registration assume that users will register to help the site achieve its goals, whether customizing content or targeting advertising.

But users don’t care about the site’s goals. They care about THEIR OWN goals.

Nowhere on WashingtonPost.com’s homepage do I see clear a message that registering or logging in will help me achieve MY goals. There’s a link to the Washington version of the homepage in the upper right corner, which has the best of intentions, but because I didn’t find it, it might as well not exist.

This is why Google rules the web. In Google’s world, the user is always right. Google knows that if users fail at their task, they will abandon Google in a heartbeat. Google’s dominance is EARNED, with every search, every click.

I saw Google’s Marissa Mayer give a talk at Web 2.0 a few years back about Google page load times — the talk had a narrowly focused, OCD quality to it. It was weird on the face of it. But this is how Google wins. By obsessing over user experience above all else.

This is also why Google punishes advertisers who try to trick users or provide a poor user experience. Because it reflects poorly on Google. And users don’t come back.

A commenter argued that I should have asked the Washington Post for a comment before publishing a critiquing of their site. My response was that in an analysis of a user experience with a web site, the publisher’s intent DOESN’T MATTER. Web users are utterly unforgiving. If it doesn’t work the way I want, I’m gone in a click. There is no other side to the story.

That’s brutal and, as the commenter asserted, rude and irresponsible. It just doesn’t seem fair.

But it’s also the reality of the web. Google understands this. If publishers want to compete, they need to accept this reality, swallow their pride, and realize that the user experience is EVERYTHING. Design on the web is not about ideals — all that matters is whether the user succeeds.

Before the web, having great content was enough. The irony of my critique of WashingtonPost.com is that it wasn’t a critique of content. They had GREAT content, when I actually found it — there weren’t really any editorial shortcomings. The critique had much more to do with software design than with editorial quality or judgment. News organizations need to add software user interface design to their core competencies.

Lesson for publishers: The web is more about applications than publications.

This is why it’s so damaging for news organizations to apply the standards of print publishing for design, content, and experience — they simply don’t apply on the web. The reality is that designers didn’t necessarily know if they were successful in print, because people kept subscribing to the newspaper anyway. But on the web, success or failure is evident with every click.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that user interface and user experience design are HARD. Even the best designer can’t always anticipate what users will do — or fail to do. Sites need to create a continuous feedback loop with users and improve their design and user experience over time.

WashingtonPost.com’s homepage has a far better design than many other newspaper websites, but its relative merits didn’t matter for my specific use case.

And to be clear, helping users succeed isn’t about pandering. My goal in going to WashingtonPost.com, as it frequently is, could be to find out what’s going on in the world. How I determine whether I’ve succeeded can be much more a function of the quality of editing and content. But when I want specific information, my criteria are far more narrow, and much more unforgiving.

According to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, web users are actually getting MORE hyper-focused and. unforgiving

To remain relevant as a destination, news sites need to help me achieve ALL my objectives ALL of the time.

Just like Google.


Google is inviting users to help them test out new features of Gmail. Can you imagine your average news site integrating users this deeply into their design process? I know that some have made meaningful efforts to test new designs, but Google keeps upping the ante on the embrace of users.

  • " The Web is more about application than about publication.

    This is half true. You are absolutely true about publications that don't take advantage of better or simpler application to push needed content first and give users what they want.

    But I have also been on the side of the fence where sites will have rich applications, or great simplicity / navigation, but very little content to keep me interested in the site.

    I think a better sentence is:

    The Web is more about content represented with simplicity ( blogs ) or collated with complexity ( apps and functions ) to aid the user's enjoyment. The web is about the user smiling. Period.

    I only add it because there are some really simple sites that are really popular, but the interface helps the user get to where they need to get to.

    Popular blogs are evident to simple publication that can broadcast to thousands without the addition of any rich applications or even simple search functions.

    I am gladly using your site as an example. I don't read the sidebar because the links and text are the same size. I dislike it, but your content is so amazing, that I am an avid reader of the site ( albeit only the last couple of weeks. ).

  • Kevin

    "The reality is that designers didn’t necessarily know if they were successful in print, because people kept subscribing to the newspaper anyway. But on the web, success or failure is evident with every click."

    Why is this true? Design isn't how something looks; it's how it works. If a newspaper didn't "work," then, in the long run, people would stop reading it. I agree that web and print design are different, but the fundamental goals are the same--to communicate information clearly.

    Granted, the designs of Google and a newspaper site like The Washington Post are different because they're different outlets. Google is built for search; the Post is built to convey content. To suggest that the Post website should just link to a bunch of blogs is a worthless idea. Why would they do that when Google could do that more efficiently?

    The Post's value is in its content. It may not have come across the best method to do that yet, but turning it into a blog search engine is a terribly misguided idea that ignores not only an understanding of news media, but basic design.

    ...Oh, looks like Blud already made this point. Well, sir, I agree with you, then.

  • This was considered controversial at the time: "The Expert User is Dead (2003)".

    It was a distillation of what I had been reading up to then on usability etc. I wrote in response to the pernicious notion popular in some academic libraries at the time that online applications were something that the user (i.e. the student) had to learn.

  • I agree completely. It is sad to see great content presented as poorly as it often is. Take a very simple example - if you want to see the archives for podcasts at the Wall Street Journal, NY Times or WP you get directed to iTunes. It's a complete delegation of providing a user experience to Apple's iTunes.

    Publishers need to start thinking of New Media as a real business and provide a first class user experience on their sites and everywhere else their media can be consumed if they want survive and thrive the media world that's now emerging.



    Alex Nesbitt
    Digital Podcast

  • JKaiser

    "long time listener, first time caller" to one of the best and most informed posts in the biz...but i think we're dealing with apples and oranges here. While the expectation and frustration are certainly justified (and i agree that once you decide to leave, WP's point of view becomes largely irrelevant), the comparison to Google seems unjust. Search sites and destination sites are inherently different navigation/UE assignments. While it's true that Google holds their users' experience above all else and that is one of the many things that has made them so dominant, content sites (news sites in particular) have a completely different set of challenges, a completely different user expectation, a completely different value relationship with their audience.

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