June 5th, 2008

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

by

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.

UPDATE:

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.

Comments (20 Responses so far)

  1. [...] Karp in the comments for being a “stupid user”, but Karp makes a good point in a rejoinder post. Here’s the problem — my failure to find the information I wanted is not MY problem, because I [...]

  2. Nobody can help you achieve ALL your objectives ALL of the time. Not even your beloved Google. IMO the whole concept of a website as a destination is wrong.
    A newspaper website provides professionally produced and edited content, and as you say yourself, WashingtonPost.com does that very well. If you’re looking to find specific content, then the best way to do that is to go to Google – who do *that* very well.
    In fact, that is just what you did eventually, and you got to the content you wanted.
    As you said, the web isn’t the offline world. You’re not part of a captive audience. Everything is just a click away, and newspaper websites are better off doing what they do best – producing content, and letting search engines do what they do best – leading people to that content based on their search queries. Of course, a little knowledge of SEO to make sure that it’s their content that shows up in search won’t hurt.

  3. Do we know whether / how much user testing WaPo does?

  4. I totally agree with you. Most news sites are unnecessarily frustrating. And I believe that part of why Google trumped Yahoo was certainly the more accurate and relevant results, but the other part was the lovely, simply, can’t-mess-it-up user interface.

    With Yahoo, it often used to take 4-5 tries to find what I was looking for. With Google, it’s usually in the first screen of the first query (of course, I do specific queries). But more to the point, on Yahoo, you have to hunt through so much clutter to even *find* the query box!

    I will usually try a site-specific search tool first, if I’m looking for something on a specific site. But at least 10% of the time, I end up going to Google and limiting my search to that domain, because the site’s search tool doesn’t give me what I want.

    Shel Horowitz, award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First (and six other books)
    http://www.principledprofit.com

  5. [...] Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has been griping about his experience using his local newspaper website which just so happens to be the Washington Post. Driven by a desire to find out about power cuts as [...]

  6. Well said Scott! I’m personally a web grazer, when I have a free second I hit one of my arsenal of sites and see what catches my eye. In general you have about 30 seconds. If I need to log in, your thirty seconds are up.

    I’m not a stupid user. I design these things for a living. If you don’t have my attention it’s got nothing to do with me.

  7. GOOGS is top class b’coz it is too simple and easy to use but what adding some artificial intelligence to get on with the serious business?

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

    This post and the one previous misses an important reality about the web: search engines and content providers are different things. And some content providers serve needs that others don’t. That’s not a failure, it’s a market.

    Newspapers are good at providing original, high quality reporting, and that is why people still consume newspapers online. Reading, whether online or in print, is first and foremost about WHAT you are reading and only secondarily about the format. People do now and will continue to go to newspapers because they are the producers of a unique commodity: high quality original reporting.

    Newspaper consumers, whether local or national or international, are still a captive audience, if the “show” we’re talking about is actual reporting of the news. What the NYTimes produces cannot be found on your favorite blog/vlog/social networking/photo sharing/video sharing/whatever site, that is why people will continue to go there. The UI is only a very small part of that. Look at Matt Drudge–why do you suppose he gets millions of visitors a day, all the great apps?

    As in your previous post about WAPO not catering to your immediate needs, I would say that your bad experience there is primarily because you went to the wrong place for information. It’s like you went shopping for groceries at Best Buy. WAPO isn’t making lots of money from serving you up to date local weather info in a slick interface. Should they? I don’t think so, just like I don’t think Google should be engaging in original reporting. It’s apparently not what they’re good at. You can’t be everything to everyone.

  9. [...] If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design by Scott Karp: 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. [...]

  10. “WashingtonPost.com and, to be fair, most other sites that require registration assume that users will register to help the site achieve its goals” – nope, they hope people will want whatever it is that’s on the other side of the registration box badly enough that they’ll put with the crap registration.

    “Lesson for publishers: The web is more about applications than publications.” – no, it’s both or nothing. Place you can’t get to makes as much sense as a super duper road to nowhere.

  11. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the AP’s recently published study on news consumption and usability:
    http://www.ap.org/newmodel.pdf

    Studies like this one are similar to the approach Google takes in rethinking existing design.

  12. “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.

  13. [...] If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design – Publishing 2.0 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. (tags: design newspapers publishing webdesign media news advertising) [...]

  14. 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.

    Best,

    Alex

    Alex Nesbitt
    Digital Podcast

  15. 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.

  16. [...] Kent Anderson under Experimentation, Social Role, Technology, Tools, World of Tomorrow   In a recent post on his Publishing 2.0 blog, Scott Karp used one of my favorite lines: Lesson for publishers: The web is more about [...]

  17. “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.

  18. ” 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. ).

  19. [...] of users completing their tasks on sites that do not take user need into account. His article, If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design is a follow on piece to his describing the difficulty of finding relevant content on a local [...]

  20. [...] Ein Nachfolgepost sagt es noch pointierter: If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design [...]

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