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The Difference Between Success and Failure

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One of the most difficult things to do when you know something is remember what it was like to not know it. This is of particular importance when you are building websites for for someone other than you. This was brought into clearer focus when I finished reading The Design of Everyday Things, which explained that not only must websites be attractive, but they must also help prevent errors by creative and constructive use of design constraints.

* * * * *
Pencil A common worry among designers, when building a website, is that the many affordances we make for usability limit what the designer can do to make it look good or to make it "cool."
It turns out, though, that those affordances create opportunities for greater creativity and more usable experiences for people other than the designer. As easy (and fun!) as it is to blame designers for being stereotypically stubborn, the problem lies not only with them, but with everyone too familiar with their company and unfamiliar with the power of creative constraints.
Thanks to the book, Made to Stick, I learned that one of the most difficult things to do when you know something is remember what it was like to not know it. This is of particular importance when you are building websites for someone other than you. This was brought into clearer focus when I finished reading The Design of Everyday Things, which explained that not only must websites be attractive, but they must also help prevent errors by creative and constructive use of design constraints.

The usability of a pencil

Certain tools are built with few meaningful constraints, and they require the expertise of the user to put it to good use.
A pencil, for instance, is a simple yet elegant tool. I'm not sure, but I suspect that it is pretty clear after seeing it used one time that the pointy end goes on the paper, and that dragging it across the page with a little pressure makes a mark.
However, a pencil is most useful to people who already know how to write or draw. It has one function with many uses. The quality of the work depends on executing a set of variables among infinite possibilities within the constraints the user deems necessary to achieve a specific end.
The difficulty is that the pencil gives no indication of what those constraints are.

An example

I am a novice illustrator. It's a casual hobby for me that I haven't practiced in many years. Give me a pencil, and the results wouldn't be that striking.
My brother, on the other hand, has been studying and practicing art for decades. A pencil in his hands can be magical, meaningful, or just plain funny.
Drawing Board Gannon Beck political caricature
He's able to use a pencil so well because he is an expert with it. With the same tool, I couldn't accomplish the same thing without years and years of practice.

What you know can kill your site

Obviously, your audience will know how and be able to read (or will have workarounds). But that doesn't mean they know the internal or industry jibberish you sometimes use when you communicate with your associates. So, by design, do not use it, as much as possible. If you must use such nonsense, do your best to explain them clearly.
Put another way, you must constrain your vocabulary intentionally to make sure what you write can be and is likely to be read by your intended audience.
The reason is this -- Except in certain rare cases, your website isn't going to be used by just experts.

Build for your audience, not for yourself

You have to consider the larger audience. Therefore, you have to do more than create a tool (like a pencil) that can be used in one way (your preferred way) out of a million -- You have to ensure it can be used only in the way it was intended, which means designing meaningful and intuitive constraints.
The more complicated the task, the more difficult this is, but in the end, your site should be more like color-by-numbers than a pencil.
To be effective, the constraints must be visible and easy to understand, so that the users can easily predict what can be done and what results they will get.
This will build your users' confidence in your site, and therefore you. Once that confidence is built, your users will understand that it is risky to go to anyone else to buy what you have to sell. Therefore it is important that you implement these principles quickly. Confidence, once lost and found elsewhere, is difficult to regain.
Image credits:
Pencil by Big-E-Mr-G
Drawing table by ArSiSa7
Caricature sketch by Gannon Beck
(used with permission)

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As the youngest member of his family, Cam Beck decided to put college on hold long enough to join his brothers and father in the Marine Corps. After training as a basic rifleman and an electronics technician, Cam was released from active duty in 1993 and has been working in the civilian workforce ever since - never holding fewer than two jobs and/or businesses at once for long. While taming his learned nomadic tendencies, he finally finished undergraduate school in 2004.

Paying homage to his military roots, Cam cut his teeth on Internet marketing with the launch of in 1997, hoping to capture and explain the essence of what makes the Marine Corps such a tight-knit organization. It was through this experience of serving those he admired that Cam came to develop his philosophy for good business:

  1. In order to deliver effective customer service, you must first become a servant to your customers.
  2. To become an effective servant to your customers, you must first admire and respect them.
  3. Respect for others requires you put their needs before your own.
  4. Every experience is a learning opportunity.

These maxims have served as the basis for Cam’s philosophy of user-centered design as an experience planner for Click Here, Inc., where Cam focuses on the disciplines of information architecture, usability, and strategy for Click Here’s clients.

Cam lives in Grand Prairie, Texas with his family and dogs. When he’s not changing diapers, cleaning up other messes, blogging, or dreaming, he’s volunteering for and participating in his son’s Boy Scout troop.

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  • by Lewis Green Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Build for your audience, not for yourself. Cam, to me that is the alpha and the omega of website design. At the end of the day, it is always about them, not us.

  • by Paul Barsch Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Good website design and usability inspires and infuses confidence in the seller as competent and trustworthy- there's quite a transferrance effect. Cam, thanks to you, the Design of Everyday Things has been added to my reading list.

  • by Cam Beck Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Paul - If you want a good book on website usability, I can recommend a few. The Design of Everyday Things is about product design in general -- It is not specific to websites (though it does tough on computer interfaces). Once you read it, you'll never look at the world the same way again.

  • by Lisa Braithwaite Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Cam, "build for your audience, not for yourself" sounds a lot like the primary rule of public speaking! For that matter, if just about everyone in any kind of business focused on their audience's needs and wants, they'd probably be a lot more successful. Pretty universal concept.

  • by Toad Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Cam: Some of the worst offenders in this category are ad agency web sites, which constantly try and show off the designers ability with Flash, as opposed to any real usability. I'm further amazed by the fact that a number of lower end agency sites (e.g. small, non-boutique local shops) tend to open on a page with loud disco muzak playing, as if that somehow made them cooler and more user friendly. As for consumer site design, we're at an odd place right now, where many people are familiar with things like rollover menus and the like, which baffle the other half of the population. Which makes your point about knowing your audience all the more important.

  • by Toad Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    PS: Funny example of the limitations of SEO and SEM right on this page: there's a link to buy Pencil Drawings on eBay!

  • by Dusan Vrban Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    For the last year I'm really focusing on analysing the sites we make through google analytics and with the different end users. Changes now seem like a never ending story. :-) One of the big limitations to user friendly seems SEO as well. Huh, the moments I don't like search engines developers. :-)

  • by Cam Beck Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Lisa - The "argument" usually starts and "ends" when the designer quotes Henry Ford's comment about how listening to the consumer would have caused him to make faster horses. Unfortunately, it's very short-sighted. Toad - Doesn't Disco Muzak make everyone cooler? ;) Dusan - I imagine it depends on the site and the terms you're trying to optimize for, but I've seen how writing content friendly to SEO is also friendly to users, too.

  • by Valeria Maltoni Mon Feb 18, 2008 via blog

    Where do I start? Technology, engineering, science, any company whose go-to-market process is internally focused and never checks in with the needs and wants of the marketplace. A good idea to ask what do they call the solution to this problem? Even better, what to they call the problem? The way I see it, before you can burnish your mark in someone's mind, you've got to speak their language. Communication works in the simplest terms (good example with the pencil). Tell what it is, what it solves in terms I get. Of course, you can choose to spend more effort (time and funds) to first talk about your brand, then associate it with what the market knows. Always a good idea to research and do usability. For web sites, how many paths could people take to find the same idea? Can you build it so that you've thought it through from their perspective?

  • by Cam Beck Tue Feb 19, 2008 via blog

    "Can you build it so that you've thought it through from their perspective?" I sure hope so, or else I'll have to find something else to do with my time. :) As you say, defining the problem in their terms is critical to this.

  • by poetryman69 Tue Feb 19, 2008 via blog

    "Triggering the Grand Irrationality?" Cowering in an obscure corner of the food pyramid somewhere between the tofu and the unflavored yogurt contemplating the juxtaposition of intangibles for all you are worth.....

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