geert lovink on 6 Jan 2001 23:09:09 -0000

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<nettime> Disassociate Webdesign from Usability

In response to a list of questions I received for a book about user
experience (see below), I wrote the following answer:

This is not the time to ask for favorite sites and personal taste. We have
long arrived in the age of  the Internet economy, which is currently going
through it's first recession. The web has become a world of lawyers and
consultants. The overall function of web design has rapidly mutated. It is
no longer demo design for the web as a whole, if that mythological space of
the early days ever existed. Let's check the web reality of 2000 and 1. I
have copy-pasted the first 20 sites from a web top 100 according to traffic,
taken from

2. 2.
3. 3.
4. 4.
5. 5.
6. 6.
7. 8.
8. 7.
9. 9.
10. 10.
11. 11.
12. 13.
13. 12.
14. 14.
15. 15.
16. 16.
17. 18.
18. 17.
19. -
20. 27.

Innovative and creative web design has lost its hegemony over the overall
look of the web. It is therefor time to rethink and redefine its position.
Either it declares an overall war to mainstream US-American tech and news
portals, which is unlikely. Or it could become truly obscure and develop its
own parallel universe of beauty. More feasible is the creation of an
exclusive global design class (similar and close to the ones in fashion,
architecture and the art market). A professional high/hype culture class of
experts, feeding into the world of education and the niche market of design
(web) magazines. This process is already well under way. Those who feel
unease about this tendency towards glamorous aloofness are not alone. We
could take initiatives and question the current trend towards cozy
uselessness. Webdesigners could reclaim the
Net, for example through a critical engagement in open source software,
peer-to-peer architectures and early design involvement in setting standards
for mobile phones, settop boxes, hand-held computers and other appliances.

There is a growing need to break through the liberal impasse we face at the
moment, where sophisticated web design still pretends to being avant-garde
but in fact it has lost grip on the web reality. Conceptual web design is in
danger to, involuntarily, get marginalised. Or marginalize itself if does
not develop a critical understanding of the rapidly changing economic
environment it is working in. Window dressing in a social and cultural
vacuum, the immanent problem of all design, has always been around - and
will always be. The misuse and appropriation by corporations for their own
profit sake is a dilemma everyone is facing. I am not talking about a decay
or even betrayal of web design. Quite the opposite. Flash technologies have
certainly created a second wave, a renaissance after the first "html" wave
of the mid nineties which java had not been able to trickle.

What is more frightening is the somewhat unconscious isolation of web
design, which can even be said of  Internet research as such. The New
Economy is more and more dictated by the fluctuations of the stock markets.
It is no longer driven by the will to pursuit technological innovation. It
has become ignorant towards flash applications, streaming media or 3D
virtual environments, avatar worlds, just to name a just few examples.

The "usability" discourse is undergoing a similar faith of slow regression.
Research about "stickiness", measuring user-friendliness of the design and
frequency of visits once served the rapidly growing user base who were not
anymore tech savvy compared to the first adapters who were not distracted by
inconsistencies. Navigation has become a non issue, thanks to usability
efforts. Since then usability research has turned against itself, de facto
advising companies how to fit best into the mainstream mono culture.
Pressure on the Internet departments of firms to generate cash is gigantic.
No one is buying the argument anymore that profile can be raised with funky
experiments. The attention economy is dead. "Aggregating 'eyeballs' is not,
in and of itself, a business model" Fortune magazine concluded recently.
Attention may contribute to branding but has failed to regenerate the
required revenues. I would therefor make a strong argument for web design to
disassociate itself from "usability" speech and its unintended effect of
streamlining the web. Despite all the good intentions of the usability
researchers such as Jacob Nielsen, Brenda Laurel and others. It's time to
uncover other unlikely futures for web design through new alliances.


> The focus of the book is on user motivation and experience. We would
> like you to do the following:
> 1, Name your favourite website in each of the following categories:
> a) chatting
> b) watching
> c) playing
> b) managing
> d) working
> e) buying
> f) learning
> g) traveling
> h) listening
> i) sharing
> j) laughing
> 2, Take one of these websites and answer the following questions relating
> to it:
> in one sentence, summarise why you've visted this site more than once?
> why is this site well designed?
> what does it do that makes it unique to you?
> what makes it 'beautiful'?
> what makes it useful to you?
> what do you use this site for and how often do you use it?
> on average, how long do you spend on each visit?
> where do you use this site, at home or at work or somewhere else?
> what is the most successful aspect of this site, your favourite part?
> what is the most useless thing about this site?
> 3, name one non-pc internet device or other interactive networked device
> and answer the following questions pertaining to that site/application:
> in one sentence, summarise what it is you like about this device?
> what makes it well designed?
> what does it do that is unique to the interactive environment?
> what makes it beautiful?
> does what you do with it, interact directly with things you do on other
> devices, i.e. web to phone, phone to web?
> on average, how long does it take to use this device?
> how often do you use this device?
> where do you use this device, at home or at work or somewhere else?
> what is the most successful aspect of this device, your favourite part?
> what is the most useless thing about this device?

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