Embracing the limitations and possibilities of the web

Mark Friesen at NewsDesigner.com pointed out a brilliant post by Khoi Vinh in August that I missed in my hundreds of feeds. Khoi is the design director at the New York Times and was writing about the differences between print and online design.

The original post was pitched at designers, but I think it’s equally important reading for editors, both in print and broadcast as they approach the web. It’s probably uncontroversial to say that editors get what they want, and sometimes coming to the web from another medium, they get something suited for print or television that is poorly suited for online audiences. It’s not unsurprising that TV sites still suffer an over-reliance on Flash because the animation reminds them of their home medium, and most print sites suffer from an altogether too literal translation from print to the web.

For designers, he suggests learning HTML and CSS before diving into Flash because:

(Flash) leads too easily to the assumption that a similar amount of authorial control can be exerted in online design as can be achieved offline — which is a fallacy.

Print editors do not realise that the level of control they exert on the printed page is almost impossible to exert on the web, and sometimes trying to exert that control gets in the way of thinking about the possibilities of the web as opposed to its limitations. It’s sad to say that in 2007, we’re still doing too much shoveling of content onto web sites and too little of creating content best suited for the web.

Khoi says it this way:

The prerequisite for doing something meaningful with any of these skills — HTML, CSS, Flash or whatever — is first embracing the medium as something different from print. Indeed, there’s no point in learning these skills unless as a print designer you’ve made a prior shift in your understanding of how design works in digital media. Specifically, come to grips with the fact that, on the Web, design is not a method for implementing narrative, as it is in print, but rather it’s a method for making behaviors possible.

Coming to the web, he says designers, and I would say, editors are too focused on fixing type faces, point sizes, while “ignoring usability and expediency”. The way that I put it is that most editors think the web is a magical place where Harry Potters wave their magic wands and anything is possible. It’s really a lot more like the Matrix, rules can be bent and some broken, but most of the time, it’s about being creative within those rules.

But there is one line that from Khoi’s post that stuck out. In the closing paragraph, he encourages designers to experiment “to begin understanding how a page is put together, how it is delivered to a browser, how it behaves and, crucially, how the designer’s intention maps to how it is used by real people.” We’re still making basic mistakes in building news sites, lessons that we learned in late 90s but might have been lost in the dot.com bust.

  • News sites should be designed around the information needs of your users not your desk structure, org chart or programme schedule.
  • Design is important, but we also need to consider information architecture. What’s that? Jesse James Garrett says: “Information Architecture: Stuctural design of the information space to facilitate intuitive access to content.”
  • Editors should sit in on a user-testing session. We build the sites and know them inside out. Our users don’t have that inside knowledge.

Sitting in on user-testing is humbling and enlightening. It starts to break down our own notions of how we use our sites and replaces them with how users navigate our sites or in many cases fail to find the information they want. It might even surprise editors about the kind of information readers want.

Khoi ends with another way of putting the importance of mindset as well as skillset:

Without that basic sense of curiosity, that insatiable desire to experiment and understand new ways of doing everything, the Web isn’t much fun at all, regardless of how much experience a designer has under her belt.

Curiosity and passion. The web isn’t print, and it isn’t television. It’s something different, and it’s an amazing, incomparable place to do journalism.

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