What Makes a Web Site Work
What is it about buildings that stir us? Regardless of whether we consider ourselves architectural connoisseurs or just plain folks, we all encounter different physical structures every day. Each building affects us emotionally, whether we realize it or not.
Just this evening, I spent time in a dark, smoky bar with original tin ceilings and exposed brick walls. The bar has been around forever, as have some of the patrons, but I chose to spend time sipping beer there rather than in the neighboring gleaming microbrewery that opened last year. The new place has a wider menu of beers, better food, and non-smoking sections, but tonight I preferred the old joint with the great graffiti on the bathroom walls.
After the bar, I went to a café to read. Ann Arbor has about 25 cafés, 10 of which are within walking distance of each other, and they're all decent places. So why did I go to this one? It has a great nook with soft chairs and a low ceiling, providing an almost totally enclosed space where I can have the privacy I want.
And now I'm back at the office. Our space is located in an old building that originally was a mechanic's garage. What was once the oil pit is now a sunken-level workspace for graphic designers. Exposed timber beams lift the roof high over an eclectic space conducive to creativity. After the garage closed, the building was a greasy spoon; my office is where the kitchen used to be. Repurposed every decade or so, our building has worn many hats over time and overflows with history. Back in 1918, the builder could never have conceived that it eventually would be occupied by a Cajun restaurant or a travel agency, much less an information architecture firm.
Why so much talk about the impressions that physical structures make on us? Because they are familiar to us in ways that web sites are not. Like web sites, buildings have architectures that cause us to react. Buildings and their architectures therefore provide us with great opportunities to make analogies about web sites and their architectures.
Buildings and their architectures are diverse. Consider the extent of architectural ground I covered in my brief evening jaunt. Buildings look different - or are architected differently - because they must cater to so many different uses, users, and moods. Warehouses, strip malls, and Chinese restaurants look and work the way they do because they are designed for varying uses. Drinking beer with friends, reading quietly, and working all require different environments to succeed. Web sites are the same; we visit them to learn about alternative medicine, play games, or vent our frustration. So each web site requires a different architecture, designed with its particular users and uses in mind.
Some architectures disgust us. Ask someone who owns a house with a flat roof how they feel about its architecture. Or someone who spends too much time in a kitchen with no counter space right next to the refrigerator. Or someone who works in a steel-and-glass high-rise with fixed windows that prevent the building's occupants from opening them and letting in fresh air.
Why do bad architectures happen so often? Because their architects generally don't live or work in the buildings they design. That hardly seems fair. The same is true of so many web sites. Why does that main page contain over a hundred and forty links? How come the contact information is buried so deep in the site? Why do I keep getting lost? Don't these web sites' architects ever use their own sites?
That's exactly what the next section is about. You can't really become a proficient web site architect unless you first know what it's like to really use the Web on a regular basis. In other words, the best web site producer is an experienced consumer. You must become the toughest, most critical consumer of web sites you possibly can. Determining what you love, what you hate, and why, will shape your own personal web design philosophy. In turn, drawing on your new sensitivity to web consumers' needs will make a great difference as you start designing and building your own web site. Reaching such a level of user-centered awareness sets you aside from every other web site developer; in a profession with such a low barrier of entry, it may be all you have to ensure that your work stands out.