The User Is The Anonymous Web Designer

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We invest time, money and effort into understanding our audience, and the movement toward a more socially networked Web has made us realize the power that visitors have over how our designs are engineered; and we try to meet their ever-growing needs. Community is integral to the evolution and functioning of a website, and visitors and website owners have become dependent on each other. This reflects a change in the industry: the user has turned into an anonymous designer.

This article will explore the influential figure ‘user’ and uncover the power of your community. Whether you boast social applications, interactivity or a stream of regular visitors, your audience might be a powerful untapped resource at your fingertips. You, the website owner, have the power to make decisions and override them (for better or worse), but the user deserves to be recognized as more than a statistic.

Traditional Roles

Back in the Web’s infancy, the roles of the Web professional and visitor were clearly laid out. Technologies such as email, bulletin boards and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms existed, but most Web users were technologically inclined — cost and complexity of computers and Internet access were the biggest obstacles for many in the early days. Additionally, website were simple and the power of users was restricted; users had little sway with designers and developers.

The Professionals

The role of the Web professional used to be — famously, in the ’90s — to build websites that delivered certain information. Asking the user for feedback was an afterthought; this was evidence of the commonly held belief that we, the experts, knew what was best for users. Usability and accessibility were a luxury, and many website providers ignored them in an attempt to control the way the medium was used.

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Historically, the Web professional’s role was to maintain websites.

The following were considered the primary tasks of the Web professional:

  • Providing content and services to the client;
  • Creating a website to hold the information;
  • Dealing with technical requests about the information.

The Audience

Traditionally, the role of the audience was to give feedback, but it had — and still sometimes has — no influence on the website. The romanticized notion that a website owner should do whatever they want is to blame. In the past, a website’s popularity was determined mostly by content; marketing was restricted to directories and search engines; empowering the user and improving the feedback process was far from the designer’s mind.

The following were considered the primary tasks of the user:

  • Give the owner financial incentive to continue offering the service.
  • Popularize or endorse the website;
  • Put the professional’s creation, free or not, to good use.

Those times have (mostly) come and gone. Without visitors, our websites would hardly exist, and when we realize that, we will abandon our old-fashioned ways and quit imposing our assumptions on users. Visitor interaction has become vital to the experience of a website, and the need for positive feedback — now visible everywhere and uncontrollable — has reversed the roles: our audience now has the voice and tools it needs to be satisfied.

Playing The Part

It has become important for us to define what roles the Web professional and user play in the dynamic process of building and improving websites, especially given the new-found focus on user experience and the development of tools that allow visitors to engage with and become attached to our services. Furthermore, ensuring that these roles are, in fact, played is essential to the process.

The Professionals

Professionals hold the keys to the castle. While many designers focus on the result, understanding what audiences need, what problems need swift solutions, which visitors require these solutions and how best to implement them is paramount. You might have some control over your users, but they can still dampen your popularity.

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The user experience should actually serve the needs of users.

Here are some skills that professionals bring to the table:

  • Knowledge of how to build a website and how it works;
  • Experience with anticipating user needs;
  • Delivering services and content that users need.

The Audience

Audience members play a different role. Most websites don’t offer a broad spectrum of customizable features (for good reason) or feedback options that give insight into how visitors use the website or what they’d like to see improved — specifically, what they’d like to see improved that would make them return on a regular basis. Word of mouth has become a serious force on the Web with Twitter, Facebook and their kin; and while you control the code, they control users’ wallets, attention and referrals.

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Visitors know what they like, and negative feedback can spread quickly.

Here is what visitors contribute:

  • Essential feedback on core service failings;
  • Word-of-mouth promotion;
  • Knowledge of what works, not just what’s pretty.

The roles of professional and user can be reversed on occasions when one expert helps another improve their website, resulting in a mixture of a professional perspective and visitor-oriented goals. Being both visitor and expert gives you empathy for the user and a valuable perspective, especially if you’re lucky enough to be in a position of power.

Nature Versus Nurture

Both sides bring goods to the table. Professionals bring the service and content into existence, thereby providing the “location for the party.” New visitors share vital details about how you can encourage them to be more involved, and they spread your website to the masses. Maintaining equilibrium between the professional and user is required if your Web presence is going to survive.

The Professionals

As it stands, the professional designer still plays the traditional role, but it should be expanded to encompass the evolving needs of our audience. The ability to nurture and cultivate is a skill ignored by many in our industry. In the past, “If you build it, they will come” described the Web fairly accurately, especially given the limited competition, but easy enterprise and designing for yourself have failed by their own merit.

Here are some problems that face a Web professional:

  • Subjective opinion;
  • Too many tasks to be able to master one;
  • Fixated on success and reward (depending on the service being offered).

The Audience

Even if your visitor has no understanding of Web design, they will know what works for them, so you should encourage them to share their ideas. You can do this through code, design, experience and interactivity (or functionality). Playing to your audience’s strengths makes sense (if only to avoid the MySpace effect: going stale).

Some of the problems facing users are:

  • Lacking knowledge of the Web’s limitations;
  • Their diverse backgrounds and characters lead to quirks;
  • Subjective opinions.

Survival of the fittest is the name of the game, and with the increasing pressure to focus on the needs of users and encourage them to connect to your services, it’s important that your designs are user-centric: contextual and interactive. The anonymous designer who knows what they want is well equipped for the Internet’s future. We can’t overlook users as we did in the past.

Elements Of Success

At this point, you’re probably wondering why we should place so much trust in users. That’s a fair question. Distinguishing between constructive advice and useless drivel can be difficult when many users don’t even know what a Web browser is, and determining the relevance of reviews is a challenge when manipulation is commonplace. All interaction with users should be done with respect (and perhaps a grain of salt), but it’s still worth encouraging the crowd to take action.

The trick is to use your knowledge (from statistics to semantics), experience, research and trust (of information sources) to your advantage.

By using a mixture of both quantitative data (numbers, statistics, etc.) and qualitative data (opinions, ideas, etc.), you can make informed decisions about what will work best for your clients. Putting the onus entirely on visitors is unfair, but giving them a channel for input will make a difference. If you don’t please them, they’ll surely take their business elsewhere.


The ABCs of experience: appreciation, balance and communication.

A few of the ideas you get from users are bound to be cringe-worthy, but it’s surprising how many good ones you’ll get if you implement feedback functionality properly. The stereotypical designer who leads with his gut is a testament to the lack of awareness of user expectations and needs. We must acknowledge this co-dependency, this need for an exchange of perspectives, and the value of the anonymous designer.

Appreciation

Your visitors are so much more than statistics. They deserve to be appreciated. You, the professional, can re-engineer a website until the cows come home, but it’s ultimately up to users to decide whether to make use of your services. Acknowledging and understanding their needs, and encouraging diversity, is critical to breaking down barriers.

Screenshot4
Appreciate your users and the issues they might encounter, and be patient. That also means having a clean, attractive design that communicates. Example: EightHourDay5

Ask your visitors the following questions:

  • What, if anything, could my website offer to better meet your needs?
  • Do you have any technical difficulties with the way the website functions?
  • What more could we offer to deliver additional value?

Balance

Balance is integral to life, and it’s probably more critical to design than other Internet-related fields. Designers forge open bonds with visitors that often lead to social relationships that enrich not only our websites but our lives. Visitors hold greater value for our communities than many of us care to admit — think of Wikipedia or Facebook. Maintaining good relationships with them is paramount.

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Stay level-headed by maintaining the balance between contribution and ownership.

Ask your visitors the following questions:

  • How can we encourage you to participate more often?
  • What content or services would you like to see in future?
  • How much time do you spend on our website?

Communication

Communication is fundamental to our social and interactive experiences on the Web, and the staggering amount of rich content (not even counting spam!) that visitors contribute could exceed our wildest dreams. The user’s job is to come forth and help us help them, but our job is to act as intermediaries between them and the website so that they achieve the ideal experience. We are the Web’s “interpreters.”

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Communication is paramount. Make sure you can be contacted easily.

Ask your visitors the following questions:

  • Are we missing an essential feature that would help us help you?
  • Do you have any concerns or complaints that we need to address?
  • Is there anything you want to ask about our website or services?

The Sociological Switch

Of all that has been addressed in this article, the most important is the process of planning and implementing mechanisms for visitors to interact with your services. So, put time and effort into studying how to make your website better. There are many methods of doing this (audits, surveys, statistics). What’s important is that lines of communication with your users stay open, so that you can go about your business successfully.

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Planning and research make up a huge portion of the creation of the user experience.

The future of the Web will be about being socially connected, and a role reversal that I call the “sociological switch” seems to be taking place. Simply put, we Web professionals are becoming the audience of our users’ demands, and users are becoming anonymous designers, deciding where they visit, how the Web should evolve and how media are constructed and consumed.

As you leave comments below, just think that by contributing here, you’re making a difference in Smashing Magazine’s relationship with its audience and the world. By leaving space for your comments and your participation, Smashing Magazine is trying to meet your needs. Think about how you can use your audience to your advantage and improve design beyond even your own expectations.

(al)

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Alexander is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business (HiTechy) and writing, he spends time in Twitter, SitePoint's forums and other places, helping those in need.

  1. 1

    Well said…”The future of the Web will be about being socially connected”. Nice writeup!

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  2. 2

    Great article Alex. The larger issue of participatory design is something I gripe about regularly especially with government attempting co-design with services. Playing to users’ and customers’ strengths of knowledge whilst also recognising that we don’t expect or want them trying to mimic what professional designers bring to the table is vitally important.

    The one issue I have though is with your statement “experience with anticipating user needs”. I’m sure we’re both on the same page with what you were getting at but this kinda makes it sound like we’re mind readers. What we really do is analyse and synthesise research to extract insights into user behaviours, attitudes and goals within probable contexts of use and interaction. “Anticipation” makes it sound like we jump to conclusions without any empirical evidence.

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  3. 3

    “…Your visitors are so much more than statistics…”
    Thank you for this article, it helps us – as designers – to tell our story the way we think it should be told, but we’ve never encountered a story which tells it so visually.

    Jan Veninga, http://www.buroklei.nl (dutch web design studio)

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  4. 4

    Great Alex, it’s a great moment to have an article like this. You have really explained each and every point very effectively from the users point of view. And i am fully agree with the title also “The user is the anonymous web designer”.

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  5. 5

    “If you don’t please them, they’ll surely take their business elsewhere.”

    So true. If you don’t give the user the experience they prefer, they’re bound to keep looking until they find it. Who knows if the customer (user) is actually always right… The fact is they’ll keep searching to find their idea of “right” until they’re satisfied.

    The challenge is to understand which type of user is demanding a particular experience. You don’t want to misunderstand your analytics, then tailor your UX toward the wrong subset of users in the first place.

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  6. 6

    Nice article. It’s very true and when websites are developed with only the designer’s tastes in mind, it’s success will suffer. As you touched on here, there needs to be a great balance between what a good diversity of what users want, and what is visually appealing. The best designers are able to completely adapt to client needs all while creating unexpected and eye-catching design. Again, good information!

    -3
  7. 7

    Not feeling boagworld, surely there’s a vb or bb forum that’s better layed out and easier to navigate?

    -3
  8. 8

    It pretty much represents the status quo in the design process for a web site / application today. Good reference to bookmark for later!

    Thx for sharing, Alexander!

    -3
  9. 9

    I really love smashin and I thank all authors for taking the time and effort to contribute. I wish smashin authors would quit 90s bashing, we didn’t just build websites just because we could. The target audience and how to best promote and communicate he customers product was always a consideration. Because these concepts might seem new and fresh to the current generation who are discovering their benefits doesn’t mean that the same concepts haven’t been around web development from day 1. I like to read about trends, research based outcomes and how different forms of online communication can be implemented but comments like “users had little sway with designers and developers” rub me the wrong way.

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  10. 10

    Good article !!

    Really a designer should make designs targeting users, not himself. So that the information will reach the user…..

    -1
  11. 11

    Thank you for bringing up this new angel of viewing website. If we have more helpful users for our own site, that will save the time for the website owner and website designers/developers, meanwhile, the visitor/user are happy, which is one stone two birds. After all, the website is designed and developed ONLY for the users, not for website owner, not for designers/developers.
    Thank you Alexander

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  12. 12

    Good article, but I honestly don’t like the BoagWorld site. Browsing around the site takes a little getting used to. And I really hate how the designer of this site is so frugal with the left/right margins and white space.

    -2
  13. 13

    making a difference here!

    -2
  14. 14

    Hi Alex,

    All your points make sense to me :)
    Content may be king but when there are a lot of good content out there (hence, a lot of kings), it’s the site that listens to users (democracy?) that will get a huge following.

    BUT I think your “Balance” gear is wrong. It should go counterclockwise. ;-)

    -2
  15. 15

    Great article!

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  16. 17

    Great article. Well written and resourceful.

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  17. 18

    one of simple tutor and good articel, thanks

    -2
  18. 19

    Great article and very well written . Will share with my team on Monday!

    -2
  19. 20

    that’s very good post , need to think again of web industry and the user view

    -2
  20. 21

    Very nice article!

    -2
  21. 22

    i like this article…:)

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  22. 24

    mec like…:)))

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  23. 25

    :) thanks for this good article…:)

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  24. 26

    please write moreeeee…:)

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  25. 27

    really good article!!

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  26. 28

    Some history on ShellCity:

    This web site was community before there was community. This joint had a BB before 2000.

    What you don’t know about this ‘webmaster’ is that he has always encouraged involvement within structure so content remains relevant but the input is directly the users. He gave us a choice. Whats more he encouraged and nurtured people. Does your community do this?

    A user here named Vipe designed the style and my little buddy, Gerry modestly helped code chunks along with others. We all contribute to program suggestions and Bob maintains the db within an inch of its life.

    Bashing what is history is never a way to validate the present. History and progress share the same future.
    So I would like to extend an invitation to contribute some suggestions for applications and how to make this community stronger.

    http://www.shellcity.net

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    • 29

      Don, as much as I admire your passion for the site, I stand by my mention of it.

      Firstly in response to your email, I never once referred to Shell City as a “relic”. In regards to it’s community, the point I was making within the article was not that the site itself was non-communicative with it’s audience (even the oldest sites on the web were often supported by tools like email, IRC and BB systems) but that the design, layout and organization of the site were determined by the owner’s assimilation of feedback (via those systems) rather than the design being strictly dictated by the audience (holistically). This article is about the designing of sites, not the designing of content.

      As it happens, I’ve been visiting Shell City for many years and do enjoy the content. Why it was used as a “classical” site (in the sense of webmaster focused design) is that both in aesthetic and code, it would never be able to justifiably proclaim itself to have been inspired purely on a user-centered basis (beyond those who put it together). The navigability and organisation of the content (apart from it’s alphabetized system) is quite hard to browse, and in particular the source code used to structure this information would make navigating the content using a screen reader next to impossible.

      What this article does is not “bash history”, it is simply documenting the change in trend toward how design is undertaken. While you may not agree with my conclusions, the point I make is still valid. Times are changing and users are playing a greater role in the design of sites (in addition to content). It’s this ethos through testing and behavioural engineering that is revolutionising the state of usability and accessibility for the future.

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  27. 30

    Very interesting and well presented article. Understanding what your users are going to need from your site when they visit is so important that it can’t be ignored in the slightest way.

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  28. 31

    Mike Edward Moras (e-sushi™)

    February 1, 2011 4:48 pm

    Great article!

    Having said that, I hope you – the author – can please my curious soul and tell me what software/webapp is used in picture 3 (the last one, the one showing the visitor stats)? Thank you in advance!

    Update:
    ——-
    Scratch that question. I just discovered (by accident) that it’s “Google Analytics”. Power to those who know they need to click the image instead of reading the image descriptions. So much for user-friendly websites. EIsn’t this a nice example related to this article? It sure shows how “not to do it” or – in better words – how to fail being “user-friendly” and “accessible”! ;)

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  29. 32

    Now this is really a nice article. Will be saving this for future reference too. Some of the data would also be used by me to explain to clients how the design should evolve.

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