Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Is Your Website a Cathedral or a Fork?

This is the synopsis of a talk on user experience that I gave in Tokyo, Auckland, and Toronto in the early 2000′s.

Is your website a cathedral or is it a fork?

A few years back, during a short-lived stint as a globe-hopping web guru, I used to give a talk called, “Is your Website a Cathedral or is it a Fork?”  At a time when someone could write a book called “Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience,” and people could have job titles like “User Experience Manager,” I thought it appropriate to weigh in on the relationship between use and experience.

In order to characterize this relationship, I contrasted the user experience produced by a cathedral and that produced by a fork. In the first case, the user feels a life-altering sense of the divine serenity, a sense inseparable from the finely wrought majesty of the cathedral itself. In the second case, if it’s well designed, the user experiences the food, not the fork. On the strength of these examples, one can construct a continuum of experience ranging from the transcendent and sublime (cathedral) to the mundane and subliminal (fork). The bottom line: if something is truly useful, the experience of it disappears in its use.

I concluded that anyone designing a usable website needed to reduce its “experience quotient” to fork dimensions. The primary way to accomplish this is to cater to users’ unconscious expectations. Cognitively speaking, humans make a lot of assumptions about how objects in the world should behave, some of which are hard-wired, and some of which are based on experience. Since, as Jakob Nielsen has said, “People spend more time on other sites than they do on your site,” these “other sites” will have set the expectations that the user brings to your site. Most people actually visit a relatively small number of sites (Google, Yahoo, Amazon, etc.), therefore, most sites need to conform to the (relatively) minimalist aesthetic of these sites. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of usable sites, from microsoft.com to heroinhelper.com, rely on the exact same format (menus on left and right, content down the middle, search box right, etc.).

Aside from explaining the surprising sameness, designwise, of sites sporting radically divergent contents, I wanted to raise another issue with my cathedral/fork juxtaposition. I am not a web designer. I am sometimes a web user. More often than not, I am a web explorer. I explore the web in search of the strange, the puzzling, the amusing, and the bizarre. Indeed, a multitude of cybernetic spelunkers delve daily into the furthest corners of the web in pursuit of treasure and/or pleasure. The rise of “blog” culture – a blog, short for “weblog,” is a cross between a web diary and annotated links page – demonstrates that I am not alone in this endeavor.

Because use is not the only, and perhaps not even the primary, way that folks interact with the web, web designers should not only consider whether their sites are usable, but whether they are explorable. Making your website explorable means not only ensuring that people can find things on it, but, more importantly, that they can discover things on it. In that sense, explorability violates a central tenet of usability: transparency of content – that people know what they will find on your site and where to find it.  Explorability requires precisely the unpredictability that usability eschews.

That being said, explorability is not merely the purview of outré web artistes (like you’ll find at dream7.com or yugop.com), nor is it necessarily the opposite of usability. Consider Amazon.com. On the one hand, the site is eminently usable. Books, etc., are easy to find and easy to purchase. On the other hand, this site is explorable. Thanks to the open architecture which allows users to write reviews and create annotated lists of products, there is lots of discoverable content (including, as is now well known, zany reviews of “Family Circus” books). By adding elements of surprise, humor, and even inspiration, explorability helps Amazon.com raise its “experience quotient” above the null-point of most usable sites. As one unexpected consequence of this, however, this explorability means that people may visit Amazon again and again without ever “using” it (to buy things, for example).

Don’t get me wrong. The web needs forks. But the web does not exhaust itself in its forkishness. The web is not a tool. It is a meta-medium whose organizing principle is infinite possibility. For this reason, exploration, the search for the unknown among knowable, the unseen in the seeable, and the unthought in the thinkable, is closer than use to the essential heart of the web. What did you find today?

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