In the design of physical products, the use of words is often seen as a sign of a flaw of the design. On the contrary, in web design, without words, there is no design."If a design depends upon labels [words], it may be faulty," Donald Norman writes in his book, The Design of Everyday Things. "Labels are important and often necessary, but the appropriate use of natural mappings can minimize the need for them. Whenever labels seem necessary, consider another design."
A door handle looks like something you can grip; a chair looks like something upon which you can sit; a glass looks like something you can hold.
A door doesn't need a label saying "Grip Here"; a chair doesn't need a label saying "Sit Here"; a glass doesn't need a label saying "Hold here". We only need to look at these things to know what to do.
What does a website look like? In particular, what would a website look like if you took away all its words? Or put it this way: How would your website work if you took away all its words?
You can't touch, squeeze, grip, walk around, size up (or down) a website. In fact, you get practically no sense of the use of a website by looking at it. (It's just another website with three column design, smiling faces and pictures of buildings.)
You understand the use of a website by reading it. You read the labels, classifications, buttons, and other pieces of text. That's how you know what the website is about. That's how you know what to do next.
"Usability is not often thought of as a criterion during the purchasing process," Norman also states in his excellent book. "Moreover, unless you actually test a number of units in a realistic environment doing typical tasks, you are unlikely to notice the ease or difficulty of use. If you just look at something, it appears straightforward enough, and the array of wonderful features seems to be a virtue."
I recently bought a new TV. The usability of the TV itself wasn't an issue. I didn't even turn it on. However, the usability of the stores I visited was very important. In one store I found a TV I liked. I waited for someone to help me buy it.
When I got someone, he told me it wasn't in stock, but that I could order it. He told me he couldn't take the order, that I'd have to wait for someone else. I waited a little longer, then left. The TV I finally bought cost 50 percent more but I wasn't left waiting and it was in stock.
On the Web, before you can get to the product or service of the organization, you have to use the website. What you are essentially using is words. Words can make you wait or speed you on your journey. Words can make you more confused or answer a question you had.
A website designer is a designer of words. Website usability is the principle measure of success. The Web turns design on its head. Everything builds from the word.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.