Cast your mind back, if you will, to the heady days of the “Web 1.0” bubble. A fellow by the name of Philip Greenspun was a Ph.D. student at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. He was also a serial entrepreneur, a one-percenter, and a very opinionated photographer. (It may be more difficult for some of you to remember those days than others; I know some of my audience here was not even 10 years old then, and doesn’t really remember the days Before Google.) In the year I started my current job at MIT. Greenspun published a book, written in his typically bombastic style: Philip Greenspun’s Database Backed Web Sites: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Web Publishing (ZD Press, 1997). Most of what was in that book has since been overtaken by events, to say the least, but one particular claim, early on in the introductory chapters, bears revisiting. (You young’uns will have to remember that, in the days Before Google, many reference works and databases were published as CD-ROMs that required proprietary, vendor-specific software to browse and search.)
When you use a set of traditional Web sites, you don’t have to learn anything new. Every CD-ROM, on the other hand, has a sui generis user interface. Somebody thought it would be cute to put a little navigation cube at the bottom right of the screen. Somebody else thought it would be neat if you clicked on the righthand page of an open book to take you to the next page. Meanwhile, you sit there for 15 seconds feeling frustrated, with no clue that you are supposed to do anything with that book graphic on the screen. The CD-ROM goes back on the shelf.
The beauty of Netscape 2.0 and more recent browsers is that they allow the graphic designers behind Web sites to make their sites just as opaque and hard to use as CD-ROMs. Graphic designers are not user interface designers. If you read a book like the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (Apple Computer, Inc.; Addison-Wesley, 1993), you will appreciate what kind of thought goes into a well-designed user interface. Most of it has nothing to do with graphics and appearance. Pull-down menus are not better than pop-up menus because they look prettier; they are better because you always know exactly where to find the Print command.
Some of the bad things a graphic designer can do with a page were possible even way back in the days of Netscape 1.1. A graphic designer might note that most of the text on a page was hyperlinks and decide to just make all of the text black (text=#000000, link=#000000, vlink=#000000). Alternatively, he may choose a funky color for a background and then three more funky colors for text, links, and visited links. Either way, users have no way of knowing what is a hyperlink and what isn’t. Often designers get bored and change the colors even for different pages on the same site.
— pp. 40–41
I’ll close with one more quote from Phil Greenspun:
Remember, the Web is not there so that you can impose what you think is cool on readers.
— p. 42