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It’s all about the user, dear.

25 September 2007

I find it interesting how web publishing so clearly mirrors print publishing. Perhaps not the advertising model — that’s still in flux in both camps — but the user model. Newspaper editors are concerned with two types of stories: the ones that the readers want to read, and the ones that the readers need to read.

Then I think about my local newspaper. There’s the police log, the fire log, the public notices, the school lunch menus — all the stuff I want, available when I want to find it. I already know it’s there. It’s referenced in the page index of the paper, so I know right where to flip. It’s always in the same font, the same size, easily recognizable. It’s easy for the user, who anticipates its existence, to locate it when she wants to.

But then there’s the stuff we need to know, but don’t know to look for. That’s the stuff on the front page, the news well, the feature well — the stuff we don’t even know to ask about, because we don’t know what we don’t know. The editors have a handle on the content. They know what they’ve got, and we readers entrust them to judge the important items, and stick them where we can’t help but see them. We need to know, even if we didn’t ask (because we didn’t know to ask, so didn’t come awanting).

As web publishers, we show our users what we think they need to read — someone has to do the information architecture, make decisions about what goes where, and frame the user’s first impression. We also need to provide users with what they want to read; we are rightly inclined to include search functionality, site maps, and other navigational aids to expose content at the user’s behest.

What drives the need? For a local paper, perhaps good citizenship. For a trade pub, something important to our careers or our businesses. For a web project…whatever you, as the content wrangler, decide to be the most important. (If you make a glaringly wrong decision — well, either you didn’t have enough information, or you’re in the wrong line of work.)

Experience in conventional publishing is a boon for anyone who’s a web developer, because although the media is somewhat different, the users are the same, and they’re looking for the same stuff. As a consumer, I don’t care if I’m reading the school committee meeting minutes on a screen or on a page. I’m the same person, looking for the same information.

As web developers, it’s our job to make sure our users can get what they need as easily and intuitively as possible. User interfaces should be developed by people who know how to develop user interfaces (e.g. editors and art directors), not database developers who have no such experience. But too often, the UI follows the backend. (Here’s a fun real-world example. Well, fun, as in, horrifying.) A clock asymptotically approaches useless if you can’t figure out how to set it — I can more easily look at my watch than dig the manual out of the glove box and profess some mysterious incantation over the trip odometer — something that I’ll not remember six months later when I need to reset the clock. Make it easy, or I’m not going to be able to get what I want or what I need.

People forget. We’re busy. And I feel rather disrespected when something that could have been made so obvious is not. As a web developer, I’m in the service of my users. It’s my job to give them what they need, to give them what they want, and facilitate their getting it. I feel pretty maternal towards my users. I wish more content owners did.

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