The Economics of Web Design

The more money that's spent on a web page, the worse it will work. I try to figure out why.

Selling the real product, or the page?

The purpose of a web page is often twofold:

As long as the page is done for free, the designer has very little competition. And because he is not getting paid, he doesn't worry too much about losing the job, anyway. So the designer will concentrate on selling the product, not the page.

Once the job gets well paid, you obviously want to keep it. So you'll concentrate on impressing the company's executives, not on selling the real product.

Three Ideals

The infotopian page

The infotopian page is measured by how well it informs the public. It contains complete and true information, is easily found by search engines, puts the user in control of her navigation, has permanent URLs, doesn't let the user wait, doesn't demand any special browser, OS or plug etc…

The capitalist page

The capitalist page is measured by how well it sells the product. In practice, it will probably be quite close to the infotopian page. The main difference is that the capitalist page avoids linking to competing products. And some times—if the product is really bad—it may contain omissions or even lies about the product.

The corporate page

The corporate page is measured solely by how much a demo impresses the executives. The execs know their products, so they are unable to see if the page tells about the products or not. (Except in the music industry, where the execs do not know the products. But they are not interested, so the net result is the same: the page is not evaluated for information content.)

The demo is run on a big, new and expensive PC, connected with Gb/s net directly plugged into the server. And the page is designed for and tested with this particular machine, so the technical aspects of the page will pass the 'test' with flying colors.

The demo is done by the chief designer—the execs never get to touch mouse or keyboard. (They probably wouldn't dare for fear of making fools of themselves—not realizing that any mistake would be the designer's fault.) A site would have to be extremely bad if its own designer can't navigate a rehearsed route through it. Navigation will obviously pass the 'test'.

Advertising Professionals

Because the job is well paid, it is usually done by advertising professionals, drawing on their long experience with printed media and television. The exposure to one-way media is an occupational hazard, often resulting in a Shut up while talking to me! attitude. HTML gives the reader opportunities to choose what part of the message he wants to hear. Rather than using these possibilities, the corporate page will often try its best to cripple them: disabling right-click, opening links in new windows without being asked, opening the 'real' content in a new menuless window, running everything in a frame so the only URL you'll ever see is the root URL, etc. Most of this seems totally irrational to me. Maybe they want all media to be one-way media, because one-way communication is the only communication they know?

Even when the corporate page allows feedback from the users, my message will usually be limited to check boxes and radio buttons. But I don't really care to tell you whether your page stinks 100% or only 80%; if I want to tell you at all, I want to tell you why it stinks.

Jan Egil Kristiansen, styrheim@post.olivant.fo

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