What is the purpose of your design?

Ferran Adria (yes, that Ferran Adria) stopped by Google today while in town for his book tour promoting A Day at elBulli. He spent most of the hour talking about innovation and his approach for trying to invent a new culinary language within the universal language of cuisine, with pictures of some amazing nature-inspired desserts, apparently from the other new book, Natura, by Albert Adrià.

But then he asked a question which elicited a laugh from the Googler audience: “Are there any website experts out there?” His question, which he claims he’s been asking for years and not getting an answer, is why website designers don’t put a map as the first thing on their home page. After all, they should cater to the user and make it easy for the user to find what they are looking for. He forced his webpage designer to make a navigation page be the first page at the elBulli site, but wonders why everybody doesn’t do that.

This elicited several answers from the audience. My answer was that the goal of many websites is to get you to stick around on their site – if you can find what you need easily, then you leave their site. I later thought of the analogy to a Las Vegas casino, where the navigation is intentionally designed to make it hard for you to leave the gaming area. Another answer mentioned “That’s why Google exists”, saying that search replaces standard navigation, which makes the good point that a designed information architecture doesn’t necessarily match a user’s worldview and may make it harder rather than easier to find what he or she is looking for (reminding me of Clay Shirky’s point about user-driven classification systems). Another person suggested that most Googlers would probably agree with him, but unfortunately bad designers outnumber good designers.

But I still like my answer, because it gets to the heart of design – what is the purpose which you are trying to achieve with a design? Many websites are designed to have you click around as much as possible, to pile up ad impressions and the chance that you might click on an ad before leaving. Google, on the other hand, has the stated goal “to have users leave its website as quickly as possible”. Is one of these designs better or the “right” way? Adria might think the Google way is clearly the right way, but I believe that design can not be evaluated in an absolute sense – designs must be evaluated within the context of the desired goals.

I’ve often found this attitude helpful when navigating the world. Rather than cursing the stupidity of a design, I wonder why a design might have turned out in that way, and what alternative goals the designer might have been working towards. Making things cheap is a common one. Making companies more money is another. It’s rare that a design can be created in isolation and free of constraints (and some would argue that constraints make for better design), so it helps to understand the constraints, whether philosophical or economical, that guided a design.

I’ve also been finding it helpful to remember this goal-first attitude in my first month at Google. It’s very easy to start going down an infinitely deep hole of documentation or data analysis, and occasionally I have to shake myself and say “Okay, wait, what exactly am I trying to accomplish here, and is what I’m doing moving me towards that goal?” It’s particularly tempting at times to do what is easy rather than what is right (aka “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”).

Getting back to a recurring theme of mine, setting big goals makes it easier to make all other decisions; for instance, Adria is intent on continuing to push the boundaries of innovation in cuisine, so he closes elBulli for six months a year while he and his team experiment with new ideas. Could he make more money by staying open? Of course, but that’s not his goal.

No real deep thoughts on the subject, just that Adria’s confusion as to why people would design something that was clearly inferior in his eyes got me thinking, so I figured I’d use it as an excuse for a blog post.

P.S. Yes, this post was mostly to get to say that it was cool to see Ferran Adria in person. And to get something up – my brain’s been pretty fried from trying to absorb way too much information at work. Hopefully, once I get settled in, I’ll start posting more – as usual, I have several proto-posts in the “couple ideas simmering” stage, but haven’t had the brainpower to expand them into full posts. Maybe I should just start doing scatterbrain posts like my book review roundup posts, where I spent a paragraph on each idea. Hrm.

5 thoughts on “What is the purpose of your design?

  1. Funny. Your answer is exactly what I’m trying to build a GDC(or GDC-esque) talk around. Essentially, I’ve found that a lot of videogame designers design without that focus. For me, the first thing to ask is what kind of reaction you want to evoke in the player.

    Everything then stems from that. Part of the issue, I think, is that in my particular field, there’s not a lot of agreement about what makes a good game. So, the initial focus on the talk is to create a good, useful definition of what makes a good videogame. After that, the second half of the talk is how to use that definition to tear away everything in the game that doesn’t focus on that.

    We’ll see. It’s still in the relatively early stages, but I think it’ll be a good talk.

  2. To answer why people don’t put navigation pages at the front of their site… (And I would add, why I think putting news on a front page of a site is bad also)

    A key question, these days, is who visits the front page of a site? Why are they there? Most visitors arrive from search engines or links to a deeper part of the site.

    I personally go to the front page of a site to find an overview of what it is about. To understand its purpose and meaning. To learn where to start.

    If you log out of Google and go to their application sites (Google Docs, AdWords), you’ll find they explain *what* the product is, and give a short tour or video with more information about what it can do for you.

    The elBulli website link to is an excellent example of *not* doing this. Sure there are lots of links on the front page, but I am left with *no idea* what the site is, what it does. Is it a restaurant? Is it a mail order food business? Is it a magazine? There is no clue, just lots of links that without context are meaningless to me.

    So yes, the front page should have little content, clearly explain for people who have no idea what the site is for. And give them their first action to take.

  3. I don’t agree with your answer because of the way you stated it. I don’t think web design that keeps users “lost” in its navigation is doing its job, and I don’t think hiding information is a way to keep users on your site.

    What I DO think you mean is that a website might be designed with a plan from the designer for the user to experience. A good designer has a better plan for introducing the user to the content than “Here’s all my stuff, go for it.” Because the way users process information on a website is not strictly left-to-right (in left-to-right reading languages) and top-to-bottom, when you put a full-site map on the front page, it’s actually not like putting a Table of Contents on the page; it’s more like putting the index on the front.

    And that’s not the ideal way to walk a user through a site. Having an intentional path and an intentional flow of information can be much more useful to serve the user, if it is done well.

    Imagine giving a talk, where at the beginning of the talk, you told the user what topics you will cover and in what order. This is not as useful as establishing the *purpose* and *context* of the talk in your summary. So if you can introduce the purpose of your site right away, so a user never has to ask themselves, wtf is this site all about, then you’ve taken the first step to good design.

    Then, given the stated purpose of the site, every element should support this purpose in primary and secondary ways. Every feature you design, every link that you place should have a reason to exist, otherwise it is cluttering and obscuring the point of the site.

    Every element should then be presented in a logical way, with varying degrees of visual importance, providing contrast so you can tell what is more important than what else.

    If the user just can’t find the information, then they are not going to stick around. They will leave, and they should.

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