12
Nov
10

A Habitable Space for Human Engagement

[November 12, 2010]

Somewhere in the deep recesses of our digital past, it became common to refer to Web structure as “architecture.” In general terms, the analogy works. Site maps, wire frames and content outlines do incorporate some aspects of an architectural blueprint. On the other hand, while materials science and the law of gravity require architects to deal with structural stress and weight distribution, there’s no real parallel in Web design.

But considering the impact that relative content density has on the utility and popularity of a Web site, I think it’s time we started using such load-bearing logic in our own work, especially when mapping out interior pages.

Self-fulfilling wisdom.
Otherwise, we’ll continue to offer users the kind of experience that drives small-sample qualitative analysts mad with glee (“See, I told you no one reads online!”). Now, while I’m sure that Web design has not yet reached full maturity as a discipline, I can’t accept the blanket statement, “people have trouble reading Web pages.”

At the very least, we have to ask what “people” and what “pages” that statement refers too. So far, all that emerges from the reams of data on this topic is that most Web pages aren’t designed to encourage reading—and don’t take into account the way we use language to communicate (Hint: It has nothing to do with bullet points.).

And that brings me back to the false analogy we make between architecture, the field, and architecture, the collection of vague work rules we use to build a Web site. Yes, I know there are now library shelves full of books on IA, but the mere presence of professional literature does not a discipline make. For that you need vision; as things stand today, we barely have one eye open.

That’s not to say our IA specialists are falling down on the job. I’ve rarely met one who wasn’t passionately devoted to doing things right. But the task assigned to them is simply too limited as it is for most Web designers.

Flatland, revisited.
As I see it, those limitations are most clearly expressed in the flat, linear way most Web sites are conceived. Just the phrase “Web page” is itself a sign of the malaise. Far from being architecture, the end result of six to eight months of work on a medium-sized site resembles a charm bracelet—a random slotting together of modular units, whose thin chain of navigational links is their only claim to coherence.

True architecture, however, is not linear. It’s the creation of an environment and, in the best instances, a human-made ecology. And long before I’ll be ready to believe that people turn into a different species when the go online, I’d have to see what would happen if we served them Web sites that create a coherent environment, built on a human scale.

Without that test, I can’t take seriously the endless parade of articles describing the amazing metamorphosis consumers undergo when they go online. In fact, one is told, consumers mutate into a species unable to read, a species with congenital ADHD, and a species with a radically foreshortened perception of psychological time. But even though I’m a great fan of Kafka, I’m just not buying it.

Take a walk in the 3rd dimension.
What’s the solution in hard-nosed practical terms? Well, there is no simple, one-dimensional answer, because I’m not talking about revising the Best Practices Manual. What’s needed is for everyone involved to look up from their spreadsheets and start re-imagining the entire task.

That way, instead of bemoaning users’ lack of interest in our fabulous content, we can get to the root of what’s making them click away. I’m willing to bet the click-away impulse is nothing more than a homing instinct, the insatiable urge to find a habitable living space for their ideas, their aspirations, and their daily accumulation of factoids.

What is there about true architecture that would inspire people to hang out with you longer in digital space? Imagine if your home page welcomed your audience into a space like this.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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