The Democratic Approach to Web Design is Bad
I frequently frequent the website Reddit, which is a great source of interesting news and long-tail internetisms. I find it more enjoyable than a lot of the other 2.0-ish news sites out there, for a variety for a variety of reasons that are unimportant, but have to do with community, content and usability.
A small, but entertaining, part of the Reddit experience is the Reddit Alien. There's a staff artist that draws and redraws the alien, similarly to how Google changes their logo for special events. The alien tends to reflect current stories, trends, or events, usually related directly to a previous top story on Reddit.
It's a cute feature.
Another feature - or, you might say, the point of the site - is the items that are listed. You submit an item, which is either a URL (99% of items you see) or an idea that is easily summed up in a sentence or two. Each submission is discussed and voted upon - every user has a simple up or down vote for each item.
One of the current hot items on reddit is an interesting one: Upvote if you wish clicking on the "special occasion" Reddit-logo-variation would take you to it's context. (Ã la Google) (sic). It is an incredibly popular idea, having amassed well over 2000 points at the time of this posting; to put that in context, an item usually only needs to acquire around five or six hundred points before it resides in the number one spot on the page.
It is a very, very popular idea.
One thing that seems to escape the people doing the voting, however, is that this is a very, intensely, scarily bad idea.
You see, navigation is one of those things that you shouldn't mess about with. There are tried, tested, and true ways to deal with navigation and one of them is this: your logo, the one at the top there, that should take you "home". It's something that most websites do, and it's a good thing for websites to do. Most people are already trained to know that logos take you home. Making your logo take you somewhere else is bad mojo. Scary bad mojo. It's not healthy.
This is one of the prime examples of things getting designed or created in a democratic way. I'm not going to come right out and say that democracy is bad but it certainly has its drawbacks. One of the biggest problems lies in expertise. Or, to be more precise, a complete and utter lack of expertise in most areas for most people. Web Design is certainly one of those areas where the experts should make the decisions. Like medicine, or house building.
This is also one of the problems with the way a lot of user testing is done. Here's an all-to-common occurrence:
Beta Company has just started up. They have lots of money to throw at the website that they want to have, so they get one of their staff members to start a web committee (first mistake). The web committee appoints a usability sub-committee (second mistake). The usability sub-committee decides to go out and ask 500 of their potential customers or users what they want in a website (third mistake). The sub-committee reports to the web committee, the web committee reports to the board of directors. The board takes what they've been given and hires a web designer (not a mistake! a good call, finally). They give said designer all the information from the committees and ask him to use that as a list of requirements for the website (oooh, forth mistake).
You may be reading this and saying something like, "Hey, that's what I did with MY company! It wasn't a mistake." Well, yes it was. Think about it as if you were building a house.
Beta Person has just purchased a property. They have lots of money to throw at the house that they want to have, so they get their friends and family together to start a house committee. The house committee appoints a house layout sub-committee. The house layout sub-committee...
Wait, that's just stupid! You wouldn't build something this way - you'll end up with a monstrosity, or you'll be waiting on it being built for years. You go to an architect with some ideas. The architect interprets your ideas and gives you some plans. You give the plans to a contractor that knows what they're doing. He hires experts to do the work. Along the way, you get previews to see if things are going the way you expect, and you probably have friends in to give you their opinions on how things are working.
Web design is the same. Get someone who knows what they're doing every step of the way.