A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Redesigning Websites in Public

Living in DC, I have a lot of friends that went to Georgetown University, and have been a fan of the basketball team since the Patrick Ewing days.  Given my loose ties to the school, I’ve been watching with interest as Georgetown staff blog publicly as they redesign their website, which apparently hasn’t been touched since 2002 (wow).

I really like this stuff, as being in the web development business myself I learn a lot by reading about how other firms approach things like user research, card sorting, wire frames and defining information architecture.   I also think the transparency of sharing updates on progress is refreshing and healthy.

However, I think things went off the rails a bit when Georgetown started posting the actual comps showing what the new site will look like.  Naturally, after posting the draft designs lots of people weighed in.  And while it seemed like the majority of people preferred one of the options called Clarity (pictured below), the comments were sort of all over the place.  As a result of the disjointed feedback, Georgetown produced a new design in an attempt to respond to some of the criticism that the designs weren’t cutting edge enough.  And this has lead to more opinions.

clarity

After reading through the comments, it struck me that asking users for design feedback was probably a mistake, for a few reasons.

  • People don’t understand the complexity of the overall site.  There is a reason Georgetown hasn’t changed its site since 2002 – doing so is a massive undertaking.  University sites have to appeal to a number of very diverse audiences (prospective students, students, alumni, faculty, parents, etc.) and have to have sections that adequately represent the university’s various departments and schools.  The information architecture is extremely complicated, and it is nearly impossible for someone not involved in the process to know whether the designs achieve the goals laid out in the discovery process.
  • Since most people can’t comment on the site in a substantive way, they focus exclusively on look and feel (colors and typography).  And look and feel is completely subjective.  I personally am a minimalist when it comes to web design, and prefer sites that have a primarily white palette, and which use colors and images judiciously.  That style is not everyone’s cup of tea.  If you ask ten people to comment on a websites look and feel, you’ll probably get ten different opinions.
  • People hate change.  While this may not be true of the Georgetown website specifically given its age, every time you redesign a site that is popular and successful there is a backlash.  On the web, design is usability and anytime you disrupt users they will complain, and then forget about it in a few weeks after they adjust.  This concept is demonstrated by every single change every made to sites like Digg and Facebook.

Ultimately, the process of designing a website should not be a democracy.  It is important to understand your users and how they interact with the site, but I’m not sure it is important to hear their opinions on typography and colors.  Some decisions need to be made by a small group of folks behind closed doors.

In all probability, Georgetown is taking all the comments it is getting on the designs with a large grain of salt, and treating the reactions they receive as anecdotes.  And maybe there is some value in that.  However, I suspect posting the actual site designs for public review hasn’t accomplished much at all, beyond perhaps raising the blood pressure of the design team.