Interview – Vincent Flanders of Web Pages That Suck

Georgina Laidlaw

WebPagesThatSuck is one of the most controversial sites on the Internet. The two books it spawned, aptly named ‘Web Pages That Suck‘ and ‘Son of Web Pages That Suck‘ outline usability flaws, design no-nos, and how to create a usable site.

Vincent Flanders created Web Pages That Suck to champion his view that we can ‘Learn Good Design by Looking at Bad Design’. But who is he? Where has he come from? And just what is he doing to Web design as we know it?

Last week, SitePoint sat down this self-proclaimed ‘marketing weasel who likes shiny things’ and demanded answers…

SitePoint: Vincent, firstly, can you tell us a little about your background? How did you move into the usability arena?

Actually, I come from the best and worst of all backgrounds to discuss usability — I come from marketing. The "best" aspect is that — contrary to the misperceptions in the design community — I have absolutely, positively no religious beliefs about what’s "best" for Web design and usability. All I care about when it comes to a site’s design and usability is "what do I have to do to make the sale — or disseminate the information — through this Website?" In my new book "Son of Web Pages That Suck" you’ll see that I’m about the only person in the usability field who acknowledges that cutting edge design can be OK and that there are no "real" rules except "make the sale".

To show you that I don’t belong to the cult of the artist or the scientist, I tell a story in the book about a dentist who spent a lot of money on a Flash site. A Flash site for a dentist! I immediately flipped out when he showed it to me because most dentists don’t even need Websites, much less Flash-based Websites. Anyway, I told him he was getting ripped off by the designer because the site took forever to load, not everybody used Flash, there were no text links — the usual usability party line.

Then, I asked him how much new business he got with the site and he told me "$10,000 a week." Without missing a beat I replied, "Your designer is a god among mortals." Granted, he might have made more money with an HTML site — so I came up with the perfect solution for him and wrote about it in "Son of Web Pages That Suck" — hint, hint — but like I said, I’m not tied to the cult of the artist or the cult of usability.

Now, as far as the "worst" aspect of marketing, I’m like every other marketing weasel — I love shiny things. I love Flash. I love all the excess you see on the Web — Mystery Meat Navigation — everything that shouldn’t be on most commercial sites. I love all the arty stuff, but there are only a few commercial types of sites where you should use it.

SitePoint: Okay, I’ll bite. Where should you use them?

There are two main groups. The first group of sites where you have to use them is on music, movie, band, Web design firm, and fashion sites — and others of that ilk. Any site where you have to be perceived as cool — it’s the law: you have to use them.

The other group is any site where there’s no accountability. Where nobody is going to find out that the site didn’t sell product or get people into the store. In Marketing we call it "branding." The Vincent Flanders translation of "branding" is "We’re going to spend a lot of your money putting your name out in front of the public, but we’re going to do it in such a way that you can’t prove we screwed up." Automobile companies are a good example of not having accountability in Web branding. Unless you can order a car online or have visitors interact with you or your dealers, you really can’t prove the site works or not.

SitePoint: Isn’t that definition of branding a little excessive?

Of course. Branding does work, but not especially well on the Web as the dot-con fallout demonstrated. For every Yahoo! you have 10,000 Webforia’s. That’s one company I’ll miss. I loved their Organizer product. <Sigh>

SitePoint: So back to your background…

Right. I was in charge of database marketing for a software company and one day my boss came into my office and said, "We’re going to start an ISP and" — pointing to me — "you’re the Webmaster." So I became the Webmaster — this was 1995.

Then in 1996 I taught HTML classes and remembering how much I hated boring teachers, I showed the class all the mistakes other people were making on their Websites. I said "Oooh. Ten animated images. That really sucks." My commentaries were the part of the class everybody liked the best because they weren’t boring so, logically, I decided to put up a Website…

SitePoint: Web Pages That Suck…

Yes – it’s an easy-to-remember URL!

SitePoint: And the name?

Well, I’m a marketing weasel and I hate everything that’s boring — personally, I think being boring is the only sin — so I come up with an attention-grabbing name instead of an appropriate one. Not to rag on Jakob (Nielsen) because Jakob really is a cool guy, but I would imagine Jakob would have called it "Web Pages That Have Mistakes." You wouldn’t be talking with me today if I’d named it "appropriately".

SitePoint: So how has the Web (and design) changed since you first became involved? What key milestones or turning points have you experienced through your work?

I’m most proud of the fact that I was the first to say Web design was not about art but about money. I took a lot of flak for that back in 1998, but time proved I was right. I’m also proud I said database knowledge would be important.

It might be better to talk about what has changed since the first book ‘Web Pages That Suck‘ was released in April 1998.

SitePoint: OK, sounds logical.

The second biggest positive change is the increase in bandwidth. Unfortunately, not enough people have access to big pipes, so it hasn’t let designers take advantage of 500Kb pages loading like 50Kb pages.

But the biggest positive change is the overall improvement in site design, because lots of graphic artists moved from print to the Web. We have a lot of talented people creating sites so the overall quality of Website design has improved.

On the other hand, the second biggest negative change is that CSS didn’t become the de facto way to design sites. If you told me back in 1998 that CSS implementation would be as flaky as it is today in 2002, I would have laughed at you. This whole browser/CSS/whatever issue is just stupid beyond all belief.

The biggest negative change is that we’ve really moved from the world of Web design to the world of software design. The Web is really about software — the back end. Web designers are becoming, in my opinion, little more than template makers for content manglement (yes, "manglement") systems. The server is the new god and most designers are being pushed down from architect status to housepainter. Software is everything.

SitePoint: The design community tends to have a "love to hate" relationship with usability experts. What reasons do you see for this? Why do designers seem so resistant to the concept and implementation of usability?

A good designer doesn’t like usability because a good designer is an artist and you don’t become an artist to have other people tell you how to create things in an effective manner. If a person wanted a career like that, he’d become an architect. Don’t tune me out — let me finish the next thought:

The problem with usability is "they’re right." When I say, "they’re right," I mean that usability studies are based, for the most part, on research — "64% of users in this test left the site within two clicks if they couldn’t figure out the navigation." Usability tests bring in accountability — and if there’s one word artists hate it’s "accountability." Art is never accountable. Was Monet accountable? Van Gogh?

That’s why you can get away with using Flash, Mystery Meat Navigation, and any other un-usability oriented Web design techniques on music, band, and fashion sites. With most commercial and non-profit sites, there’s some way to determine if the site is "working."

There was this huge mofo bank that wanted to win design awards and make money so they put up a Flash site. They won awards, but nobody used their site — see, they could track the results — so they switched to a "normal" site. Then, the bank started making money. The goal of a commercial site — and non-profits are still "commercial" in the sense they’re trying to sell you a belief system — is to make money or disseminate information. And the "best" way to do that is to make sure your site can be used by as many people as possible.

Artists hate research because art isn’t about research. It’s about expressing one’s creative emotions. The Web — and when I say "Web" I’m talking about the commercial Web — is the antithesis of art. Art, personal, and experimental sites aren’t commercial and have no boundaries.

Designers don’t like usability because making a site usable is boring and designers hate being bored — a fact I can heartily identify with. The truth is, commercial Web design has become really, really boring. The exciting stuff is all experimental — Flash, music, software design.

SitePoint: What aspects of usability are most commonly ignored by designers? And, conversely, where have they excelled in adopting usability and accessibility guidelines?

Well, I’m not sure exactly who gets the blame. Is it the client, the project manager, or the designer? It’s hard to tell. But the biggest mistake I’m seeing has to do with navigation, and I suspect the designer doesn’t have much to do with figuring out the navigation scheme unless it’s a one- or two-person shop.

Designers are still making their pages too big, they’re using Flash in the wrong places, using splash pages at all… the usual mistakes designers have been making forever.

The biggest mistake is that people design sites without thinking about their audience. Why? They don’t have enough information. One of the most fascinating/disturbing facts I discovered writing "Son of Web Pages That Suck" is that people using WebTV — or whatever it’s called — comprised 2.4% of one site’s paying customers. I’m not talking about visitors. I’m talking about paying customers. I saw the log files. This company was getting 150 orders a day from people using WebTV. Their Web designers had to make sure their site was usable by WebTV users or they’d lose $10,000 a day.

I suspect most designers have no idea who comprises their audience and what browser/system they use to visit the site. While the statistics on visitors are important, it’s even more important to find out the statistics on paying customers.

I’m not sure designers are at the point where they’re "excelling," but at least they’re concerned with the issue and that’s a good sign. Thank the dot-con fallout; otherwise, I suspect it would be design as usual — or "unusual."

SitePoint: How would you refute the argument that usability is a philosophy that prioritizes the experience of a minority over that of a majority? What can a designer do to ensure that, while they address the needs of users whose access to Web content is challenged in some way, they don’t undermine the user experience for those in the target audience who are not challenged at all?

Actually, that’s pretty easy to refute. It’s the wrong question. You’re confusing usability with accessibility. Usability has nothing to do with inflicting the minority viewpoint. Usability is about meeting the needs of the majority.

SitePoint: OK, then. How would you refute the argument that accessibility is a philosophy that prioritizes the experience of a minority over that of a majority?

I’m not sure I can refute it. My question is, "How much money will you lose if you alienate this group of people?" I was having lunch with Michael Willis, who co-authored the first book with me, and I chided him for not using the ALT= attribute on his home page so it would be more accessible. He said, "Blind people aren’t going to come to my site — I’m a graphic artist and Web designer." Can’t argue with logic like that.

One of the comments that got cut from the new book was where I said, "The smart Web design firm will "convince" their client they need to pay for 1) a Flash version of the site 2) a higher-end graphics version of the site 3) a lower-end text/graphics version of the site and 4) an accessible version of the site. Four different Web sites for the price of five. <g>.

It will be interesting to see what the government does. They’re the biggest proponents of accessibility. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them say, "Anybody who does business with us has to have an accessible version of their site." That’ll certainly help the design firms make more money.

SitePoint: How important is color to the user experience? How would you go about developing a color scheme for a site? Does the Web safe palette represent the boundaries of color, or can we now safely move beyond this spectrum given the advent of graphics-enabled computers?

The color scheme is very important, but one of the big problems is the color scheme of a site may well have been decided fifty years ago. IBM is known as "Big Blue" and they have to use "Big Blue" in their color scheme. They aren’t going to a orange/brown combination in my lifetime. It’s the same for a lot of companies. The color scheme is already determined.

My response to "have we gone beyond 256 colors? would have been "Yes," except someone at a very large firm recently told me, "All our purchasing agents are on crummy computers with cheap graphics cards." Once again, you’ve got to know your market. Like I say all the time in "Son of", "It depends." Look at your log files. Nobody who uses WebTV visits my site. I don’t take them in consideration. Personally, I don’t like color limitations and screen limitations.

SitePoint: What kind of role does rich media (and the use of associated technologies like DHTML, CSS, Javascript and Flash) have in shaping the user experience? These technologies were once shunned as usability no-nos. What happened to change that?

I’m not sure I agree they are now usability yes-yes’s. Seems like 12-16% of Web users have Javascript turned off; 2-4% aren’t using Flash; unless you get involved in some pretty fancy coding, CSS is a wreck because of the non-compliant browser situation — read: "Netscape 4" with 10-15% market share, and all sorts of hacks are necessary; DuHTML — as I like to call it — also has browser compliance problems. Once again, it comes down to your audience. How many people will you alienate and do you care? Yes, these techniques have their place, but I’m speaking as a marketing person who likes shiny things.

SitePoint: You say that Web design is not about art, it’s about making money. Can you elaborate on this? Do you feel this applies to design in general, or simply to commercial applications of Web design?

I only talk about sites where the purpose is to sell products or disseminate information. Why? Because there’s no money in writing about personal, art, and experimental sites. Why? Because the book would only contain this sentence: "If you’re creating a personal, art, or experimental site, do whatever you want. God speed."

SitePoint: You’ve written two books on the subject of usability. Are they aimed at designers or online business owners? Can you describe their key messages for us?

As you might have gathered, I like to maximize the potential audience <g> so there’s something for everyone. At the very least, a design firm could buy the book, stick it on the coffee table in their foyer with a note "The sites we design won’t make it in this book" — unless of course they did <g>.

The key messages are always, "Know your audience" and "Know their tolerance for pain." I try to show you how you can make your Website more effective for your audience. Like I said, I don’t care if a site is usable or not. I just care that your site makes people buy whatever it is you sell — a product or a belief system. Usability is a tool. It seems to work more often than not.

SitePoint: What do you expect will be the major developments in Web design and usability over the coming years?

The one word answer is "SOAP." Look it up. It’s the future. We’re headed for the World Wide Weblog. The goal is to turn the world into Lotus Notes for the Web — without any Lotus Notes software. Corporations are also going to be sharing data with other companies in truly transparent ways because of the cost savings. It’s the backend that’s important.

What really bothers me — and I hinted at it earlier in our conversation — is that Web design is becoming almost irrelevant. It’s all about programming now, which is good for me because I’m an author and almost all of the documentation for software just sucks. I’d put up a site called DocumentationThatSucks but we all know almost all documentation sucks. Especially the Open Source and Pseudo-Open Source software. You generally can’t install the software if you follow the directions the authors provide.

I expect a lot of usability is going to be built into future software. Imagine if all the blogging software out there complied with W3C standards? Just click "New Theme" and your whole site changes into XHTML compliance and accessibility. The designer will become more of a "site conceptualizer." S/he’ll come up with the concept, steno-pool graphic designers — ’cause that’s what’s going to happen to them — will create the initial templates and the art, and the programmers of the server will see to it that all the graphics are optimized to each and every viewer for just the browser they’re using.

And we’ll all live happily ever after <g>.

SitePoint thanks Vincent for his time. Check out ‘Son of Web Pages That Suck‘ today!