Why you’ll never find truly brilliant open source web design

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote about the nature of invention, and a society’s response to it. We revere scientists as heroes, for inventing solutions to our toughest problems. Yet Gladwell points out that these geniuses seem to be more vessels than virtuosos.

The inspiration for a particular technology seems to arise “in the air,” to be picked up by the right inventive minds and made real. In many cases, such as the story of the invention of the telephone, there is more than one inventor. In addition to Alexander Graham Bell, there seems to be a parallel invention of the device by a fellow by the name of Elisha Gray. Why is he unknown? As often happens, the awarding of bragging rights turns into a race to the patent office.

Science historians call this phenomenon “multiples.”

The same creative insights seem to strike a number of inventors — often scattered across the globe — at the same time in history. Gladwell reminds us that the uncertainly of whom was the real originator makes our inclination to name a device after its “inventor” a dicey proposition at best:

We think we’re pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we’re pinning tails on donkeys.

This made me think of open source applications. Perhaps it’s fitting that we do not commonly know the single inventor of PHP technology — not because so many have built upon this foundation, but because the foundation itself was “in the air,” ready to be interpreted into code. I use PHP as an example, but any open source innovation will do to make my point.

Few would argue with the genius behind PHP. So why don’t we see multiples of web design? Aren’t good designs of sites “in the air” as well?

Singulars versus Multiples

Gladwell provides a hint to an answer when he states, “[a historian’s observation] about scientific geniuses is clearly not true of artistic geniuses.” He goes on as follows:

A work of artistic genius is singular … Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner’s desk a few hours before Gray’s.

I find this distinction fascinating, because both types of genius are put into play in the creation of a great interactive experience. I love that one part of the process — the technology — uses the work of many to channel something that is clearly superior to others it replaces, yet is impossible to attribute to a single creator. Yet the part of the process that creates the most intimate parts of that application — the design — are invariably one person’s handiwork.

That is the true genius of web design, and it explains why a digital world will never make a web designer less “singular” than, say, a great playwright or composer.

Is “click here” the web equivilent of an ugly red sticker?

A background in direct response can warp a person for life. Just ask a typical ad agency creative director. In a past agency, where I started out as the lone voice in all things direct marketing, I seriously think the creatives wanted to have me committed. I was reminded of that time in my career when I read this post in Copyblogger:

Many years ago, an advertising agency in my neighborhood hired me to consult on a direct mail project for one of the biggest nonprofit organizations in the country. One glance at the client’s test results revealed that the successful mail pieces featured big red stickers, the kind you often see on magazine subscription offers.

So one of my recommendations was to use a sticker in the new direct mail piece. From the expression on the designer’s face, you would have thought I had just relieved myself on the conference room carpet. He crinkled his nose in disgust and informed me that the agency “didn’t do stickers. They’re tacky.”

Needless to say the red sticker mailing, running as a control, continued to out-perform more attractive test packages. The ugly and unsophisticated won out, in terms of effectiveness, over the attractive and more contemporary.
Click here graphicI was thinking of this while participating in a discussion recently on the pros and cons of using “Click here” as an inducement.

Our team’s stance is simple and non-negotiable: The practice is bad form. They’re in good company. Jacob Nielsen, the Moses of usability best practices, carved his own Ten Commandments of web design on a virtual stone tablet, and #2 included “Don’t use ‘click here’ or other non-descriptive link text.”

Built into this commandment is the crux of his reasoning. If you employ link text that is not descriptive, you’ve wasting valuable words. But is this waste always sinful?

Effective Versus Efficient

“Wasteful” can be considered the antonym of “efficient.” And who doesn’t want to be efficient? Well, the answer is me — sometimes. That is, sometimes there are strategic reasons for a little “waste.” Stephen Covey is quick to point out in his book that it’s not called Seven Habits of Highly Efficient People. No, Covey chose the word “effective” for the title for a good reason.

If your web users are not particularly web-savvy, you may have to go back to “Web 1.0” in your copy and presentation. And that may mean slapping some “red stickers,” in the form of hackneyed hyperlink instructions over your web design. Only testing can tell you for sure.

The exception is if you are asking your user to make a commitment. In the case of “buy it now,” etc., you should still never use “click here.” To do otherwise would simply be too inefficient to be optimally effective.