Monday, May 14, 2007

Finding Visible Clothes for the Emperor

Jakob Nielsen has been writing about the effective design of Web pages for almost as long as there have been Web pages, or at least as long as Web pages moved from plain text to "rich media." He offers sound advice in clear, no-nonsense language. Therefore, I think that BBC NEWS made an excellent move in running a feature in which Nielsen sounded off on Web 2.0. Nielsen's message was that Web 2.0 was goring his favorite ox, providing site designers with slick distractions from the principles of design and usability have that been his focus for over a decade. This message provides an alternative take on my proposition that Web 2.0 is little more than dot-com redux, an economic bubble that is still inflating but will repeat the history of the dot-com bubble. Here is how the BBC feature put it:

He [Nielsen] said sites peppered with personalisation tools were in danger of resembling the "glossy but useless" sites at the height of the dotcom boom.

The problem is that those who have drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid blind themselves to the sad truth that most of the world out there (including the world that visits the World Wide Web) does not share their technocentric perspective. Nielsen offers a pithy summary of most of the Web-using community:

For them the web is not a goal in itself. It is a tool.

For all his keen perception and sound advice, Nielsen is not interested in diagnosing why Web 2.0 technocentrism should be turning what could be a valuable tool into such as "glossy but useless" place. My own opinion is that technocentrism is the "new utopianism;" but, while most previous utopias were (or at least began as) rather isolated intellectual exercises, this is a far more populist movement, perhaps because so many choose to view it as a magnet for venture investments. However, whether intellectual or populist, utopianism still fails to stand up to the criticisms of Isaiah Berlin, who, while hardly the first to see the connection to fascism, was one of the most articulate (political correctness of not, that is the best word for it) about it.

Hayek's Road to Serfdom addressed the question of how, through subtle manipulations in social context, a free society could prepare itself for fascist domination. His target was the rigid controls of economic planning; but, were he alive today, he might view technocentrism through the same lens, since, at the end of the day, it, too, is all about control. To build on Nielsen's perspective, the "potential serfs" of today are deluged with propaganda endorsing extremely attractive tools. However, these tools do not do what we want; and, for the most part, we do not want what they are capable of doing. They thus fulfill Douglas Adams' vision of the elevator that, when you press the "down" button, tries to convince you that you would rather go up.

Sadly, when we are not blinded by propaganda, we are confused by turbulence. This is another powerful social context. When people are confused, they crave simplicity above all else, even their civil liberties. We have seen this in history; and, as I recently observed, times of turbulence engender any number of false hypotheses. We may now have progressed beyond the ability to learn from cautionary tales, however clear and alarming they may be. Perhaps we shall just all sit on T. S. Eliot's beach and wait for the whimper.


Lou Paglia said...

I simply do not like subscribing to generalizations and often the "great" statements such as the ones Nielson often does wreak of generalizations. Nielson is one of the pioneers and leading advocates of "utilitarianism" on the web.

And I agree with him that you need to concentrate on the utility of your UI and design must get the basics right. However, it is dangerous to say that Web 2.0 sites do not follow good principles simply b/c some of them do not.

Finally, the one point of your post that I must question is does the design/function of a web site (and the principles it follows) really serve as an indicator of a bubble? I'm not sure I agree. There are certainly signs of a bubble but we'll have well designed and poorly designed sites in the best and worst of times.

Look at Craigslist, that site is extremely successful but from a flow and UI perspective, I would not score it usable. Would Nielson give it high marks because it allows users "to get in, get it, get out" as the BBC article states?

Stephen Smoliar said...

For the benefit of readers here, I would like to repeat the comment I made you your own blog to the effect that there is no way of knowing how much the BBC edited their interview with Nielson. My guess is that the "reek of generalization" had more to do with BBC editing than with Nielson's actual thoughts. (I know this from experience because I saw journalists do the same sort of thing to my thesis advisor!)

To add to what I said at your site, I think it is important that you raised the theme of utilitarianism. I think the lesson of the dot-com bust is that lack of utility value tends to serve as an indicator of a bubble. Specific issues of design and even function are the symptoms; but an absence of utility value is the disease. Craigslist may not score high interface marks with Nielson, but its utility value is still high. (I use my wife as a barometer for this one. She has no patience at all for cool-technology-for-its-own sake. She makes heavy use of Craigslist at her job. All that matters is that it does what she expects of it. That is a "human" side of the story that either Nielson or the BBC overlooked; and I would put my bet on the BBC!)

Lou Paglia said...

Realized you used your wife and technology example on this thread and not the last! Oh well, at least my point on your last post applies.

You are right that generalizations certainly affect the key meanings and interpretations made. Happens all the time, often on purpose for the benefit of the story. I cannot comment on Nielson's comments specifically in this case since I did not hear all of his comments in their entirety.

As far as "lack of utility value" being a driver of the first bubble, I'm not sure I fully agree. In cases, for sure. I would be more specific and say that a lot of the reasons for the first bubble was that many ventures were funded for having a good capability but not a self-sustaining business. And there were a lot of them. However, I would say that even if they were capabilities (rather than businesses), the capabilities still had high value utility.

That is something similar to what is occurring in cases now as well. That is why I worry that we could be in the midst of a new bubble. Time will tell if I am right but there are several sites/businesses launched that do not have sustainable models (even with advertising).

Stephen Smoliar said...

I am not sure anyone has done a rigorous analysis of monetary flow during the inflation of the dot-com bubble; so it is hard to test the hypothesis that lack of utility value drove that bubble. We do know, however, that venture funds were managed for return on investment, rather than utility value. The usual rule of thumb was that one out of ten investments would reap a large enough financial gain to offset the other nine. However, that rule entailed knowing when to collect the profit and think about new investments. In the jargon of the time, venture funds were not interested in whether or not a start-up was "built to last." So, if the capital that was driving the dot-com bubble was not interested in utility value, that should provide at least some support for the hypothesis!

In all fairness, however, utility value is, at best, a nebulous concept. As Robert Solow has point out, it is all but ignored by modern economics, which is concerned more with the analysis and control of price, rather than the assessment of value. Consider the discrepancy between the original anticipated utility value of the digital computer and its currently perceived utility value!