Use-oriented web design

-- lecture notes, November 1, 1999 --


Web design is the meeting point for several intellectual cultures with partially different views on what 'good' use quality means.

Human-computer interaction specialists tend to picture users as rational information seekers.

Advertising and commerce is more concerned with creating beliefs and persuading the customers.

A designer view might introduce notions of seductive qualities and user experience.

The following notes give an introduction to different perspectives on use-oriented web design and suggest directions for further studies.

HCI research
on web use

Human-computer interaction research on web use aims at enabling users to carry out information tasks and satisfy information goals.

Typically: finding a specific fact, comparing facts, making a well-informed judgment.

The main concept is the usability of the web site. Web usability can be measured as success rate, task time, result quality, and so on.

The way to achieve web usability is to design information structure and user interface in a way that is appropriate for the intended audience and their information tasks. Prototypes are tested and improved until the usability is adequate.

More on HCI techniques and wisdom for web design.

'Using' the web?  

Some web users certainly carry out information tasks some of the time, particularly on intranets.

A general model of web information tasks is to view them as a cycle of formulating (an information need) -- acting -- interpreting (the results of the action) -- reformulating.

But the web is also 'used' as meeting place, pastime, hangout, shopping mall, vehicle for experiences, source of inspiration, and so on.

Surfing the web is not like searching the web.

Even in the context of searching, serendipitous discovery (finding stuff you didn't know you wanted) might be more important than goal-driven queries.

A few general points:

Web pages are scanned rather than read.

Web navigation is in-the-moment rather than based on plans and conceptual models.

Links and the Back button are the most frequently used devices.

Emotional vs. rational  

Jakob Nielsen and Donald Norman are two of the most famous researchers in the field of HCI. Their sites on web design and their joint consulting company are fine illustrations of a strictly rational view on web design.

I would argue that their impressive hit rates are due to strong branding rather than use-oriented design.


Nielsen's site on web design.
The site of the Nielsen Norman Group.

The seductive qualities of technology are hard to measure in 'rational' ways. Yet we all know examples of products that appeal to us in a profound, intuitive way. What if we aimed at creating such extraordinary products?

A way of bringing new theoretical tools to bear is to view web design as advertising. The basic model then becomes a two-phase process.

Inform. To make the user aware of a certain proposition. To create certain beliefs in the user.

Persuade. To generate positive attitudes and stimulate certain behaviors.

In terms taking the user from persuasion to actual purchasing in an online shopping situation, it seems that the design effort is best spent on product lists and store navigation.

More on seduction and advertising.

Interesting examples  

The Visual Thesaurus from Plumb Design is, in my view, a fine example of a seductive web site.

It was also chosen as an example by Khaslavsky and Shedroff (Communications of the ACM 42(5):45-49, 1999); I will borrow heavily from their analysis.


It delivers surprising novelty for most users.

It goes beyond obvious needs and expectations. The traditional organization of a thesaurus is mainly an effect of the (paper) medium.

It creates an emotional response due to its visual and interactional beauty.

It connects to personal goals: the fascination of words and concepts (and thus: mind and thought).

It promises to fulfill those goals.

It leads the casual viewer to discover deeper meanings of looking up a word: the multidimensional and dynamic relationships between concepts.

The Visual Thesaurus (requires Java).



Journey North is an example of understanding the deeper issues of web design. It is a site for nature studies in schools.

Students all across North America and their teachers report sightings of a dozen migrating species. The web site joins all these reports with material provided by scientists, satellite data etc. The resuls are available for further classroom use.


Moreover, the web site becomes a forum for teachers sharing an interest in didactic and other issues concerning science education.

The user interface of the site is not remarkable, but that is besides the point. Using the web to build a community of students and teachers, held together by a common interest, is a very strong demonstration of use-oriented web design.

Journey North.



Alexa is the most elegant example so far of social filtering. Again, the focus is not on the user interface but on the unique qualities of the web as a medium.



Alexa suggests, in a rather subtle way, sites that other users have moved to from the one you are currently watching.

A simple voting mechanism is available for indicating whether you particularly like or dislike the site you are at. Voting data affect how that site is recommended to other users.

Most people find that Alexa manages the difficult tradeoff between being useful and being disturbing in a very successful way.

The Alexa site for more info and downloads.

Further studies  

A good starting point for rational web design is Rosenfeld and Morville (1998) Information architecture for the world wide web.

Spool et al. (1996) Web site usability: A designers guide are careful to point out that their well-researched and useful results are limited to web use as information-finding. Unfortunately, a lot of people have misread them as general rules. has good usability information in its Design sections.

Khaslavsky and Shedroff: Understanding the seductive experience (Communications of the ACM 42(5):45-49, 1999) provide a basic framework for thinking about technology as seduction.

Singh and Dalal: Web home pages as advertisements (Communications of the ACM 42(8):91-98, 1999) introduce the theories and models of advertising as applied to web design.

Lohse and Spiller: Quantifying the effect of user interface design features on cyberstore traffic and sales (CHI'98 Proceedings, pp. 211-218) is a statistical analysis of features of online retail stores and their effects.