Innovation & Design

The 10 Commandments of Web Design


The Internet is constantly changing. BusinessWeek.com spoke to a bevy of experts and distilled the must-follow rules top online designers live by in 2008

Since the Internet emerged as a major force, altering everything from the way people work to the way they date, it has been a roller-coaster ride that made the world giddy. Microsoft (MSFT), Netscape, et al. fought the browser wars, Web standards were championed, and the Web became community-minded and social, ushering in the reign of Facebook, Flickr (YHOO), and YouTube. From boom to bust and back again, with staggering amounts of money changing hands at every point, the online industry rides on with no end in sight.

The Net has also attracted prophets, gurus, theorists, and evangelists of every stripe. Many of their promised game-changing technologies—Jini, DHTML, and countless others—never panned out, while seemingly simple innovations—metadata, XML, and CSS—have led to major breakthroughs. Meanwhile, Web design vogues from the effervescent jumble of HotWired to the stark utility of Google (GOOG) have continued to evolve and become more contradictory—and entrenched.

To try and make sense of it all, BusinessWeek.com canvassed a broad range of Internet luminaries to discover the design rules they live by right now. Contributors ranged from the guru of Web usability, Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, to the design director of NYTimes.com, Khoi Vinh, and John Maeda, president-elect of the Rhode Island School of Design. These 10 commandments of Web design for 2008 are the combined results of our survey. For the full list of contributors, see the end of the story.

1. Thou shalt not abuse Flash.

Adobe's (ADBE) popular Web animation technology powers everything from the much-vaunted Nike (NKE) Plus Web site for running diehards to many humdrum banner advertisements. But the technology can easily be abused—excessive, extemporaneous animations confuse usability and bog down users' Web browsers.

2. Thou shalt not hide content.

Advertisements may be necessary for a site's continued existence, but usability researchers say pop-ups and full-page ads that obscure content hurt functionality—and test a reader's willingness to revisit. Elective banners—that expand or play audio when a user clicks on them—are much less intrusive.

3. Thou shalt not clutter.

The Web may be the greatest archive of all time, but sites that lack a coherent structure make it impossible to wade through information. Amazon.com (AMZN) and others put their sites' information hierarchy at the top of their list of design priorities.

4. Thou shalt not overuse glassy reflections.

Apple (AAPL) often sets the standard for slick and cool—in all forms of design. But some experts say the company's habit of creating glassy reflections under photos of its products has been far too commonly copied, turning the style element into a cliché.

5. Thou shalt not name your Web 2.0 company with an unnecessary surplus or dearth of vowels.

The Web has brought with it a strange nomenclature that's only got weirder over time. Hip, smart Web sites have been named either with a superfluous number of vowels or strategically deleted ones. Cases in point: Flickr, Smibs, and Meebo. These names are memorable but destined to sound dated.

6. Thou shalt worship at the altar of typography.

Designers say that despite the increase in broadband penetration, plain text has gotten a second wind in cutting-edge Web design. Mainstream sites such as Craigslist have led the way, while designer-oriented sites such as Coudal Partners and John Gruber's popular Daring Fireball blog represent the cutting edge.

7. Thou shalt create immersive experiences.

Merely looking good doesn't cut it anymore. Sites like Facebook and YouTube draw in users with compelling content and functionality. Creating Web sites that can capture and hold users' attention is what matters most.

8. Thou shalt be social.

Web 2.0 is everywhere. MySpace (NWS) and similar sites only launched the trend of having users communicate and interact—sometimes obsessively—on browser-based sites. Designers are now filtering those same elements into diverse sites, from smart advertising to online office productivity.

9. Thou shalt embrace proven technologies.

Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and their cohorts have become a part of daily life. Sites that can incorporate these elements into their design will connect with users in a meaningful way by providing functionality and an interface with which they're already familiar.

10. Thou shalt make content king.

Though the slogan is old, it still stands. Aesthetic design can only go so far in making a site successful. Beautiful can't make up for empty.

Click to view a slide show of the Best and Worst of the Web. Cast your votes for which of the sites you love and hate in this exclusive BusinessWeek.com interactive poll.

Contributors:

Dan Cederholm, founder, SimpleBits

Chris Conley, associate professor and head of the Human-Centered Product Design track at the IIT Institute of Design

Malcolm Garrett, joint creative director, AIG

Robert Greenberg, chairman, CEO, global chief creative officer, R/GA

Steven Heller, co-chairman, MFA Design program, School of Visual Arts

John Maeda, president-elect, Rhode Island School of Design

Don Norman, founder, Nielsen Norman Group

Dave Shea, founder, mezzoblue; author, The Zen of CSS Design

Lisa Strausfeld, partner, Pentagram

Jakob Trollbäck, founder, Trollbäck + Co.

Khoi Vinh, design director, NYTimes.com

Simon Waterfall, creative director, Poke; president, D&AD

Martin Wattenberg, founding manager, IBM Visual Communication Lab

Jeffrey Zeldman, publisher, A List Apart Magazine, founder Happy Cog Studios

Business Exchange related topics:

Web Design

Brand Marketing

Marketing Innovation

Web 2.0

Web 3.0


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