RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Programmers make lousy site designers

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Many, perhaps most, Web sites are hard to use. That applies to commercial sites, personal sites, almost any kind of site. In the early days of the Web, nobody was surprised at this, because the Web was a dancing bear. The wonder wasn’t that it danced gracefully, but that it danced at all.

Today, visitors are much more discerning. In fact, there is a cottage industry in lambasting poorly designed sites. One of my favorite places to go on the Web is Vincent Flanders’ Web Pages That Suck ( He features some of the most unusable sites on the Web, with acerbic commentary. He makes money doing this, which makes me envious, frankly. I wish I’d thought of it first. And there are other, more erudite gurus out there, such as Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen ( Yet, Web sites, as Vincent Flanders would inelegantly put it, continue to suck.

But how could it be otherwise? It takes a bona fide usability expert to put a site completely to rights, and most companies flat-out don’t want to afford one. Usability can be an expensive commodity. For a good-sized site, doing thorough usability work to make it really stand tall can run into six figures. Visitors would be thrilled, but unless a site generates revenue in some direct way, it would take decades to make back the tiny ROI per visitor for a really usable site. Advocates of usability point to the intangible benefits of visitor satisfaction and good will, and while those are helpful things to have, they don’t usually make stakeholders happy, and it’s one of the stakeholders who generally signs the bonus checks.

Still, it would be good to raise one’s Web site from miserable to passable, and many organizations are realizing it. While elevating good will by a smidgeon isn’t necessarily worthwhile, having a site that’s embarrassing undoubtedly contributes to a poor image. So businesses have taken the hybrid route by asking that their programmers and other technical staff have usability experience of some kind. It’s in a great many job listings nowadays.

The problem is there aren’t many programmers with usability experience, because most of them have never before been asked to have any. In fact, programmers make some of the most wretched interface designers, because they know the product too well. They’re like parents who can’t see their children’s flaws.

Furthermore, to get usability knowledge would require hard work and time that programmers just don’t have on the weekend. Programmers could read one of many books on the subject, or they could read usability Web sites. Or they could get one of the master’s degrees in the subject being offered in Indiana. In reality, they won’t do any of those things, because programmers are already expected to selfeducate on the continual stream of new technologies they have to work with. The programming skills of a few years ago would be almost worthless in the market today, and programmers know it. It’s all they can do to keep up with their own niche capabilities.

One obvious solution would be for companies to send their programmers to inexpensive classes on usability basics. Not coursework that would turn a programmer into a Vincent Flanders, but enough that he wouldn’t embarrass himself the next time he builds a Web site. The only hitch to that plan is that no one is presently offering such a short course locally, at least as far as I know.

I could see a one-day class for programmers, priced about the same as skills classes in the market today, and featuring both information delivered from a podium, and a large dose of fun from analyzing truly awful sites. The programmer would not have to give up his own precious time to acquire the knowledge the employer wants, and the employer gets a skill that is in sorely short supply in the labor market.

Want to see some examples of what I’m talking about? I’ll be gracious to my friends here in central Indiana and mention only sites far away. Start with Cyber-Atlas ( Chase the little meteor while you figure out how to operate the site. Imagine that you want to buy a satellite receiver from Sat-UK, and then go to its site ( When I needed some tires recently, I sampled the Cooper Tires site. Big mistake. Try finding tire specs there ( Leave your sound on. Here’s a site built expressly to show abysmally bad design: ( And finally, somehow I don’t associate racks of steel and aluminum with music from The Four Seasons and an upscale restaurant ( Why can’t they just get me where I want to go, presumably to buy steel? Their programmers need some education.

Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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