Strategic Web Usability

Who's The Best: Design, Usability or SEO?

Human history has gone something like this: people formed groups, each of those groups assumed they were the best group, some of those groups eventually encountered other groups, and those newly introduced groups proceeded to poke each other with pointy sticks.

George BaileyUnfortunately, the history of website development isn't much different. Whenever a new camp appears (or has the audacity to leave an old camp), the other camps immediately and forever-after have to declare that that new camp is an ungrateful, talentless bunch of good-for-nothings.

Such has been the ongoing war between designers, usability experts, and SEOs/SEMs, which boils down to the ultimate question: who's the best? If you've read my blog before, you might assume that I'm about to answer "usability", but you'd be wrong.

Let's play a game (and also reveal the reason for today's image selection): what if, just like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, we were given the chance to see what the world (or at least the internet) would be like without design, usability, or SEO?

A World Without Design

Imagine that the worldwide web never evolved beyond 1993. We'd all be using Mosaic, and websites would look a bit like this (sorry, Tim). To be fair, it's easy to forget that those first all-text HTML pages were revolutionary, but this early web was essentially a big science experiment.

It wasn't until Netscape came on the scene and the capabilities of HTML began to expand that the worldwide web really captured our imaginations, and much of that new attraction came from images and pushing the envelope of design. Ok, some of it was probably the porn, but the general public didn't really take notice until the web became fully visual. Rich design made the internet compelling and attracted our attention; without it, the worldwide web may never have been much more than an academic curiosity.

A World Without Usability

Now, let's skip ahead to 1997 or so. The internet has become a world of animated GIFs and dancing hamsters where every important point needs to be made with flashing red text. HTML has opened up the world of design to everyone, forcing the painful conclusion that not everyone was cut out to be a designer.

What if we never got past this idle curiosity, and never forged the first e-commerce sites, including giants like It's likely that the worldwide web would have faded into obscurity, never realizing it's full potential. Fortunately, people realized the potential of the internet as a tool, and flocked to sites that allowed them to accomplish real tasks, ushering in the e-commerce revolution.

A World Without SEO

To borrow an analogy from Skelliewag, imagine that you build the world's most amazing amusement park, visually breathtaking, with the most cutting-edge rides ever seen. Unfortunately, you build it deep in the jungle with no roads or even signs to point the way. No matter how amazing, that park is going to fail.

We've reached the late 90s and the search engine wars are in full force. What started them? The simple reality that the explosive growth of web content required better and easier ways to find that content. Without those early search engines, Google a few years later, and the tools to be discovered by those engines, the vast majority of all websites would languish in obscurity, and the entire internet would be the poorer for it.

So, Who's The Best?

Sorry, but it's a stupid question. For the internet to realize it's full potential, we need sites that people can find, that are compelling enough to capture their attention, and that are usable enough to keep that attention. Like it or not, that means we need designers, usability specialists, and SEOs. Like any field, website development is going to specialize and diverge over time, creating new and unfamiliar species of contributors. When we meet those new people, let's try to resist the urge to poke them with sticks.

David LaFerney

 · Tuesday, February 5
I predict that when web 2.0 is as stylish as harvest gold appliances black text on a white field will still be a classic. Or at least retro.

Yep, that's what I go for in design - classic. Mostly because I still have to ask my wife if this shirt goes with that tie.

Dr. Pete

 · Tuesday, February 5
@David: Speaking of appliances, can someone tell the engineers/designers to stop making black-on-black button labels? We have a 5-DVD changer where the disc numbers are all embossed in black on black (and are usually rotated at strange angles). To make it even more convenient, the player usually auto-detects the wrong disc, so you have to know exactly which slot number it went into.

Mike Maddaloni - The Hot Iron

 · Tuesday, February 5
Can't we all just get along? :)


online business magazine

 · Monday, February 11
i completely agree.. each aspect of a good website is just as important as the other even though one may overshadow.


 · Wednesday, February 13
i hate blogs or website with a lot of clutter or a bad layout. Nice and clean is the way to go. Google vs Yahoo homepage is my best comparison
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