Seybold Musings: Long Live the Site Seer

(Part two of two. Part one was " The One-Person Web Is Dead.")

BOSTON--One of the hottest topics at this year's Seybold Seminars is probably managing large Web staffs and integrating people working on design, engineering, and information architecture. Now that the Web is so big that we have huge staffs of people working on Web sites, exactly who does what? Engineers and designers are fairly simple to peg but ...

Information- what? If you have to ask, you're missing out on the next big step in the growth of the Web: professionals whose jobs are all about figuring out who's using Web sites and making their lives easier. Really.

One, Two, Three

Originally, the Web was built by people who knew how to code HTML, and used that knowledge to build pages. They learned how to use Adobe Photoshop and made some graphics to go with it, and the Web really took off.

Then came the second phase of the Web: technical people got more technical, and the design implementation of HTML grew by leaps and bounds. The first great schism began -- technical folks on one side, designers on the other. Even today, this can lead to lots of problems, mostly because of a lack of respect between the two sites. At its ugliest, this means that designers see technical people as artless geeks who don't have a creative spark, and tech types see designers as flakes who have no clue about how the Web actually works. And both groups often want control over the other, and over the site.

But there is no such thing as a Renaissance Man/Woman on the Web today -- though there's no shortage of people who think they are. There's just too much to do, too much to know. Designers know how to design, and technical people know the limitations of the Web and know the right way to put together a Web site from a patchwork of computer hardware and software.

The tension between designers and technical folks isn't the hot topic -- it's the lack of a third element, and the people who can provide that element.

One company calls these people network architects, although that reminds me of people rooting around in a crawl space trying to string Ethernet cables and configure routers. Call them product managers. Call them information architects. Go ahead and call them network architects, if you really want. However you paint it, the people who run big Web sites are realizing they need people who try and figure out how to make Web sites actually work. These people are few and far between right now, but as we move further away from the DIY Web there will be more of these specialists roaming around. If you're trying to figure out a way to make yourself a valuable Web site builder, this racket may be for you.

After all, anyone who's used a lousy Web site -- and 95 percent of all Web sites would probably qualify -- knows that these people are desperately needed.

The Dawn of the Site Seer

Let's call them site seers, just to settle on a name. (Don't worry -- nobody really calls them site seers. I just made that up.) And what they do for the website is something that you wouldn't consider design, nor would you consider it technical. It's a third specialty that lives in-between these other two. The people who fill that specialty should be interested in one thing: the user.

Can you imagine the faces in a business meeting when you tell them you need to hire someone -- or several someones -- just to worry about the users of their Web site? That's why the Web's so bad: people who run Web sites don't realize that their success is entirely dependent on the happiness of their users. It's a basic rule of customer service, but much of the Web has no clue about it.

Site seers are people who try to figure out the best way for a Web site to interact with its users, so that when someone comes to a site, they can figure out how to get what they want. At its simplest, it's deciding things like whether to use a bunch of hyperlinks, a pop-up menu, or a fill-out search form. These people spend lots of time figuring out exactly what a site has to offer, so that they can organize it in a way that will make sense to the user.

If you've ever gone to a Web site and then left, frustrated, a few minutes later, you know what these people have to offer. They offer clarity. It's something that people who are entrusted with making a Web site look good don't always consider.

These days the Web is filled with whizzy technologies that let you create gorgeous page designs with animation and interactive features tossed in. The tendency is to use those technologies because they're there -- and that's why, now more than ever, we need to demand that new technologies only be used when they're useful to the users .

Likewise, many Web sites now count their pages in the thousands or tens of thousands. Where will the Web be if giant Web sites aren't organized with care by people who spend a lot of time thinking about the right way to organize that information? Imagine a library full of books, all scattered in a random order.

I've long been a proponent of taking a step back and considering the user before you jump into your Web designs (see my column " Put the Web Site Down, and Slowly Back Away "). But this year at Seybold, it's clear that most of the expert Web panelists share my view that an attractive design and clean code aren't enough to make a Web site work. Sessions were filled with talk of learning about users' needs and desires, and about organizing your Web site's pages so that people can quickly find where they want.

So, the bad news first: the Web is a mess, and it's getting messier. But there's good news there, too. The experts are spreading the way of the site seer far and wide. The cult of the user is beginning to take hold. And in the end, if the people who build the Web pay attention, one day the Web will be a clean, well-ordered place where everyone can find what they need without any trouble.

Wouldn't that be nice?

Macworld.com editor JASON SNELL ( jason_snell@macworld.com ) has published on the Internet for nine years and covered Web publishing since 1995.

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