Web Architecture for the 21st Century

Jim Blasingame

When the Wainwright Building cast it’s completed shadow on downtown St. Louis in 1890, it was typical of other 19th century skyscrapers only in that it was a ten-story box. Outwardly, as David van Zanten wrote of the structure, “It showed its bones like no other office building had before.” In other words, the Wainwright building’s exterior revealed more of what was happening inside than any other building of its time.

In describing the new concept in an 1896 article, its architectural father, Louis Sullivan, known as the “Master of Skyscrapers,” coined what the modern architectural profession now calls the Sullivan dictum: Form follows function.

Another Kind Of Architecture
One hundred years after the Wainwright building broke new architectural ground, another kind of architecture was emerging in what William Gibson described in his 1984 book, Neuromancer, as “cyberspace.”

In the ancient days of commercial Web site architecture, way back in the early 1990s, neither form nor function were well defined or developed. Just having a Web site in those days -- regardless of how it looked or worked -- was a big deal for most of us.

But in the form v function competition, the Sullivan dictum did not prevail for two primary reasons: 1) the technology to create graphic images was already well developed by the time cyberspace was adopted by the masses; and 2) in those days, cyberspace was more a place to go to see things than a place where you could actually do something.

Eyeballs And Lemmings
Then the well-capitalized bellwether sites (which is not necessarily to say successful or profitable) jazzed up their cyber real estate with a rainbow of colors, cool graphics, and even motion. Lemmings that we were, the rest of us followed this trend, and that’s when cyber-function definitely took a back seat to hyper-form.

As we entered this ugly period of mania, when the coin-of-the-realm was more about getting “eyeballs” to Web sites than actually selling a product, content was dismissed as pedestrian, and on most sites, function was little more than banner links.

By 2000, as with most things built on hype rather than substance, form for its own sake was officially devalued as cyber-currency. The good news was that by then, the Sullivan dictum was emerging as cyber-function became necessary when the masses began adopting the very practical and enduring concept of actually doing something online rather than just being online.

The bad news was that it was too late for thousands of dot coms that became dot bombs before they could evolve their business models from only form to what was becoming the new coin-of-the-realm, function.

The Wright Dictum For Cyberspace
One of the employees of Louis Sullivan’s then-famous architectural firm was an obscure draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright. As you know, Wright eventually became arguably the most famous American architect of the 20th century. His notoriety was as much for his philosophy of creating things as for the unique architecture he actually created. For example, Wright once said, “a house should be of the hill, not just on the hill.”

But one Wright quote is perhaps his most significant because it somewhat disputed his former boss’s dictum, “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

For those of us who are developing, managing, maintaining, and owning Web sites, it’s extremely important to realize that form and function, arriving together and working in unison rather than one having priority over the other, has become the architecture of the maturing 21st century cyberspace.

Form And Function Begets Usability
Except for the one guy who just walked back into civilization after living in the Australian outback for the last 15 years, the Internet is not a novelty anymore. We’re using it as an essential resource, and associated applications as productive tools, in both our personal and professional lives.

“That’s not news,” you may be saying. Well, if you’re the owner of a commercial Web site, there may be more news there than you know, because now when visitors show up on your cyber-doorstep, they’re demanding that you pull off the hat trick: beautiful form, cool function, AND both of these without confusion, RIGHT NOW!

In her new book, Web Designing For Every Customer, my friend Ilise Benun, says our sites must be “aesthetically pleasing, well constructed,” and here’s that news I promised, “and tested on real customers to determine whether it works for the intended users.”

Testing? Intended users? That’s right. Just when you thought you were on the cutting edge of cyber-design because you’ve installed some content and an e-commerce component so customers can do business with you, now you’re being told that you’ve still got more work to do.

I know it’s not fair, but Ilise says it’s not enough just to make sure your site is beautiful and functional, you must also make sure it’s usable.

There are a number of technical definitions of a usable Web site, but I like Ilise’s because it’s short and to the point, “A usable Web site is one that allows its users to do what they need to do, or get help, without becoming frustrated.”

The only way to accomplish successful usability is to create a Web site with the knowledge of what kind of cyber-visitor is coming to your site, why they’re coming, and what they expect to receive when they get there. Ilise warns those of us who fancy ourselves as good Web designers that usability is in the eyes of the beholder -- which is our visitor/customer -- not in the eyes of the designer. That’s why testing is important.

Don’t Guess About Your Guests
Ilise says there are at least six kinds of users of the Internet: Learners; shoppers; connection seekers; transactors; business browsers; and fun seekers.

The motives of these six users should be pretty intuitive, so we’re not going to go into detail about them. But the news here is that Ilise says your site is only a destination for some of these users, not all. The question you should be asking yourself is: “Which of these users are spending time on my site, and are they the ones I need to reach the goals of my business model? If you don’t know the answer, how can you pull off that hat trick of form, function, and usability that’s acceptable in the eyes of your optimal user?

The answer is, you can’t. Which means you’re probably designing for your own eye, or the eye of your designer. And if that’s true, even if your Web design includes the cyber-trinity of form, function, and usability, now you know that any success you’ve had is just dumb luck. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while.

Write this on a rock... Find out who your cyber-visitors are, let them tell you their definition of form, function, and usability, and armed with that knowledge, install the newly expanded Wright dictum of web architecture on your site: Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union, in concert with usability.

Jim Blasingame
Small Business Expert and host of The Small Business Advocate Show
©2008 All Rights Reserved


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