The tangibility of websites, or something like that

30 November 2009, in Design | 4 comments »

Last night I watched Objectified, a good film about the design of everyday things. In the film, the matter of durability and sustainability in design is mentioned a lot, and that led me to think of how those ideas translate to web design.

Users are not owners

One of the main difference between an object and a website is the fact that you, as a user (I don’t particularly like this word, but it is used greatly within web design), don’t feel you actually own a site. You may make it feel more like you—by creating profiles and customising parts of it—but you can’t keep it somewhere, protect it, or destroy it. A user doesn’t feel like he can fundamentally change the object.

This may mean that there is no true engagement with the person, the user, or visitor. At least not on the same level as objects.

Having said this, in some instances the ability to change an object or use it for other things that it wasn’t supposed to (like using a book as a laptop stand) does translate to web design. For example, the famous case of Twitter and the replies or retweets. That functionality was added to Twitter by its users, it wasn’t in the original object.

The durability concern

In the movie, durability was addressed as a great concern for industrial designers: what happens to an object once it’s thrown away? Should we be making durable objects that will last and that our children will one day inherit? Or should we make, instead, even less durable objects that are clearly disposable but that are much easier to degrade?

I don’t think this question is addressed at all in web design. And to be honest, why should it? And the question of inheritance can also be related to the ownership one: how do we pass it on, if we don’t actually own it?

The endless iteration process

The truth is that both object and websites go through iterations that supposedly make them better. But whereas the iterations of objects require for new objects to be produced, iterations of websites just mean new files are uploaded (making the digital equivalent of the landfill). I’m sure many industrial designers would love that their flawed works could be as easily updated as ours!

If you think about it, is there actually any website that you can look at and think “this is perfect as it is, and it should never change, I want it to be like this forever and keep it”? There are objects. So does this mean that there are no perfectly designed websites, that get better with age, that fit better after years of use? Or should we look at details in web design that are like this, instead of whole website? Like putting the logo on the top left corner.

And how about sustainability—another big word frequently mentioned throughout the movie? Is it something we should be addressing more? And how?

No point

My question is: should we care at all? Am I talking about two completely distinctive things that by no means should be compared? The things is, we try to translate so many other characteristics of tangible design to web design, so why not try and translate these values more often too?

There is absolutely no point to this article. These are just some thoughts that came to my mind whilst watching the movie, and this was the easiest way of not losing those thoughts.

Even so, I’d like to know your thoughts on this: am I just being an idiot trying to compare two subjects that shouldn’t be compared like this? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  • Well, I think we should care.

    As for ownership, there’s a good example in websites like flickr. Even though it’s not as costumizable as others (myspace, etc), it seems to me that the (more active) flickr users feel like it’s their own personal space. I’ve also had that feeling about deviant art users. Twitter is also an example, but in a different way (which I can’t properly explain). I believe twitter users see their twitter page as “theirs” but in a different way of flickr users.

    But, as you point out, there’s the problem of the website evolution, either on a functionality level or something else. I remember when flickr users decided to abandon the website because of things like the yahoo id unification process or when video was added. Change exists, and is not always welcome, and at that time people lose the ilusion of ownership they had all that time.

    So yeah, I think we should care about these points. Will they influence the way we do things ? Maybe not. I think the things we do about these questions are already so defined that it’s really hard to change how we (or the users) handle them, and even if we try, we have to remember that we are dealing with users, which can always be unpredictable.

  • Just pondering here… are there any websites that we will treasure forever like some physical objects (like an Eames chair, or Starck’s lemon squeezer)? Maybe things like Yugop back in the day, and there was a particularly lovely long animation that was stunning (umm?). Of course, these are all gone now, or at least hidden. It would be nice to be able to time machine the whole web back to certain dates in time, see what it was like, what we found amazing, interesting.

    Flickr is a very different kind of site, but I like the way that it essentially feels the same. That said, inevitably that shifts, mutates, improves, adds features.

    We should at least sometimes aspire to creating things that are classic.

    No point to this comment either.

  • The thing with websites is that people don’t often form an attachment with them unless they can interact with them. But if you can interact with a site you can’t download and keep a copy of it.

    It’s because of it’s nature in that it’s always changing and evolving due to your own and other people’s actions that it makes it a compelling and perhaps emotional experience.

    But you’re right – you can’t physically hold a website. But if you had an object you could touch and manipulate in a physical way wouldn’t it be disconcerting that other people could manipulate that same object as you held it like a website?

    I disagree that a website can never be perfect. A website can be perfect – or at least it has the potential to be so. This is an ephemeral state, however, and a site can lapse out of perfection through some change in technology, or perhaps through something as simple as the site owner deciding it needs improving!

    As for sustainability, isn’t that what CSS-only redesigns are?

  • Had the same line of though after being introduced to the Cradle to Cradle principal. Came to think a lot about how a website could fit under these “laws” – how can, if it isn’t already, a website be totally de-structable and reusable, or even go as far as being able to upcycle a website…

    – again this comment has no point what so ever :)