Nico Macdonald: Web sight is out of focus

Nico Macdonald has kept a close eye on the proliferation of Web design awards schemes, and he thinks the criteria for winning them need a lot better clarification

In the half decade since design for the Web was recognised as a distinct area of practice, a secondary industry has been spawned that is dedicated to celebrating good design work.

Joining this awards bandwagon have been magazines such as New Media Age and ID; design organisations including the Design Business Association and British Design & Art Direction, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and dedicated gong-givers Maya Draisin and Tiffany Shlain with their ultra-cool Webby Awards. Over the years I’ve collected the proliferating calls for entries – and the ensuing announcements of award winners – in the hope they would help clarify that nebulous question: How can we identify good design?

To be able to appreciate, describe and critique good work is essential to the effective development of design, and this is particularly the case with newer areas of design activity. Having a critical sensibility for design helps clients intelligently choose and manage designers, and evaluate the quality of their approach. It helps students to acquire their skills more effectively, helps practitioners to hone their skills and work better with their clients, and lays the basis for better collaboration between the many participants in the design process.

In the UK, we’ve come some way in our appreciation of print, product, editorial and interior design, and our approach to appreciating interaction design for the Web should be based on the same principles we apply to these other areas of design.

These principles centre around the success of the designer in understanding the industry in which the client operates, and re-interpreting their problem or opportunity; researching the needs and the context of use of the intended customers; scoping and negotiating the project’s constraints; identifying the other stakeholders (including the people with whom they directly engage); understanding the key technologies; thinking laterally and creatively; effectively evaluating and communicating design ideas to all the project stakeholders; managing implementation and collaborating efficiently; and assessing the value of the final design solution and the process that led to it.

In applying these principles to Web interaction design work, it becomes apparent that its quality can’t be judged just by examining the final product. If a product doesn’t work for you in a particular context you may find you weren’t a target customer, or weren’t meant to use the product in that context, in which case your experience is no reflection on the success of the design solution.

Awards for Web-based interaction design show little understanding of these principles for evaluating design, and still less of the benefit that awards might bring to the appreciation of good design. Ian Worley, chief experience officer at Inspired Technologies, has observed that ‘design awards tend to focus purely on the visual and aesthetic aspects of a solution and do not really evaluate its appropriateness to the problem or the experience it provides to its users’.

Award-giving organisations rarely circulate considered and detailed criteria for judging design in their calls for participation – they seldom present the judges’ rationale for choosing the winning entries in terms of the criteria. What is presented is often uninformative. On the Silver-winning Diesel CD-Rom one judge of D&AD’s 1998 awards wrote ‘it was fun to use you could have a giggle with it’.

It should be said that finding out about the real context of a project and the design development story isn’t easy, not least because designers and their clients are rarely happy to reveal key information about a project, or identify negative aspects of its development. Nevertheless one of the worthier efforts in this area, the DBA’s International Design Effectiveness Awards, reaches parts of the project other awards haven’t heard of by connecting design to the client’s bottom line and asking questions including ‘How convincing is the link between the design solution and the results claimed for it?’, and ‘What other factors may have influenced the results?’

For a model of a well-conceived award, the Association of Computing Machinery’s, now defunct, ACM Interactions Design Award clearly explained the judging criteria and approach. If award-giving organisations publish such well-considered criteria in their call for entries, it will be a major step toward the effective application of design to the Web.

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