The dangers of exceptionalism

One of the core reasons why we don’t have a lot more quality Web design is the organizational excuse that we’re different, our audiences are different, we’re exceptional.

The argument of exceptionalism is lazy. It is a primitive urge. The exceptionalists hate evidence and love gut feeling, ego and instinct. They invest a lot in their illusory specialness and uniqueness.

A key outcome of the research we did on COVID-19 was that the same top tasks were shared across the world by the vast majority of people. On every continent, healthcare providers, academics and the general public shared the same tasks. Not just that, when we asked these groups to come up with a classification for these tasks, they came up with the same basic classification. Sure, the level of detail each group might have wanted was going to be different, but what the research overwhelmingly showed was that we could create a common classification for everyone.

That won’t stop a great many health organizations setting up sections called “Information for the public”. Why? Because their gut instinct tells them. And our audiences are special. They have different needs. (Sometimes, of course, audience-based navigation is necessary, but it is an exception.)

“Vaccine” was a top task. Instead of putting “Vaccine” at the top level of the classification, this audience-based logic will put vaccine information under “Information for the pubic” as well as under multiple other audience sections. Roll on all the duplication, waste, confusing search and menus and links.

Someone will have to decide what vaccine information is for the public and what vaccine information is for academics and what vaccine information is for healthcare providers. Instead of allowing people to decide for themselves, someone will try and decide what vaccine information is “right” for a mother or father, and what information is “too technical” for them.

In 25 years of doing Web classification I can’t remember a single time that audience-based navigation worked well. I can think of multiple failures. I was involved somewhat in the UK government website for citizens called Directgov. I was also involved in the BusinessLink website. Neither of them exists now. There’s a single site called GOV.UK.

Both the US and Canadian revenue agencies used to have audience-based navigation. Now, they take a top tasks approach. Why? Because in the vast majority of cases, task-based navigation works infinitely better than audience-based navigation. People don’t come to a website thinking “I’m a small business”. They do come to a website thinking “I want to pay my VAT”.

So, why do so many organizations in 2020 create horrible navigation? Because they’re still designing websites based on their organization charts. Because they’re lazy and incompetent. Because in 2020 a great many organizations still have a wholly amateur approach to Web design. Because the stupidity and arrogance of senior management is still breath-taking when it comes to the Web. You can almost always be guaranteed that the most stupid, inane idea in the room will come from a senior manager.

“Let’s make it more jazzy, innovative. What about a chatbot, an app? We need an app! And where’s my big ego banner? I want my hero shot! I want my hero shot!! I want my hero shot!!! More images, please! Video! We must have video of senior managers telling the world how much they care.”

3 thoughts on “The dangers of exceptionalism

  1. Jim Reed

    Great article, Gerry. I manage a municipal government website in the U.S. I can’t believe how many of my colleagues use navigation based on some variation of “residents, businesses, and visitors.” Many seem so enthusiastic about this and they are sure that it works. One state (I don’t remember which) even recommended it as a standard navigation scheme they thought all the cities and counties should follow. I have asked many times if anyone ever tested this scheme and would share their data. Nobody has ever provided any. But I have to say that our site isn’t much better. At least we tried to organize around tasks. The problem I ran into is resistance to user testing, and especially having an experienced, impartial outside firm do the testing. Maybe someday I can sell that idea.

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  2. Mary Chipman

    “You can almost always be guaranteed that the most stupid, inane idea in the room will come from a senior manager.” I have certainly found that to be true in my experience, regardless of whether it was a major corporation or a non-profit. They are incapable of grasping the simple concept that customers don’t care about you, your software or your web site, they’re just looking to solve problems without spending money.

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