Web Strategy: Beyond Usablity –Designing using ‘Bottom Up’ Techniques and Mental Models

Understanding User Needs is important
A true Web Strategist should have a wide base of understanding of the web –one very important aspect is understanding what users want, and how to provide it for them.

I’m going to revert to a previous time in my career where I thought I was going to head down the path of a User Experience Career, probably a cross between User Interface Engineering/Design and Information Architecture. I never fully achieved this as I went into a web marketing management role, and have recently evolved to social media in the last year.

I may be a bit dated in my thinking, (as I’ve not cracked open a UX book in some time) but I’ve learned a lot and may offer some fresh perspectives on how I perceive is the proper way to design a website. I’m sure not everyone will agree with me, and I certainly welcome that.

Difference between Top down and Bottom up Design
Top Down design is the practice of designing a website based upon designer expertise, (or familiarity) without understanding the needs of the users. Bottom up design is the result of thoroughly understanding the users and their needs and designing starting from there.

“The most fundamental mistake people make regarding IA is assuming that their users think about the subject matter in the same way that they do. In other words, most designers are really only designing for themselves. The view of your site from inside the organization will always differ from the view from outside. Sometimes that difference will be dramatic. You’ve got to set aside your preconceptions to see the site the way your users do”. -Jesse James Garett, Adaptive Path

Top Down: Designing by Common Sense isn’t that Common
Recently, I had a conversation on the most effective way to design a website, and one thought was to design by using ‘common sense’. I challenged that notion as common sense isn’t all that common. Each individual has their own history, perceives information and widgets differently and age, cultures, languages, certainly play to a website that can be accessed by the global audience. Designing by ‘Common sense’ isn’t a good idea.

Usability, Heuristic Design, and Common Sense Design are all forms of less effective “Top Down” design.

Bottom Up: The Practice of User Experience Design is holistic.
I’d rather see a focus on User Experience, which is a the holistic (big) view of the entire program, including the strategy, features, information organization, user interface, and skin (which ties to brand) layer. Sound familiarly, well it should, as I’m quoting the great UX guru Jesse James Garrett and his Planes of UX –see his Elements of UX diagram (PDF) to learn more.

At many large web companies (I’ve friends in several of these groups) there are entire teams devote to each one of these layers of user experience. At smaller companies, a small group of folks has to cover many of these. Learn more about UX teams from Jared Spool.

User Experience Research, which start with understanding the user needs is a form of more effective “Bottom Up” design

What is a Mental Model?
A mental model (which derives from psychology, and HCI fields) is a derivative of determining the specific needs of an individual or group of users. This model is the holy grail of any web design project and typically requires a series of tests both qualitative and quantitative, you’ll notice that very few of these are ‘top down’ in their approach, meaning they obtain the testing in a scientific way from the users –not their own expertise. Learn more about the history of mental models.

Partial list of Methods to obtain Mental Model

A document should arrive out of this study that full explains user needs and how they anticipate information to be accessed and displayed. Often multiple mental models are created depending on users, tasks and needs. Mental Models and Usablity provide a partial list, for a thorough list obtain the book Observing the User Experience.

  • Task Analysis (card sorting)
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Focus Groups and Interviews
  • Contextual Inquiry
  • Participatory Design
  • Usability Testing
  • Web Metrics Analysis (interesting discussion here)
  • Search Log Analysis

Business Model and Technical Limiations
Please note that in order to complete a web redesign project, an similar amount of focus will be spent on understanding the business needs of the company, either the web product manager, marketing, executive requests for strategy –thus building a smaller scale ‘business model’.

And lastly, both of these needs are often paired down due to technical limitations –it’s nearly impossible to implement all user needs. I’ll get into these more next time.

In summary, successfuly websites will be using closely sided with “Bottom Up” design –rather than with “Top Down” design.

(Edit: I’ve continued this disucssion with Paula Thornton –Read Part 2)

  • Mike Steckel

    I tend to be wary of a “one is better than another” line of argument that exists without context and I think there may be a few things you are overlooking here.

    I agree with you that common sense is not a valid fallback position, exactly for the reasons you mention, but I also don’t think that is the only characterization of a “top-down” approach. I further don’t think that you could characterize a “top down” approach as one “without understanding the needs of the users.”

    Often a designer has an insight based on deep knowledge of their audience that taps a need which is currently unmet or unidentified by that audience. Their years of experience can help turn that insight into a successful design. The obvious danger is when they go live without testing of that insight with real, targeted users.

    Additionally, strategy and branding goals you describe as “business models” are “top down” design elements that often guide design decisions. If you focus entirely on user input, you will often be miss these.

    I would totally agree with your arguments for a strong “bottom up” approach.

    For me, the healthiest approach is a site that mixes “top down” goals with “bottom up” mental models of your target audience. I see no value in pitting them against each other.

  • http://www.tech4people.be Rik Manhaeve

    In my opinion, this is an old but also very true story, but hasn’t been recognized for many years. The same problem still occurs in regular software design. I have done different jobs in the software world: programming, database design, user manuals, on line help … and it all boils down to one point: if the users don’t like it, can’t do their job with it, it doesn’t matter. The only ones knowing what is important are the users themselve, so bottom up (joined wtih careful executed top down) is the way to. The main issue here is the difference between macro-functionality (the top down – what it should do) and the micro functionality (the bottom up – how it should be done). Every new technology sets us back a number of years, a new bunch of people are creating systems making the same mistakes over and over again. Systems should not be user-friendly (a emotion, systems never will have) but usable. There is a lot mote to say, but it comes down to one statement and I quote: “Computing is about people, not machines” (IBM) and if you want to do so, you have to do it bottom up against all programming rules.

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