Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: January 13, 2010

The coming commoditization of good web design

What makes good web design? Before you can consider the attributes, you must settle on a definition. An art major may say that good web design is the perfect expression of creative genius. An engineer may say that good web design simply works.

For the purpose of this discussion, good design will be defined as an interface that a reasonable person, unfamiliar with some foreign concept, will find intuitive and easy to understand. To provide an example: Joe Schmoe, a middle-aged guy with moderate computer literacy, can come to your web site and understand what widgets are. Or he can jump right into your advertising associate program without giving up.

As a consultant, I am occasionally approached by people looking for design help. Why do they turn to me? Because I am an “expert”. Specialized expertise is an assumption that goes into every assumption about hiring outside help. After all, visiting a doctor when we have abdominal pain takes much less time than learning gastrointestinal medicine and diagnosing it ourselves (though crowd-sourced information via web searches can help here).

Web design has thousands upon thousands of consultants. They range from expensive creative firms to your nephew, Tim, who just learned how to make a basic webpage in his high school computer class. Obviously, results vary.

But you do not need to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to meet the minimum criteria of good web design. Increasingly, this level of quality is becoming commoditized. Designers no longer need to start from scratch when creating something for a client; they can analyze the genre, identify a decent framework, and take it from there.

Robert Hoekeman and Jared Spool recently published a terrific resource on web design frameworks. They have scoured the web to find general frameworks that, quite simply, work. People know how to use them. All a designer needs to do is to tack on the latest typography trends and pick a color scheme the client likes. (Okay, there is a little more to it than that, but you get the point).

Allow me to reiterate a key point here: good web design is increasingly becoming a commoditized product.

While people and businesses will still turn to design consultants for help, consultants will not be able to charge as much strictly for design work, because they will be doing less of it.

The winners of this transformation will be consultants who make their mark through a combination of design and usability testing (or just those who do usability testing). If you want to get ahead of the curve, this is where you need to be.

Very soon, the process of design will look like this:

  1. Identify a genre and appropriate design framework.
  2. Customize the framework’s look and feel.
  3. Conduct usability testing on the working prototype.
  4. Revise per usability testing feedback.

Note: This is simplified. And I know Jared Spool will say that if you are doing step #3 to find design mistakes, your design process is broken. But you know what, Jared, I am still going to do it.

Usability testing adds a level of scaleable complexity, meaning fewer people will be able to come up with good feedback. You need to have the research chops to do strong usability testing, and not many people will be up to the task. (More to come on this topic in future blog posts).

Change is a fact of live for design consultants. Change will never stop. Our only choices are to adapt, or to accept obsolescence.