Gourmet Web Experiences on a Fast Food Budget – Jared Spool at NAGW 2010

It’s been a great week! First, I participated in Manor.Govfresh – an incredible, move-the-needle, local government innovation showcase event.

Now I am covering the 2010 National Association of Government Webmasters (NAGW) National Conference. The morning started with the pop of a champagne cork with Jared Spool presenting under the title “Cooking Up Gourmet Experiences on a Fast Food Budget.”

Spool’s mother was a friend of “Our Lady of the Ladle” Julia Child, who was a game-changer in the world of cooking. His company, User Interface Engineering, conducted research that asked the question: How do the best teams create great web design?

He brilliantly built on the metaphor of master chef throughout his presentation and articulated 3 key areas that make the biggest difference in improving web-based user experiences:

  • Vision
  • Feedback
  • Culture

To set the stage, Spool asked “How do the best teams create great design?” Answer: “What makes the difference is the way people work.” Spool shared a spectrum of web design approaches that range from following methodology and dogmas (the cookbook, this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it) to experimenting with techniques and tools (the throw some great ingredients in a pan and see how it turns out approach).

Most teams focus on template-based methodologies – it’s safe, tried and true. To drive home this point, Spool fast forwarded through a baker’s dozen college website that apply a “girls under trees” template to their home pages. The problem with method and templates: you taste just like everyone else’s recipe – think McDonalds for web design. He stated unequivocally:

“There is no evidence that templates result in quality design.”

Instead, Spool suggested that the best teams err on the side of trying tools and techniques, refining their craft based on tests, failures and adaptations. In order for web teams to move more toward tools and techniques that lead to best practices in web design, they must ask three questions:

1. Vision: Can everyone on the team describe the experience of using your design five years from now? I asked Spool “Why 5 years?” suggesting that it seemed like a long time horizon given the lightspeed changes in web and mobile communications. He said, “Focus on the experience in five years, not the design.” Your design will change based on the environment, but emphasizing the experience allows you to craft a clear, consistent concept of engagement with visitors.

2. Feedback: In the last six weeks, have you spent more than two hours watching someone use either your design or a competitor’s? Take a trip around the web, visiting websites that assimilate your vision. Conduct 5-second page tests while you’re there. Open a page, review it for 5 seconds (don’t cheat), then write down what you can remember. Pick 5 websites to compare and contrast. Borrow the best concepts for your site.

3. Culture: In the last six weeks, have you rewarded a team member for creating a major design failure? All too often, we thwart creativity by programming our people to avoid risks and the potential for failure. Instead, by rewarding failure we give people permission to push their limits – both personal and professional – in ways that could lead to innovative breakthroughs. Reward failure; don’t reprimand.

One last concept that Spool shared which is worth highlighting is the word Inukshuk, which is a stone landmark that native peoples used for navigation or a point of reference. In essence, an inukshuk, signifies that “someone has been this way before.” How can you create online inukshuks on your website – clear markers that make the visitor feel as if they are part of an experience that is broader than the one that they are having now – that they are not alone in searching and finding your pages?

In the end, good web design is not about spending a lot of money. It’s about spending time to explore and discover the tricks and techniques that lead to memorable user experiences – not unlike a great restaurant – then leaving a vision and trail for other members of your team to share in the collective art of great design…and an insatiable hunger for more.


Please also see these other write-ups of the 2010 NAGW National Conference:

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Ron Pringle

Thanks for sharing that great synopsis of Jared’s opening keynote; I think you nailed his points very well. One of the reasons I love being involved with NAGW and the planning of the National Conference is the opportunity to bring speakers like Jared in and challenge the status quo and hopefully shake off the complacency that we all feel from time to time in the government space.

Looking forward to doing it all over again in Cincinnati next year! Thanks for attending Andy, it was a pleasure meeting you.