The Death of “Just in Case” Web Design

Just in CaseEver since the first web browsers were created in the mid 1990’s people have been endlessly debating on how to design a web site. Or more specifically their companies’ site. At first it was left to a small group of people to make the decisions, because it was probably a fad and why spend time there. Once the fad thing became the next big thing everyone wanted in on the gold rush. Opinions were as common as… Well, you know.

To see how far we’ve come, check out Evolution of the Web an interactive site that shows the progression of Internet technology and human adoption and integration in their everyday lives.

Usability science came along, disciplines were created and the work was put into trained hands. The problem lies in the fact that most corporate web sites, especially ones that are  C to C and have a significant traffic, must sometimes serve a dozen or more masters. That calls for scorecards, prioritization frameworks and, oh yes, a check back to what the objectives are.

I’ve sat in so many meetings where business partners want to put things in the interface “just in case” a user may be looking for it. They come up with all manner of wild use cases. They are very creative. Bring them back to reality. Search is what we use when we are looking for something. Navigation is for fast access to what you want or need to do during any given visit. Design is for connecting with a customer so they will want to know more.

The new design trend emerging, one of “Point Solution” is I think fantastic. It fills the digital canvas, is responsive to the device that beckons it to life and incorporates a storyscape of the functionality. It seamlessly combines high impact graphics, video, animation and interactive scrolling. When done well one doesn’t know if we are learning or accomplishing a task. And the doing becomes commerce, crossing an invisible line without being detected. It’s bulletproof for solving one or two use cases, but challenged when there are ten to twenty functions available for customers.

The “Just in Case” design is too broad and the “Point Solution” is too narrow. Designers with the help of business partners must find the middle way between the two. Uncovering the dark data hidden in the click stream married with back end analytics is critical. Start with eliminating all of the use cases that are remote, then progressively work your way toward the desired outcome. Oh yeah, you need really, really good designers.

It takes courage to avoid the “Just in Case” design trap and to stave it off you must have hard data showing it’s the right way to go. It’s best to be able to bring a design to life that has absolutely no hierarchy, only a flow of perfectly quilted content.

The poster child for “Point Design” is the Pencil 53 product site from the company Fifty-three. I love the site but loved the product even more. That helps. Their singular objective is to communicate everything about the Pencil 53. What it is, what it does, why it’s better. My review of the Pencil 53 is here.

Pencil 53 Screen shot

Apple is great example of incorporating “Point Design” when they want to be bold about a product, then shifting to a  more traditional design for product comparison, shopping and support. Sometimes you need to tell the story on a deeper level. For Apple’s 30th anniversary they created a time line of their products and the people behind them. They allowed a user to click on their first Mac and let Apple know what it meant to them. Emotive memories. They have always excelled at closing that last mile between a person and technology.

MAC 30 Time line

Microsoft is also getting in the game. They are simultaneously upgrading their product design as well as their sites. Their Surface experience is excellent and they are working hard to put the brand back on track after years of being completely lost.


Samsung has a very difficult design problem to crack. Parts of their site are absolutely on point while others appear archival but are probably effective at selling, so it may not matter. Remember the data. The Apps and Entertainment section is outstanding at showcasing a breadth of products and covers a lot of ground without being overwhelming.


We see people, read their stories, watch their videos and learn how technology works in their lives for convenience, efficiency and peace of mind.

People Read on the Web

Web designers and usability pundits have said for years that people don’t read on the web. At best they skim, and if you have copy that is not juxtaposed with some attractive image it won’t be read. In those days we were encouraged to put as much as possible above the fold and keep the copy short (one liners were even better). As someone who has been involved in developing for the online channel since 1994, I worked hard to live by this rule. Now I believe it’s no longer valid, and here’s why.

  • Sharper and larger flat screens are more affordable and allows for comfortable reading with less scrolling
  • Web 2.0 experience has simplified web page design, removed clutter and keeps users on the same page, even when executing fairly complex tasks
  • Proliferation of community on the web (blogs) drive people to interact primarily by reading
  • People have many screens that are connected to the web (analog form factors are isolated) which means they learn to read with all devices

These are primarily hardware and connectivity changes that have taken place in too short a time to say that humans have changed. That means people have done what they do best, adapt. Web 1.0 allowed us to click and travel for the first time with a machine. Much more fun than reading. During the time between 1.0 and 2.0 everyone, and I mean everyone, has put content on the Internet. Web 2.0 has given us the magic to make that content travel from device to device, and be easily shared with others. But unlocking the value of that content demands that we read it.

Humans are very good at reading. The novelty of being able to click around on the web has worn off and so we are once again getting down to business by reading and interpreting the written word.

I just sat through two days of focus groups where we combined traditional usability testing and market research. I was skeptical at first, but it has worked out very well and validated my reading theory. The users ignored single lines of copy and gravitated to the larger paragraphs on each and every screen. The images on the page didn’t have much impact. What resonated was site structure (where should I go?) and words that told a story. Narratives are much more powerful than one liners on web sites.

Users are much more sophisticated today about the web. Less wowed by the technology and more thoughtful about what’s being presented. The idea of the web is understood and now second nature. That doesn’t mean we should publish War and Peace, but it does mean we can be more conversational with our visitors.

Don’t let the dot point marketers take over the copywriting duties, or allow your company to gush all over itself (Let us tell you how great we are…). Be fun, informative, interesting and get to the point. But when it needs more, write it.