Is It Fair To Criticize Bad Design?

Jacob Nielsen recently posted an Alertbox simply titled Four Bad Designs. While I don’t disagree with his observations and his conclusions, I also felt that perhaps it was a little unfair to single out these sites in particular for his scathing remarks:

Following is a modest harvest of design stupidities I’ve recently encountered.


As one who works in the web design industry I am all too aware of the pressures that cause seemingly poor design decisions to be made.

These causes can include lack of time to properly design and test, internal politics, lack of resources (especially when it comes to writers), and insufficient understanding of the web by those making decisions concerning it.

Web Design Goal Triangle

I like to think of the web design process in terms of the “goal triangle” (thanks Brian) where the design of a web site is influenced by 3 types of goals (each of which can be thought of consisting one side or point on a triangle):

  1. Organizational goals
  2. User goals
  3. Web team goals

For example, the organization (e.g. marketing) may want a site that is highly interactive and uses a lot of bells and whistles.

On the other hand, users may just want a site that’s easy to navigate, while the web team wants to develop something they can easily maintain.

These goals often conflict in some way, and the web design process involves balancing them so as to best meet all three.

If one of the goals outweighs the others by too much, the web site will not be successful for the stakeholders of those other two goals.

And if organizational and web team goals outweigh user goals your site may end up in Mr. Nielsen’s next writeup.

Why Can’t We All Just Be Friends?

It’s all too easy to criticize web sites for seemingly stupid design mistakes, and I know I’ve been guilty of it in the past.

However, I’m generally wary about writing posts that are critical of other web sites because I know how difficult it is to develop a web site in a corporate environment — there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen.

This is why I am reluctant to make snap observations about a web site without knowing the reasoning behind the decisions that were made.

It’s also why I recommend that anyone interviewing for a web design-related job not offer a critique of the company’s web site without being asked.

On the other hand, it is useful to point out design mistakes so that others can learn from them.

I would prefer to see a more balanced approach that includes some positive statements about the site along with the bad — after all, there are few web sites that are completely without merit.

Those In Glass Houses…

And of course, Mr. Nielsen himself manages to commit two cardinal sins in this article:

  1. Not linking to the sites he is discussing. He even goes so far as to write their URLs without making them into links. I hate having to copy and paste a URL instead of click on it.
  2. Link hoarding. This practice whereby a site links to other internal pages when it should be linking out to an external page or site is becoming the bane of the internet. Please stop it.