Published: October 08 2012, by John
This is a seemingly tenuous start to a blog on web design - but bear with me.
I’m a long time cycling fan. And for many years, in professional road cycling, Britain didn’t really figure very highly in any rankings. Over the past 10 years, Britain has become one of the most dominant teams in Track cycling and in the past 3 years has transferred this success to the road. 2012 saw a level of success that was staggering.
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A key figure behind the transformation is Dave Brailsford. And the strategy most associated with his success has been termed ‘marginal gains’. His mantra has been to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of 100% performance rates. There should be absolutely no assumptions made about any part of the athletes equipment, living environment, training plans, diet or recovery. The fact a particular method is used by every other cycling team in the World, is not enough for Brailsford. Under investigation it might prove to be the best way of doing something - but Brailsford will insist of rigorous analysis of it first.
Other countries have scoffed at this approach. But often because the had too much investment in doing things the old, traditional way.
A similar situation arose in Baseball in the past decade. Michael Lewis wrote a book about it and Brad Pitt starred in the film: Moneyball.
The baseball team Oakland Athletics were a small team with a small (by baseball’s standards) budget. Team manager Billy Beane refused to accept his team could never be competitive against the bigger teams. He eschewed the long standing and accepted knowledge of what criteria defined good players and used statistics to identify undervalued players.
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With this new methodology, The Oakland Athletics have become legendary for outperforming the big teams with the big names and big budgets. And while the new approach was initially ridiculed by the baseball establishment who didn’t like being told they were doing things wrong - Beane’s statistical approach to evaluating player’s value has now been adopted by many other major teams.
This is not to say that there’s a value in coming to a sport with absolutely no knowledge of it and rebuilding from the ground up. Both Brailsford and Beane needed a massive knowledge of their sports to understand and interpret the data being presented to them. But it does emphasise the value in not accepting the status quo. Because a certain approach works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
You might have the fast sprinter in cycling or the best hitter in baseball - but if you don’t use them right in your team, that individual is not going to guarantee success.
And, of course, it’s the same in web design. I saw this link last week via @sophiedennis. The article shows previous versions of the GOV.UK home page. Visually they look pretty good. If I’d been designing the site, I wouldn’t have been adverse to following a design lead from any one of these.
Visually they meet a general acceptance in contemporary web design of what is likely to be a user friendly approach. But interestingly, user testing of the pages highlighted that these page’s weren’t working all that well for their visitors.
So, based on hard facts the web team developed a new home page. One that, on a visual level, I don’t really like all that much. And most web designers will probably agree with me. But this opinion is pretty much redundant, as it’s based on a subjective, aesthetic preference and an assumption of what users are going to find helpful on a website home page (and we all know why you shouldn’t assume).
The GOV.UK web team would probably have only ever got to the current site design by going via the original page versions and performing methodical testing. It highlights the fact that just because something looks better, doesn’t make it work better.
It shows the value of continually re-assessing your knowledge of your industry and how you should be applying your expertise.