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Bottoms Up

Web design is under attack. Our enemy is a dangerous meme known as reductionism. This devious adversary is spreading the notion that we can fully understand Web sites as a combination of simpler components, and that we can break the process of design into lots of quick steps and clearly defined deliverables.

You can easily identify the infected. They'll tell you they need a taxonomy, or they're building a thesaurus. Ask them about the purpose of the taxonomy or thesaurus and they'll give you a blank stare. They have no interest in the bigger picture. At this point, you should smile politely, slowly turn away, and then run like hell. Reductionism is highly contagious, and there's no easy cure.

Increasingly, our sites are larger and more sophisticated. And yet, we shouldn't let our sites become small pieces badly joined. The cost of giving up is too high. One way to solve the problem is to take a bottom-up approach.

As we designed the first Web sites and intranets, we had holistic views of our projects and designed with a top-down approach.

We could easily define goals and strategy. We described intended audiences, as well as anticipated information and services. And then we designed a site hierarchy to serve as a container for content and as a navigation framework for users. Those were the days when we had big thoughts about small sites. We could comfortably fit a model of the entire site inside our heads and mull it over while we worked on components. Our design of the parts was informed by an understanding of the whole.

Content Contamination

We all know what happened then. Our sites grew and grew and grew. Twenty-page brochure sites soon became complex information and transaction systems with thousands of pages and dozens of interactive functions. Content production was increasingly decentralized.

At some point, the complexity of our sites overwhelmed us. It became distinctly uncomfortable to fit a holistic model inside our heads. This discomfort made reductionism seductive; why not divide the site into more easily digestible modules?

At first, reductionism was healthy. As top-down redesigns became too large for one person, or even one team, managers broke large projects into smaller projects and assigned teams to tackle specific tasks. Initially, team members resisted any separation from the whole. They insisted on understanding how their work fit into the bigger picture. They insisted on interdisciplinary collaboration, and so we had teams of specialists working toward shared goals.

But sites keep growing and reductionism is a slippery slope. Increasingly, people are simply giving up on the big picture. They act locally but don't think globally. These individuals now design their parts in utter ignorance of the whole.

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