The two main research topics I recommend starting with on any web redesign are:
- Who is the audience? What are they reading? Why are they reading?
- Who are the authors/designers/publishers? What are their goals? What are their needs?
In a lot of commercial situations, almost all effort and design thinking prioritises the audience perspective. Solving the problem of keeping internal and external pressures in balance can be a non-starter with many stakeholders, perhaps due to optimism bias (‘just use Wordpress’), with predetermined technology choices and vendor preferences meaning nearly all the value of design is in optimising surface level site details (with metrics and KPIs as a proxy for how effectively the needs of the audience are being met). This works fine when it can be assumed with certainty that meeting user needs is a decent stand-in for meeting the goals of the writers and publishers. At its extremity, this focus leads to sterile, voiceless, boring, banal, bullshit-ridden, SEO-janked, hypernormalised, service-oriented sameness on the web.
Projects that skew too far towards meeting the needs of authors and publishers at users’ expense tend to be more broken and chaotic experiences to work on, almost always emergent from dysfunctional communication and hierarchical management stuff where ‘one of us is never as bad as all of us’. Oh the places you’ll go, and the stories I could tell about wildly complex technologies and workflows inappropriately set up in the face of underlying org problems that had more to do with egotism and conflicts of trust and control. Bringing user-centric design and audience focus to such environments is painstaking change-making labour I have a huge amount of respect for.
Personal websites confound attempts to balance this dichotomy through design. Whether they are stripped-back and focused or verdant and sprawling is about what the creator of the site wants to express and how they want to frame themselves and show their work. Audience focus can change drastically as an author goes through career changes, releases major projects or finds unexpected success in places far from where they started. Personal websites are often done as part-time projects or limited side-hustles and face budget and time constraints paradoxically clashing with the enormous possibilities and freedom to design anything in any way without having to seek approval and signoff or justify decisions.
For me, running this redesign like a commercial audience-driven project threatens to suck the life out of it. At the same time, I don’t want unconstrained creative freedom. I want the design to make sense and solve the problem it is meant to.
Why are you here?
Even if I acknowledge that the focus of this project is entirely about personal expression—trying to communicate my vision for the narrative web and what it could be beyond the corporate design monoculture—I still need a coherent framework for thinking about why people are coming here and what they are reading.
Insights I glean from this can feed into decisions around appropriate content types, URL structure, how to manage archives and distinguish stale writing from pieces that are more relevant.
If anything, my lack of focus on audience and asking why has been one of the biggest things holding this site back over the past few years. I need to figure out a way to scratch the surface of possible insights without getting lost in all the different strategies and research methods that could be applied.
For approaching editorial design and text-heavy websites, I really like the distinction made by Indra Kupferschmid about the difference between motivated and unmotivated readers, though I’m framing this in a slightly different way from the original, which is more about how people experience typography in their day to day environments.
For my purposes, unmotivated readers:
- Come via search engines and links from tutorials and learning material
- Have a problem to solve or a chore to complete
- Need immediate information and material to take away
- Will leave once they have what they came for
Wheras, motivated readers:
- Are creative and technical peers who share common experiences in media production
- Engage in longer, more immersive and exploratory reading
- Have a preference for elegant structure and new knowledge in argument, analysis and form
- Want to know more about the problems I’m working on and the things I’m creating (hopefully)
As haphazard and finger-to-the-wind as these lists may be, they are a vast improvement over the previous state of having absolutely nothing at all documented about the audience and user needs.
It’s also important to highlight the disparity in understanding I have of the two groups. I know a lot more about what’s going on with motivated readers because I talk to them directly all the time via DMs, emails, meetups, conferences, etc. Whereas with casual, unmotivated readers, I have absolutely no clue what they’re getting out of the site beyond vague assumptions that they’re landing on pages focused on specific technical problems and solutions.
My authoring needs
Even though I’ve designed, launched and contributed to an absurd number of custom content management apps over the years—including several that got used by fairly large audiences—I’ve come to realise that doing things with any CMS fundamentally doesn’t work for my own personal writing. I even feel this way about static site generators, whether hand-crafted by myself or open source tools grabbed off a package manager.
I always find myself wanting to start with an idea by writing in plain text in the most minimal basic form. I don’t want addressable structure to impede at this stage. I want to start with nothing more than a good typeface and colour scheme to write with, and push hypertext and paragraphs around on a scrolling canvas until I can more clearly see what the writing is going to turn into. Worrying about a title, metadata, naming things, format, syntax, HTML, URL, where something lives in a hierarchy, et al. should be just-in-time or on-demand, not a prerequisite for starting a draft.
Almost no systems and apps I can think of deliver this minimalist writing experience for publishing directly on the web. The extraordinary popularity of the ones that get close—like Medium and various newsletter products—perhaps reinforces that a lot of people really do just want to write and publish stuff, not mess around with ‘stacks’ or a fully-featured CMS.
Once I acknowledged this, I could quickly see how it was feeding directly into my obsessive racoon king of garbage mountain vacillating. I’m Bruno Lawrence firing a shotgun in the air, the deranged king of a sprawling Smash Palace junkyard. To get any piece of my writing onto the site, the site structure was demanding I create a file with a defined content type up-front, that I fill out all the required fields in a schema, that I add an ID and title following specific conventions. Without any of that, the thing would fail to build.
Sure, I could embrace the colossal accumulation of text scraps. I could switch off schema validation entirely or funnel every single thing into a site-wide post or wiki page content type. But I don’t want to dismiss the work I’ve done and its possibilities. It has been useful and empowering to have specialised content types for essays and talk transcripts.
It has always been the poorly-defined and uncertain borders and constraints of notebooks and notes where things came unstuck. This is the rusting metal junkyard, the shipwrecks scattered in the sand dunes at Foxton beach.