The Dangers of Winchester Web Design


The Winchester House, in San Jose, is the byproduct of a broken mind.  Sarah Winchester, heir to the vast Winchester fortune, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all those killed by the Winchester rifles.  She also believed that the only way for her to survive was to move out West, build a house, and never stop building it.  So for almost 40 years she had workers constantly adding on to her home, day and night, until it was an 8 story mansion (due to earthquakes, it has now settled into a 4 story mansion).  It has 160 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 2 ballrooms, 17 basements, and 3 elevators.  In many ways it had some of the most technologically advanced items of the day installed, as well as artistic wonders unmatched and of great value, even today.  But it also had doors that opened to walls, hallways and stairs that went nowhere, and windows into interior rooms.  160 rooms of chaotic wonder.

The same can be said of many Web properties.

With the best of intentions, a company builds a site or application or even a feature that is, as far as they can tell, just what they want.  Then an executive suggests they add a feature.  Then the new director changes the focus of the program.  Then new products are created and marketing wants them added at the top level (“how else will anyone know its there?”).  The original designer left the company and the new one isn’t sure where the source files are.  So they just keep adding on to what’s already there.  Bolting feature after feature to the hull like some Mad Max raider vehicle.

And suddenly, your site is the Winchester House.  It may still be beautiful.  It may still be cutting edge.  But finding anything among all the crazy is almost impossible, and cleaning the thing takes forever.

I see this all the time (and I’m pretty sure you have as well).  But it doesn’t have to be so.  Here are three quick ways to avoid the Winchester Web Design pitfalls.

  1. Don’t listen to ghosts.  Unless the ghosts are your users, of course.  It helps to officially determine who the stakeholders are, and who controls what goes where.  For example, a well thought out content strategy, including who the gatekeepers are, will help keep the content barbarians from swarming over your site with everything from maintenance alerts to updates to the “soup of the day.”
  2. Know when to stop.  Determine before hand what “done” means.  Anything that anyone wants to add past the “Done” stage needs to be fully evaluated for impact.  But also keep in mind that changes will need to be made for valid reasons, and build a process into your plan for allowing that in a controlled manner.
  3. Don’t lose your visitors. Keep the user experience at the top of your list, and keep checking to make sure the experience hasn’t eroded.  Adding hallways to nowhere is the same as adding links to broken pages.  As you make changes, you need to ensure that the UX is still viable.

And if all else fails, bring a Winchester to your next design meeting.


Why Web Standards?

The nature of the Web tends towards chaos.  With many programming languages, design styles, and business goals created by many different people, Web sites and applications will sprout up in their own silos if no guidance is given.  By themselves, these silos aren’t always a bad thing, but when those silos grow under what is seemingly one brand, they dilute the brand and weaken the trust of users.  Users don’t care what department designed something, what business unit paid for something, or what designer created something.  When they come to a business site, they expect a unified experience.  They don’t want to relearn interfaces, guess at whether they’ve left the security of the company they trust, or have to worry that suddenly they need a different browser or connection speed to continue their business.  When they have to deal with these hurdles, they feel cheated, they feel like their trust has been given too quickly, and they wonder if maybe they should be going elsewhere.  Some place professional.

Adopting a unified Web Standard can fix all this.  It’s not easy, but the goal is to make it look like it was.  

Best of the Web 2013

The Center for Digital Government has released the winners of the 2013 Best of the Web contest.  Some winners I’d like to highlight are some nice achievements in both California (where I now live) and Hawaii (where I hope to retire when I strike gold, discover the cure for cancer, and sell my third blockbuster novel).  Virginia, where I helped get the whole e-government boulder rolling, didn’t do as well this year, but Chesterfield County had a strong showing.

Take a look at all the winners