Patterns provide the key to Web site development

There are recurring patterns in the way humans construct things, whether it is a building or a Web site. If designers can identify and understand those patterns, they can use that knowledge to build better things.
Written by Shawn Morton, Contributor

There are recurring patterns in the way humans construct things, whether it is a building or a Web site. If designers can identify and understand those patterns, they can use that knowledge to build better things.

Although that's a slight simplification, it's the basic premise of Christopher Alexander's seminal work, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Published in 1977, the book gained popularity during the dot-com boom as Web designers and information architects struggled through a lack of universal standards for Web site organization and design.

Now, a new book revisits this concept. With The Design of Sites, authors Douglas van Duyne, James Landay, and Jason Hong have taken Alexander's idea of a pattern language and extended it to specifically address the lack of universal standards in the Web development process.

Don't reinvent the wheel
Van Duyne, Landay, and Hong established their patterns because they saw designers solving the same basic problems over and over again. By using the patterns outlined in the book, designers can begin each project with a predefined, successful framework that they can modify to fit their specific design issues. This not only saves them time, but it helps them to avoid pitfalls that have already been recognized by other designers.

Patterns for the entire product development process
The patterns are divided into 12 groups, covering things like Site Genres, Creating a Powerful Homepage, and Advanced E-Commerce. Within each pattern group, up to 11 patterns are identified. Each pattern is broken into the same four parts that Alexander defined: Problem, Discussion, Illustration, and Solution.

One of the more useful pattern groups is Creating a Navigation Framework. Five of this group's nine patterns deal with various types of organizational structures. I found this section particularly interesting because I often encounter sites where it is clear that the designers did not consider which type of navigation structure works best for their specific needs.

I also found the Writing and Managing Content and Helping Customers Complete Tasks pattern groups particularly valuable. Those managing the development of a Web-based project often overlook these items. Look-and-feel issues usually take precedence over the more important concerns of content management and usability.

Rules you can bend
The great thing about these patterns is that they represent knowledge that has emerged through actual usage over time. They aren't someone's opinion, nor are they strict rules that must be followed. They are simply observations of actual phenomena with recommendations on how to use them to solve the core issues Web designers face.

Critics of the pattern concept claim that this approach somehow stifles creativity by placing too many restrictions on the designer; however, I don’t think those critics truly understand the purpose of a Web pattern language. Patterns simply provide a foundation from which to start. They are a means, not an end. You may find that your particular situation requires you to take a different approach, but the patterns can still serve as a list of things to consider when creating your design.

More than just patterns
Although the 90 patterns make up the bulk of The Design of Sites, a lot of the book’s value comes from the opening chapters, in the Foundations of Web Site Design section, and in the appendices.

Chapters 1 through 5 serve as a primer for adopting customer-centered design processes in your organization. Each chapter is broken down into concise chunks of actionable information, including Nine Myths of Customer-Centered Design and Applying Customer-Centered Design.

The appendices are also filled with useful information. Appendix A, Running Usability Evaluations, provides a step-by-step overview of the usability testing process, including how to analyze the data and present the findings to your client or manager. Appendix E, Online Research, demonstrates the steps necessary to perform online research studies.

Something for everyone
The Design of Sites can be a valuable resource for anyone involved in the development of Web-based products. The chapters on customer-centered design serve as an excellent introduction for managers or designers new to Web development, while the patterns and appendices are great time-savers for the experienced designer who will use this book more as a reference tool.

Overall, I think this book serves a much broader audience and will have a longer shelf life than a lot of books I’ve read on the topic. And maybe that was the point. After all, the value of creating a common pattern language is that everyone on the team can understand and use it.

Builder.com originally published this article on 1 July 2003.

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