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Comments Topics: Technology

A Designer's Guide to Personalizing Your Site

The Power of Personalization: Part 3 of 3

When it comes to design, those responsible for building brands have tried desperately to maintain control over the way their message is presented on the web.

The Web is a New Medium. It is Not Print.

In the past, designers and developers tried to mold the web to their will through tables-based design and Flash—enforcing a structured grid system and trying to control typography and visual elements.

However, these attempts to enforce control were a major set-back to web development because designers and developers tried to impose a design aesthetic borrowed from one-to-many mass media. More often than not, this approach only corrupts or overcomplicates the underlying code or tries to bypass the code completely. In the end they made their data less usable, or in some cases, completely unusable. The web is a new medium. Designers need to stop trying to make it work like print.

Artificial Intelligence for the Web

Computers should make finding and using information easier. The web should provide easy-to-use tools to help manage our work flows and information systems. We want devices and applications that integrate easily into our lives and help make our work more creative and productive and our lives more enjoyable.

So, what if we were able to design a system that was able to learn from our daily habits?

The last thing we need is a gigantic web-form to collect a ton of information from us before we can use an application. But users should be given choices, and as they make choices—whether it is the pages of a site they visit, the links they click on, the items they buy, the applications they use, or the files they download—those choices are aggregated into a profile to set some preferences:

  • browser preferences
  • language preferences
  • layout preferences
  • content preferences
  • location preferences
  • purchasing preferences

Data on the Web is Fluid

Designers need to acknowledge that data on the web is fluid. We don't know how people access that information, whether it is on a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop computer; whether the information is accessed from an iOS application, an Android phone, a WebKit browser or an “ancient” (decade old) web browser like Internet Explorer 6. Do websites need to look exactly the same in every browser? No. Things will never look exactly the same in every device or application.

New Approaches to Web Design

But, web browsers are becoming more capable, and new web standards allow sites to adapt and serve a user experience that matches the capabilities of the browser. Ethan Marcotte, in an article on A List Apart, coined the term Responsive Web Design to refer to an approach that uses CSS media queries to serve the same content, but a different layout to different devices. He also was involved in the much-celebrated redesign of the Boston Globe. Now, there are gallery sites, like, that showcase sites that are using this responsive approach to serve appropriate layouts to different devices.

The appeal of this approach is that you don't need a separate site or application for each device. You build your site once and it works across all platforms. This approach helps you focus on what's necessary. Luke Wroblewski advocates a Mobile First approach, as mobile devices will likely be the dominant means of accessing information on the web sooner than later. You'll find that the same principles apply to the experience of using websites on desktops and laptops as they do on mobile devices: focus on content and avoid overcomplicated layouts and interfaces.

Adapt to Your Audience

As you think about how your site can adapt to your audience, focus on the content your users need, and pay special attention to the underlying code. Make sure your information is as accessible as possible. Then you can think about how the presentation can change. Give up control and focus instead on giving your users what they're looking for instead of what you think they should see. There's a big difference.