Since the world wide web has been in an ever-changing state from a social and technological standpoint, the web designer is in a continuous state of working with both the client and their users to address site objectives and user needs to ensure that the website will not cease to be useful and easy to use. We then as the designer will need to produce the content and functionality requirements that will go into the website based upon these site objectives and user needs.

We can then translate, analyze and work with the artifacts, non-human actors, that are produced by our human actors in our workflow:

  1. Site Objectives: What is the purpose of this site and how will it help in achieving the client’s business goals?
  2. User Needs: What types of things does our audience want from this site in order to sell them on our products or services?
  3. Requirements: What are we going to make and how?
Elements of Actor Network Theory

Elements of Actor Network Theory

For example, if a restaurant wants to launch a website in order to increase customer traffic, we as the designers will need to understand why our user audience would be visiting the website and in what context. Relying on sociology to discover the whys through ethnographical methods is the first step that we need to take.

Let’s say that a group of people are looking to make a reservation at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday. Let’s also say that since these people live relatively far away from one another and do not see each other very often, they are going to rely on email to communicate about various restaurants that they research on the internet. We also need to understand that for the group to make a final decision, they are going to rely on many factors that will either persuade them to make a reservation at a particular restaurant or not.

When conducting a panel discussion of “What do you want to know?” about a restaurant, we may find out a few things that do not necessarily coincide with what we need or how we see the world, but are important to others when making a decision. Factors that may include: dietary restrictions, neighborhood, valet parking, atmosphere, cost, etc. may make or break the decision for this group.

We would also need to understand how these people would then be using this website to achieve their goals. For instance, we need to understand that when researching information on the web, a typical user will merely scan our pages for the what they hope is the right link to click or the important text to read. We will need to understand that people spend very little time reading most web pages (Krug, 2005).

Once we as the designer understand the whys and the hows of our user audience, we can then build the website prototypes to gain feedback from the users while addressing that we are satisfying the goals of the project:

Elements of Actor Network Theory

Elements of Actor Network Theory

According to Suchman (1999), a prototype should exhibit new technological possibilities in ways that, through our appreciation for working practices and through the prototypes rendering of those practices, make the technologies relevant and useful to practitioners—both professional designers of new technologies and those who might use them.  This process of cooperative prototyping also includes the notion of iterative development as a means of gaining user input throughout the development cycle (Suchman, 1996). An iterative design process is one in which there is a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process.

These prototypes then help us as web designers to facilitate evaluation of the product under development at multiple points instead of at the end of the project. By prototyping, we as the designer, can present our designs and solutions to both our client and to the user at a point that if we need to shift gears and readdress our work, we are able to without costing the project too much time or the client too much money. We can also refer to this iterative process of gaining user input and feedback to address if we are achieving our site goals as usability testing—crafted from multiple perspectives: business, design, human factors and individual emotions (Johnson, 2007).

Since, usability is an activity guided by strategic methods and often quantitative measurement systems that attempt to create verifiable and replicable results, how do we know if we have achieved usability? To understand when something is truly usable you actually have to look at what happens when it is not usable. It is only after we’ve watched every possible user attempt and every possible use without any resulting frustration, that we can declare a site to be usable (McCraken & Wolfe, 2004). As well as relying on user feedback during usability testing,  we can also rely on the success metrics that we decided upon in our site objectives—concrete indicators of how effectively the user experience is meeting strategic objectives and goals. They may include, but not be limited to: visits per month, time per visit, increase of revenue, account sign-up and user comments.

In Conclusion

While we can never fully guarantee across the board usability of the websites we build, we can strategically set our selves up to be as successful as possible in achieving web usability. To do so, I maintain, takes opening and making visible the black box of web usability called workflow. It is true that there are many facets and dimensions to a successful working process, but they should not be a mystery to, nor kept as secret from those that may benefit from them.

I believe that the human network of designer must always work with both the client and user in a continuous and cooperative way while utilizing non-human actors such as content and functionality requirements, site objectives and user needs. We will also need to work within an iterative and cyclical design process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining our website product. If we do so, we will better position the websites we design and build to be found useful and easy to use by the intended audience.


  1. Kelly Goto & Emily Cotler, Web Redesign: Workflow that Works 2.0, 2004
  2. Jesse James Garrett, The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web, 2004
  3. Robert R. Johnson, Michael J. Salvo & Meredith W. Zoetewey, User-Centered Technology in Participatory Culture: Two Decades “Bey0nd a Narrow Conception of Usability Testing,” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. 50 No.4, December 2007
  4. Robert R. Johnson, User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, 1998
  5. Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2005
  6. Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, 1987
  7. John Law, ‘Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics,’ version of 25th April 2007
  8. Laura Leventhal & Julie Barnes, Usability Engineering: Process, Products &  Examples, 2008
  9. Daniel D. McCraken, Rosalee J. Wolfe, forward by Jared M. Spool, User-Centered Website Development: A Human-Computer Interaction Approach, 2004
  10. Barbara Mirel, Advancing a Vision of Usability, Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century, 2002
  11. Barbara Mirel, Position Paper: Designing for Usefulness for Complex Problem Solving, 2003
  12. Jakob Nielsen, Usability Engineering, 1993
  13. Lucy Suchman, Making Work Visible, Communications of the ACM, Volume 38, Issue 9, Sept. 1995
  14. Lucy Suchman, Jeanette Blomberg, Randall H. Trigg, Reflections on a Work-oriented Design Project, Human-Computer Interaction , Volume 11 Issue 3, September 1996
  15. Lucy Suchman, Designing with the User: Book Review, ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems, Vol. 6, No. 2, April 1988, Pages 173-183.
  16. Lucy Suchman, Jeanette Blomberg, Julian E Orr; Randall Trigg, Reconstructing Technologies as Social Practice, The American Behavioral Scientist; Nov/Dec 1999; 43, 3; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 392
  17. Lucy Suchman, Organizing Alignment: A Case of Bridge-building, Organization Articles, Volume 7(2): 311–327, 2000

This website is written by Mike Sinkula (et al.) and is dedicated to his studies in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington.



  1. Awesome!!!!!! Like the consistency of analogy of black box and the graphics—-I’m really impressed. Great Job—–deserves at least an A at minimum….!!!

  2. Dad says:

    You’re an excellent writer and thinker, Mike….very professional. You are going to continue doing really well in your Masters Program. Full speed ahead! Rock on, Dude.

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