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Big Blue guidelines

January 15,  2002

If you’re creating guidelines for your content creators, imitate IBM.  Yes, IBM.

Why? Because they base their guidelines on the user.

IBM points out that abstract principles are a bit too, well, ideal, to apply when you are actually creating content.  Sure, we want to build on a user’s prior experience.  But how? To tell us how, the Ease-of-Use team at IBM came up with their Web Design Guidelines—making specific recommendations for actions we can take to tailor content to our own users.

Academics scoff at guidelines as “mere prescriptions,” arguing that no abstract principle applies in every situation.  But, hey, even IBM admits that guidelines don’t apply in every circumstance. In fact, the team says:

“If you learn from your user feedback that a different solution works better in your situation than one we offer here, then of course you should do what works best in your situation.”  

Is this still the company we used to hiss back at Apple, when Steve Jobs would launch into his attacks on Bib Blue?

I have to admit, the IBM Ease-of-Use team has gotten religion.  

Taking off from their own experience, and a lot of usability research, they have come up with crisp, practical recommendations.  They walk through the entire process of creation, from planning through maintenance.

I particularly liked the module on Structure. The team recommends creating topic cards, and asking users to group and sequence the ideas, then using those models as the basis for your site structure.

But the best section deals with customer support.  

  • The team argues that “companies that provide contact mechanisms show increased sales.” They spell out how to offer contact info, half a dozen different ways.  
  • If you must have error messages during registration or purchase, they say, “Always state the problem without placing blame, and provide a polite, helpful suggestion for correcting the problem.”  So nice to hear IBM coming out in favor of courtesy!  
  • The team gives detailed suggestions for labels, inline text, hover help, and separate help pages. You can tell the team has really been working on a lot of ecommerce sites.

Overall, the guidelines are right-on, if a bit light.  They cover the whole development process logically, and sympathetically.



  • Clear rationale for using cascading stylesheets, scripting, while avoiding framesand Java applets.
  • Great sample budget and schedule. (“Schedule user involvement.”)
  • Starting off each section, the team tells you what questions it will answer—a good overview, and a conversational approach.


  • The user analysis section sounds good, but how do you translate the results into a strategy?  Um, er, intuitively, I guess.
  • The language of the guidelines sometimes gets awkward, with geek-speak jostling with marketing crap. They say, “Plan content that utilizes web technology in unique and appropriate ways.” OK, but do they mean “use?” And what technology is really both unique and appropriate?  Well, the explanation helps a lot: “Present your ideas and materials in ways that they could not find in other media.”  Oh, I get it.  Why not put that in the heading, as the guideline?



Evaluation: Bright student, works hard, needs to relax a little. 

Go to: IBM Ease of Use Web Design Guidelines at http://www-3.ibm.com/ibm/easy/eou_ext.nsf



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