Every so often, bad web design wins. And when this happens, designers everywhere unfortunately begin questioning the value of good design, citing everything from Google to MySpace as an example that bad design is better and more successful than good design.
Some designers say this is true because less-professional sites make users feel more comfortable, implying that users are more at home when they feel that they could have designed the site themselves. This, of course, is a terrible argument. When was the last time you bought a poorly made car because you felt that you could have built it yourself? Or because something about the design of the car made you feel like you were dealing with people more like yourself instead of a massive, soulless corporation?
The second you scratch the surface of any argument that bad design is preferable, the flaws in the argument immediately come to light. The fact is that—as Donald Norman describes in Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things—things that look better also work better in users’ minds. And naturally, things actually designed to work better also, well, work better.
Appearance and function both play major roles in how well something works for a user. Purpose and value also play major roles. If a product has only marginal value to a customer, that customer is less likely to put up with weak design. Better options are always just a click away.
As you’ll see, bad design succeeds for a variety of reasons, and none of them has anything to do with appearance. Ugly sites succeed not because they’re ugly, but because they offer something else that makes up for it.
Three Types of Successful Bad Design
There seem to be three major types of successful bad designs on the Web. First, I’ll describe each one and provide examples. Then, I’ll discuss why these sites succeeded in spite of their poor design decisions.
Sites that Get Away with Weak Design
First, there are sites, such as YouTube and Flickr, which succeed despite their weak design because they do something else really well. These sites are not outright bad, but their visual designs and task flows are subpar.
YouTube, for example, is a fairly ugly site. It lacks any cohesive visual design and it avoids presenting any sort of unified brand message. Video pages on the site feature a large scrolling listbox that contains links and thumbnails to other videos, which is contained in a scrolling page.
Placing scrolling widgets within scrolling pages is rarely a good idea, and in this case things are even worse because the listbox contains a list of links to related content that changes from page to page. Users can look up a particular video and get a set of recommendations for other videos to watch, but as soon as they switch to a new page, the list changes, rendering it impossible for users to watch the whole set of videos originally suggested.
Figure 1 YouTube makes it impossible to watch all the recommendations it makes on a page.
Flickr is another ugly site that seems to suffer from the lack of a corporate style guide. Some things are left-justified, some are centered, some are indented, and so on. Links on the homepage are underlined in blue text, while similar links on other pages have no underline at all and are instead highlighted when the mouse is rolled over them.
Headings throughout the site are pink, but in the breadcrumb trails (rows of links designed to tell you where you are in the site) offered at the top of each photo gallery page, the page title is black. And for awhile after Yahoo! first purchased Flickr, the sign-in page offered two ways to sign in (using either your Yahoo! account or your Flickr account), and had no simple and obvious way to merge the accounts together. This was especially messy if you had a Yahoo! Photos account prior to moving to Flickr.
Inconsistent navigation, a plethora of possible "views" for your galleries, and sporadic style changes lead to all sorts of ugliness for Flickr. And yet, somehow it has devoured the competition.
Sites that Started Good and Turned Bad
Next, there are sites that started out with good designs and eventually morphed into bad designs. Amazon is a prime example of this.
I’ll surely get blasted for this later on, but yes, I’m claiming that the mighty Amazon, once revered as a seminal example of good design by industry experts, has become bad. And if you doubt this, cruise on over there and take a close look at one of its product pages.
Figure 2 An Amazon.com product page, in all its glory
An Amazon product page for a book typically contains an image of the book’s cover, a description, the author and publisher info, purchase options, links to larger images, the number of copies currently in stock, buttons, a Best Value offer, a list of books also bought by customers who bought the book on the current page, editorial reviews, customer reviews, an optional essay by the author or author interview, sales rank, current rating, estimated shipping time, weight and dimensions, sponsored links, statistics on what customers bought after viewing the book, a way to make search suggestions, a way to tag the book, a list of current tags, a way to rate the book, a breakdown of the number of reviews with each rating (1–5 stars), a button to write your own review, a search box for searching through customer reviews, a list of details about recent customer discussions, lists of custom sales lists other customers have put together that contain the book, a list of your own recently viewed items, links to similar items by category and subject, options for providing feedback, links to track orders, and finally a list of items you recently viewed, accompanied by thumbnails of items other people bought who also bought the product on the current page.
Oh and there are lots of ads mixed in here. And all this appears in addition to the standard header information like the company logo, search box, and links to various account-related pages.
If you were asked to design this page, you’d run out of the building screaming. But somehow, Amazon dominates the market.
Sites that Started Bad and Stayed that Way
Finally, there are sites that started out with bad design, stayed that way, and succeeded in spite of this by doing something no one else could do that had a huge amount of value to its audience. And no one did this better than—you guessed it—MySpace.
MySpace might be the ugliest successful sight on the Web. It suffers from poor task flow designs, hideous page layouts full of amateur graphics, and obnoxiously designed ads that lack any sense of cohesion. And the boatloads of text written by people who can barely spell or use proper grammar or punctuation don’t help matters. Somehow, MySpace remains one of the biggest sites in web history.
Now, let’s explore the real reasons why these sites succeed.
Compensating for Weak Design
YouTube succeeded because it offered several things no one else could offer. First, it maintained the bandwidth it needed to support the constant streaming of video over the Web. Second, it gave users endless hours of compelling content (and by compelling I mean silly, useless, funny, absurd, shocking, and occasionally even relevant). It also gave them the ability to upload their own videos and participate in the action. Finally, it made the whole experience extremely viral by offering users an easy way to share videos on any web page and send URLs to videos in email.
YouTube offers entertainment you can share with others. It’s a valuable proposition, and because YouTube has done a great job of supporting the demand, it has succeeded in spite of its weak design.
Success Is a Major Cause of Paralysis
Amazon, on the other hand, started out as a really nice site. It was often touted by experts as one of the most usable sites on the web. It was mentioned in books (such as Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think), talked about in forums, and used as a launching pad for many designs that followed. The tab metaphor employed by Amazon in its earlier days, for example, has been emulated on millions of other sites and applications.
But with success comes corporate insecurity. When a company makes as much money as Amazon has, it has to do everything in its power to make sure it keeps doing so. It also has a responsibility to its shareholders to continue making more money. Companies usually do this by continually trying to do the same things over and over again. Instead of breaking out of the mold they created for themselves, large companies tend to rely on what worked in the past and continue building on it, even when it loses its effectiveness.
In other words, success paralyzes companies. Large companies become so afraid of negatively affecting revenue that they frequently become incapable of doing things that will positively affect revenue. Like Amazon, they tack on more and more allegedly "relevant" features, lose focus, stray from their original vision, and start bending to the whims of their most vocal users, who often want X but really need Y and Z.
Instead of trusting a team that cares about making the site experience better, they probably analyze every last statistic, survey, focus group, and user interview they can accumulate and make the least-damaging decision possible in every case. When this is done, "analysis paralysis" sets in. Companies become unable to make a decision or do something well without first checking all the facts and forming committees to test out every idea.
When Amazon started, it was great. These days, it’s a cluttered mess. But since it was already a household name before it started turning bad, it can continue resting on its laurels for quite awhile before anyone threatens its market share.
Hanging by a Thin Thread
MySpace pretty much had one thing going for it in the beginning—it could keep up with the pace of its audience when predecessors could not.
Friendster used to be the big fish in the then-small pond of social networking. But when Friendster started dragging because of an inability to provide the server speed and bandwidth it desperately needed to continue succeeding, MySpace pounced.
All it took was a few (thousand) people to switch for a snowball to start building. Those people invited their friends, those friends invited their friends, and the next Friendster knew, all their friends had abandoned them. This got MySpace rolling.
And, fortunately for MySpace, social networking became an increasingly popular idea at the same time the company was building up its user base. Sure, one could argue that MySpace caused the popularity of social networking, but the point is not whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first, it’s that the popularity of social networking and MySpace were both on the rise, and as such, MySpace found itself in the perfect position to dominate the market. And it did just that.
MySpace offers content, which we all know is the most important factor on the Web. Without quality content, no site can get very far. And MySpace’s content is extremely relevant and valuable to its users because it’s all created by its users and by friends of its users. If every piece of content you see on a web site is relevant to you, you’re going to keep going back. It’s an obvious win, and MySpace mastered it.
People don’t use MySpace because of its bad design. They use it because MySpace offers them something no one else can. They use it in spite of its bad design.