Ugliness, Social Design, and the MySpace Lesson

I’ve been attempting the impossible: trying to get a clear picture of the whole MySpace/Ugly issue.

But before I continue, if you haven’t seen Ze Frank’s Piece on Ugly, go watch that. In it, he says:

“Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool. Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your MySpace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time, as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.”

In addition to Ze’s point of view there are several other viewpoints floating around…

I’ve been attempting the impossible: trying to get a clear picture of the whole MySpace/Ugly issue.

But before I continue, if you haven’t seen Ze Frank’s Piece on Ugly, go watch that. In it, he says:

“Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool. Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your MySpace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time, as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.”

In addition to Ze’s point of view there are several other viewpoints floating around. Here’s a quick summary:

  • MySpace succeeds despite its design
    MySpace is poorly designed and succeeds despite that. It got into the social networking space early (some say first – which is entirely untrue – Friendster and others were there years before) and captured the “market” before anybody else. As a result, its design doesn’t matter, because its success depends on something else.
  • MySpace users just have bad taste
    This assumes we can objectively judge design to some extent: that MySpace really is ugly. (I assume this in The MySpace Problem) This argument goes further, however, and suggests that those who use it must have bad taste. Do MySpace users have bad taste?
  • The success of design depends on whether or not it is used, and MySpace is super-used so it must be well-designed
    This is the argument I want to make. It’s a difficult argument to make, however, as the visceral reaction to the ugliness of MySpace is just so strong. We so easily equate ugliness with bad design that we cannot separate usage from our own opinion, even if we aren’t the ones using it! However, if we accept that good design as that which is used, then we have to accept that MySpace is well-designed.

Many have asked: Could MySpace look better? I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is: Why does it work?

Do you think Steve Jobs says at the end of the day: “Well, our stuff is well-designed…who cares how many people use it?” Probably not. While he might not need 80% marketshare to sleep tight, he certainly needs Mac users to continue to buy Macs…there is a threshold of use that Apple needs to stay solvent. It may be only 5%, but in terms of the entire population who buys computers, 5% is a few billion dollars.

Design is All About Use

Design all about use. Most web sites exist to be used (and many to make money) and if yours doesn’t have people using it then it’s not designed well. This is not just a usability/geek way of viewing design. Many successful designers feel this way, including famous ones.

You can’t predict what people will like. I never, never, never would have been able to design MySpace, because I wasn’t in the position that Tom & Co. was in to react every day to their audience, who demonstrate over and over that they want their web pages to look like their bedrooms.

It may be that this is only a phenomenon in social networking sites. That’s OK, but we certainly can’t take the lessons we’ve learned creating other types of sites and apply them there without serious consideration.

Visual vs. Social Design

One distinction we can make is between the visual and social design of MySpace. The visual design, though it communicates what it needs to (“this is your social life”), is objectively ugly as it doesn’t follow nearly any established visual design principles like balance, symmetry, and harmony. That’s OK, as far as it goes. But the design of the social element of the site, the community aspects like the appearance of Tom as a friend in every profile, is amazing. Little touches like that make people feel right at home, as does the site’s ability to react to its audience quickly. This is great social web design. Bad visual design. Good social design.

There’s a new term: social web design. I’m using it nowadays to refer to the social aspects of design: community, persuasion, motivation, social interaction, influence, authority, etc. These things aren’t always apparent in the interface, but are just as real as a submit button. If your friend uses MySpace and uses the email widget to ask you to join, that’s a win for the design…social design.

Social aspects affect people as much, maybe more, as the interface itself. (update: Brian Fling over at Blue Flavor is having similar thoughts)

Reframing the Debate

MySpace is the ultimate site when it comes to reframing the debate in terms of user experience, usability, and most importantly what matters to users. In the world of user experience its all about figuring out what matters to users, and the MySpace example (and most of the teenage world) is a true enigma for us all. That’s why MySpace is so damn interesting…because we don’t understand it! And that’s why it’s such a good example of understanding users, because most people who do that for a living (usability folks, designers, interface hacks) have few preconceptions about the service (or negative ones) because they don’t use it, don’t understand why people do use it, and don’t want to use it. In most other applications designers have preconceived notions because they’re familiar with the domain in some way. Not so on MySpace.

However, if you can accept that MySpace is so successful because of something they have done in their design (as opposed to chance), you have to accept that they’ve done an excellent job…so far.

The MySpace Lesson

Will MySpace continue to rock? Probably not, as teenagers are as fickle as New England weather. What will MySpace have to do to stay successful? I don’t know, you don’t know, and that’s the point. They have to react, to evolve, with their audience, and the outcome probably won’t look like a “designer” would have planned. That’s the MySpace Lesson.

Published: August 18th, 2006

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