How to Prevent Valueless Design in Social Web Sites

How an over-focus on technology and visual design can hide the real value of social software.

In a fascinating piece on the amazing growth of the photo-sharing site Fotolog, Jason Kottke clearly articulates a growing problem in design:

Fotolog…relative to Flickr…has changed little in the past couple of years. Fotolog has groups and message boards, but they’re not done as well as Flickr’s and there’s no tags, no APIs, no JavaScript widgets, no “embed this photo on your blog/MySpace”, and no helpful Ajax design elements, all supposedly required elements for a successful site in the Web 2.0 era. Even now, Fotolog’s feature set and design remains planted firmly in Web 1.0 territory.”

How do sites with sub-optimal visual design and technology grow so big and become so successful?

How an over-focus on technology and visual design can hide the real value of social software.

In a fascinating piece on the amazing growth of the photo-sharing site Fotolog, Jason Kottke clearly articulates a growing problem in design:

Fotolog…relative to Flickr…has changed little in the past couple of years. Fotolog has groups and message boards, but they’re not done as well as Flickr’s and there’s no tags, no APIs, no JavaScript widgets, no “embed this photo on your blog/MySpace”, and no helpful Ajax design elements, all supposedly required elements for a successful site in the Web 2.0 era. Even now, Fotolog’s feature set and design remains planted firmly in Web 1.0 territory.”

How do sites with sub-optimal visual design and technology grow so big and become so successful? How are MySpace, Fotolog, and Craigslist so popular in an age that values stunning visual design and amazing technology above all else? Conversely, how is it that Flickr, full of beauty and Ajax, is being overtaken by a site as boring as Fotolog?

Aye, there’s the rub…a rub that defines the current state of web design.

First off, a little throat-clearing. We’re dealing with Alexa stats here, so there are no guarantees that anything is accurate. Just because Alexa shows that Fotolog gets more traffic than Flickr doesn’t mean that it is…it’s kind of like listening to a reporter who usually covers political news tell us what’s going on in Silicon Valley. Suspect, to say the least. But for the sake of argument let’s assume that the trend is right, and that Fotolog is overtaking Flickr in terms of traffic.

Page views and Ajax…a match made in Hell

Well, one reason why Fotolog might appear so successful is the very technology that Jason mentions: Ajax. Page views are a metric that Alexa uses in its traffic calculation. But when you switch to an Ajax interface, your page views plummet. For example, when people want to add a tag, change a headline, or edit a photo set on Flickr very few page views occur. You’re simply interacting with a single screen that doesn’t refresh, but sends and receives requests in the background. This undoubtedly has a huge effect on the page views on Flickr.

Fotolog, on the other hand, gets a page view anytime a person wants to change anything. Therefore, less efficient bandwidth consumption and server usage actually gets Fotolog much higher traffic numbers…which is pretty damn ironic.

What’s more ironic is that this is an increasing problem on huge advertising sites and few people want to talk about it. What’s at stake? Billions of dollars that are wrapped up in page-view models where money changes hands depending on what “traffic” a site receives. And for years that traffic depends on page requests to a server, which of course happens even when people are doing simple things like changing a photos headline. So while companies realize that using an Ajax interface, when done well, can literally save millions in bandwidth costs and actually provide a faster, easier-to-use interface, they also realize that their advertisers only know one metric: the page view.

I’ve talked to some folks at Yahoo about this, and they say that their discussions on this topic get pretty tense. This is a huge problem for them because so much of their revenue is advertising based but they know that the future of interface design is elegant Ajax. This problem has been known for some time, but we’re still at the start of the huge effort in migrating away from the page view as a valuable metric for anything.

Technology doesn’t a great value make

Jason makes a strong case that technology is over-valued. I think he’s exactly right when he says:

“Maybe tags, APIs, and Ajax aren’t the silver bullets we’ve been led to believe they are. Fotolog, MySpace, Orkut, YouTube, and Digg have all proven that you can build compelling experiences and huge audiences without heavy reliance on so-called Web 2.0 technologies. Whatever Web 2.0 is, I don’t think its success hinges on Ajax, tags, or APIs.”

This is the exact problem I’ve been talking about lately: in some cases visual design and/or technology are trumped by other aspects of design.

In my Social Design talk, which I most recently gave at the Web App Summit, I ask this question: What are the most successful web sites in the world? The answers are the ones you would expect: Google, YouTube, MySpace, Yahoo, Craigslist, Amazon, eBay.

But then I ask the question slightly differently: What are the most well-designed web sites in the world? Outside of a minimalist Google, there is no overlap for most folks. None of the others on the list are “well-designed” in their minds…they’re simply successful, poorly-designed sites. They attribute the success of these sites to other factors: being first in the market, having economies of scale, etc.

From a visual design standpoint they might be right: these sites aren’t going to win any visual design contests. But the value of these sites goes so far beyond the visual that to judge them by the way they look is to completely miss the boat. In our testing at UIE, for example, we’ve never had anyone refuse to shop at Amazon because it doesn’t look great…in fact people are most passionate about Amazon because of the value they get from reviews…and the rest of the socially-focused features there. People love Amazon, and it has nothing to do with its visual design!

And people are passionate about the other very successful sites, too. To Jason’s point, the major value of all of the successful sites doesn’t rest on what specific technology they use or whether they have tagging. Instead, the major value rests on social aspects of the design…take away the interaction of the communities on these sites and there is very little value left in them. Take away the reviews from Amazon and you’ll hear a great big sucking sound of folks rushing out to buy their wares on some other site…

Similarly to Amazon, Fotolog relies heavily on social interaction, in their case sharing photos with friends. This is the primary value of the site, not how they do it from a technological standpoint.

The usual red herring: judging a book by its cover

Ignoring visuals and technology (at least temporarily) is a big change for many designers and technologists. Why? Because technology and visuals often get the credit when things go well, but aren’t really talked about when things go contrary to our assumptions. That’s exactly Jason’s point: why is it that Fotolog uses inferior technology and visual design and still succeeds?

I think the answer is that the differentiator on the Web right now isn’t great visual design or technology, although those help out tremendously (don’t get me wrong!). An analogy might be in order here because so many people think I’m trying to denigrate visual design…I’m not! Here’s an analogy:

Every time George Bush makes his State of the Union Address he speaks very clearly, his words are well-chosen and his speechwriters are obviously top-of-the-class. They communicate very well, and for the most part every single person who listens or watches the address knows exactly what George Bush is trying to say. Speechwriters learning the craft would do well to emulate the skill and technique of Bush’s speechwriters. Even so, the address is a bunch of statements that most people disagree with: most people want the U.S. out of Iraq and observe that the efforts there have largely been a failure. Even Bush’s own party is now alienated. But the State of the Union Address itself is well-executed: it’s clear communication…Bush is just sending the wrong message.

(update: several folks are angry with me that I used a political analogy…I’m certainly open to suggestions for future analogies where the communication is clear and well-executed but fails to deliver the right message to the audience)

This is the same with visual design: you can execute beautifully but if the message you’re sending isn’t the one the audience wants to hear then the overall design will be a failure. I believe this is what Jason is talking about with his repeated references to “Web 2.0″. He doesn’t see the value in the majority of so-called Web 2.0 services…they might look great and have interesting technology but if they don’t actually improve our lives…then what good are they?

Visual design is about communicating a message well…getting the point across. The problem comes when the message being communicated isn’t the right one…and that’s exactly what we’re seeing so much of…so many sites have great visual design and great technology but just aren’t sending a valuable message…

Where are all these sites? They’re everywhere: they’re the ones you’re NOT using.

There are two primary aspects of design: communicating the right message. Why is this two aspects? Because one aspect is communicating a message well and the other is making sure it is the right message in the first place. Perhaps this second part is what is called design strategy these days. I don’t know, but I know that one needs the other in each and every design project.

Preventing valueless design

We need a new way of thinking to prevent valueless design. Valueless design is like a George Bush speech: well-executed but wrong. While it may be communicating beautifully on one level, the impact on society may be minimal or, even worse, negative. We need design that provides real value to humans.

The new model as I call it is social design: a focus on the social lives of users, the context of how people live, and the connections they have with their family, friends, and loved ones. It’s about the daily activities that people care about, that make their lives richer, more fulfilling, and that have very little to do with how a piece of software looks or works behind the scenes.

But that’s just how I see it. I’m sure that other ways to get people in the right design mindset. I believe the best designers not only execute technically well, but have the mindset to discover the right design. They’re open to new ideas, passionate about what they do, and focused on the lives of their users in order to prevent sending the wrong message.

Published: February 7th, 2007

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