Monday, September 11, 2006
It's one thing to talk about site design for companies with a specific sales purpose in mind. But what if you've got a startup that is more of a "B2C web property" that is supposed to scale up fast? Is it useful at all to look at the companies you admire, and to learn from the way they deal with the user experience? I think it is, but it's not always clear how you should follow them.
Because (big caveat here): some companies on our dot-com hero list -- maybe even most -- caught lightning in a bottle and just got big because of circumstances, and may have redesigned their sites after the fact.
However, looking at most of my examples, I see pretty clear precedents. Most of them designed their home pages and navigational experiences in such a way that they made harsh decisions to relegate secondary goals to the trashbin so the user would be forced to understand how to *primarily* interact with the site. The loudest and best shouting about that phenomenon still comes from Seth Godin's little red book - the Big Red Fez.
Remember the failures, too. If you watched companies like AltaVista and Excite fail in the dot com bubble, you're not only aware of their awful, cluttered portal layouts, but you can twig to the psychology that built them. Essentially: too many corporate goals competing for the user's attention.
So... the biggest example everyone's familiar with is the Google home page. No need for a screen shot to show you this one. They kicked the other search engines' butt in part because of that clean layout and the speed of the search. They did search while others forgot to focus on it. The founders stumbled on that because they didn't do design or HTML. It's a cute story. But is it a relevant one? YES! What's central to this user experience? Search, natch.
Next example: Craigslist (it recognizes my IP so I get toronto.craigslist.com in my browser). I don't know what this is supposed to be. Yahoo, circa 1981? ;) Eccch, right? Well, it certainly hasn't hurt them. They became one of the largest classifieds sites in the world. You can go on archive.org to check out past versions, but here's a screen shot of today's Craigslist. I would argue that what is absolutely central to this user experience is: search and navigation - either you click or you type in a search to find what you need. For example, if you want a chair within a certain price range, you can type "chair" and narrow down the price range.
Movin' on: Facebook, a social networking site. I don't use it, obviously. I hear it's for college students. But given the number of mentions, you have to assume they're doing something right. What is that something? Phew! Maybe I shouldn't randomly select these examples! That home page is very, very clean! In fact it appears that if you don't want to be a member, they don't want you there. Interesting. Facebook's demographic, the 18-25 crowd, is very net savvy, so perhaps we can see this one as an exception. But notice how they didn't feel the need to cover the home page in all kinds of come-ons. They recognize that it's a viral service, so they go for a totally different - minimalist - look.
A site for the same demographic, RateMyProfessors.com, is reportedly growing fast. The home page is fairly clean but could be cleaner. The explanation of what the site is about is clear. Again, because of the demographic, this service is more likely to go viral, creating a virtuous circle. They can boast 5.7 million professor reviews. And they're using sex now. They have a "hotness rating" along with other factors (yikes), with comments like "this is the best looking professor in North America" not uncommon (and I thought my plan to tour 2,000 golf courses to find the best-looking beer cart girl in Ontario was ambitious). This site's home page certainly doesn't give away the reasons for its success, but if there is anything you can say, it's that the overall purpose is clear and that the file size of the page is small because of the very simple design, so it loads fast. This site has convinced me of the need for academic tenure, peer-reviewed journals, and other quality measures in higher education that do not emanate from the student "body." Let's face it, most professors are not "hot," they're smart. And the ones that give tough grades do so because they are enforcing standards. Let's keep it that way, for the good of society. :)
PlentyOfFish, a dating service reviewed here previously, doesn't seem to be all that innovative or restrained in its interface design. So what explains the success? Likely the business model in this case. The case is being made for the advantages of a completely free, ad-supported personals site. I get the feeling Markus knows his audience pretty well in that the home page highlights "women seeking men" only, and in that sense it's a come-on that resembles ubiquitous banner ads from ("for pay") sites like AdultFriendFinder.com. In spite of some clutter, the idea of what you're expected to do on the site is clear, because the category is well traveled. And the searchability factor isn't lacking, although it could be done much better. But for this site, the owner's main problem has been keeping the site up in the face of massive growth. A problem everyone would like to have.
Finally, consider TripAdvisor.com. Again, this home page is not radically clean like that of Flickr, but it is attractive and quite focused. What I find interesting is that they have no less than three different ways of searching, right there on the home page. Instead of highlighting specific bits of content, or hammering you with explanatory text and offers, they show you, well, a lot of white boxes that seem to say -- this is your experience and there's a lot of information inside: go nuts.
That being said, there is a ton of information below the fold. I think Tripadvisor gets away with this because they already have a large, loyal audience. Would lab testing uphold this model as far as how a new user engages with the site? I'm not sure. That's an awful lot of information. TripAdvisor gets traffic driven to its internal pages from a variety of sources, given that they sold out to Barry Diller's IAC Interactive for over $100 million (so would get traffic flows from Ask, CitySearch, and so forth). The business model is intelligent in that advertisers buy high cost listings on internal pages. In essence, my argument here is that traffic needs to come from somewhere, and if you're venture-backed and form partnerships, you may be better placed to generate visits to your relevant content at relatively low cost while selling sponsorships on the site at relatively high cost. Without "sweet deals" or organic search traffic to drive huge volumes of undervalued visits to the site, it's more likely that the "clean metaphor" will delight users and lead to faster growth, IMHO.
Verdict: mixed. Clearly some of the best sites in the public's mind have search and navigation at their core when you arrive at the home page. From there, the user continues to use the site to the point of it being addictive. These home pages are less about presenting information in a particular way than they are about offering clues as to how you're going to access that information in the particular vertical category the site is about. So a home page is not about persuasion, necessarily, in this B2C consumer property realm - it's not about making a sale. It might be in a different kind of business (long copy might work). And it's not about multiple corporate priorities and all kinds of do this, do that, look at this ad, join this, etc. messages, though one contest or one big ad might be OK. Bottom line: great viral growth stories tend to embrace minimalism, and they tend to play up the metaphor of search and navigation almost to the point of what some users might think is obsession. Some well-funded companies with strong business development plans are able to negotiate means of driving underpriced traffic to a site, while selling listings at a higher price (this is why all the kerfuffle about "click arbitrage" seems to be overblown: many businesses have grown through "click arbitrage" and continue to be built around it).
In the past, quite a few companies were built up quickly simply through the grace of free mass organic Google referrals. As spaces get cluttered and large media companies spend in multiple channels in order to indirectly maintain their organic lead, this gets harder to achieve for a startup unless something goes a bit viral.
But the bottom line for startups in consumer content must be: life's a search. Especially online. Why fight that?
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