“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Does “ugly” mean no design?

The question of ugly design has been haunting me for a few weeks now. Well, the blank space in my blog is what has really been haunting me all this time, and this topic was approached to me at the beginning of my blog blackout and it hasnt left me.

Recently I have been asked to think about why My Space is a success. To be honest, I really dont know that much about My Space. Im not a user of it. Im not a user of a lot of standard successful Internet sites. For example, I have never successfully bought anything on eBay. On the flip side I blog, I read blogs, I have used every major north American travel site, I buy things from Amazon, buy.com, barnesandnoble.com and many other stores and Oh! Of course I use Google and Yahoo services.

But the question of My Space, isnt really a question of My Space. It is much more a question about what is design? At least that is how my interviewer really implied the question and definitely how I inferred it. It was really couched in the whole idea of ugly sites and the success of ugly.

First off, I dont think that many of the sites touted as ugly” really are ugly. I would say that they are not all that clean in their presentation layer. But what has been burning my britches is the equation of ugly with design, as if to say that design can only be manifest in a presentation layer. This particularly irks me as a tone-deaf, color ignorant, cant-draw-a straight-line-or-recognize-one designer.

It is wrong on 2 levels. One, it seems to equate design with the result as opposed to the process used, and two, ignores the reality that design exists are several planes within an interactive system.

The question of ugly design is also a business argument. Wait, wait, wait. There is all this hullaballoo about design being such a great value to business. But why are these examples so successful and they look like a crack-pot designed them? People are constantly looking for a silver bullet to understand financial success, and Im sorry to say that even though there are shelves and shelves of books trying to give you the final answer on how to get rich quick, there is so much outside of the control of the entrepreneur or other business person that the best you can really do is improve your odds of success. That is financial success.

But there is another angle to all this that I do not hear people speaking about when it comes to design and these ugly sites. When thinking about Yahoo Maps beta and Google Maps I feel we come face to face with two very designed applications. Yahoo is a much more feature rich application while Google is the epitome of minimalism. But less is more is not the direction Im headed here. It is approachability as a measure of success, which draws habits which are really just examples of repetition in pattern.

I dont like Google Maps. I really dont. I find it to be overly simplistic and often doesnt give me the full story of why Im going to a maps site. I especially do not like its local integration at all. That being said, I find I go there all the time. Seriously, I go there as if drawn against my will. Part of it is that Yahoo is still a Beta and well has some flaws, but the primary reason is that it is just so easy to use Google Maps that you just cant not use it. It has sacrificed so much in order to do that, and comes out the more successful for it.

There is a problem with this type of success. It is short lived. Why? Because as more and more people go to Google Maps they will ask themselves, where is this feature? And they will invariably go hunting for it and find it elsewhere.

For example, you cant do multi-point roadtrips on Google (at least not that I have found). Now how many people do that and how many times in a year. Not a lot. But when I need it I go to Yahoo Maps Beta and then a new pattern starts to develop. When I need more complex services I just think Yahoo Maps and more complex begins to translate into better or more aptly better for me and that original habit starts to become a new decision point with room for loss on Googles part.

There are many places where this trend between Google and Yahoo happens. Sometimes it has led to Google following Yahoos lead such as finally adding a calendar to their tool suite. Sometimes it has meant Yahoo following Google–having a single bar search pane. But the real point here is that the redundant factor here is a real design decision about how each organization thinks about design solutions and how they each believe they can capture market share.

Now a company like My Space does not have the range of product offerings (yet) for anyone to drive to any conclusions about their design decisions and their makers have been talking up media more than explaining their designs, unlike Yahoo and Google. This means we can only speculate about any design process or design decisions they may or may not have/do. Which for now just leads me to one temporary set of conclusion for My Space:

  • Luck confluence of criteria outside of their control:
    • Boredom with AOL
    • AOL f**king up the teen community which they had locked down
    • early interest from content contributors that created a critical mass
  • Focus on content instead of on design
  • Age group is most tolerant to unusable sites. Successful use is a badge of honor for early adopters, who then teach others gaining props with friends.

My overall point here is that only the most arrogant designer would get caught up and say that design as a process is a requirement for successful products. But to generalize that ugly means that design is not in play is also pretty obtuse. There is so much more to design than the presentation layer and Google especially is a great example of how a site can intentionally NOT focus on the aesthetic as a trade-off for concentrating on interaction design to achieve bigger entry-level results.

I dont want to pull the Apple card, but I must. A talk of minimalist design cannot be complete with the work of Apple, which unlike Google is minimalist AND aesthetically pleasing. It shows how you can be simple and beautiful. Google can move yarns ahead by taking this much more difficult design decision.

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