UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 30 February 8, 2006

Hungry? Want another bullshit sandwich?

There has been too much nonsense spouted about the effectiveness of certain successful companies’ websites and it’s time to correct it. Those who say that poorly designed websites are partly responsible for some companies’ success are feeding you a load of crap. And too many of you are eating it up.

Stop it. Bad design harms business, it does not help it. Websites like Boingboing, Google and eBay are successful in spite of their poorly designed sites, not because of them. What kills me is that I continue to see designers, some of them professionals, buying into this drivel and helping to perpetuate it. This whole business of contemplating the elusive wisdom of bad design and ugly layout is amateur hour on parade. It’s time to call bullshit.

This is commercial success we’re talking about, boys and girls. In commerce, if your product sucks, you suck.

Commercial success plus bad design does NOT equal good design. The reason Google is the premier search tool is because it works. It is the most comprehensive and best-respected search tool for most Web users. It’s well managed, a business leader rather than follower and it has been around for quite a while. Google is a mover and shaker, constantly finding and providing tools, solutions and applications for everyday people to use online. The Google brand has gravity, respect and delivers tangible results every minute of the day. THAT’S why Google is the search engine of choice.

The fact that Google’s website is unremarkable and poorly laid out is ancillary to these facts, mostly because the main interface is very simple. Poorly designed “simple” is far easier to swallow than poorly designed “complex”. It works okay in spite of the bad layout and un-design.The fact is Google got it right where so many fail. They built their reputation on substance rather than on style. They’re not important because of their style, but because of execution. They don’t have to look important because they simply are important.

This is commercial success we’re talking about, boys and girls. In commerce, if your product sucks, you suck.

Most companies put the cart before the horse and try to build their success on how cool their company culture is or how awesomely awesome their logo is. Google’s logo pretty much sucks. So what? They can buy and sell any company that has a cool logo any day of the week; not because of their awful main interface layout, but in spite of it.

All of these companies that have suckass website designs and layouts but are successful anyway did the same thing. eBay was best at what it does before anyone else was that good. They’ve locked up the category with execution first, not style. Boingboing is one of the best-known and most popular weblogs because everybody loves to go there to hate on the Bush administration. The design sucks, but the content and advertising always bashes the readers’ #1 enemy. Substance, not style.

This is commercial success we’re talking about, boys and girls. In commerce, if your product sucks, you suck. It won’t matter how awesome your website looks, you will fail if your product is not up to snuff. By the same token, you are allowed to look like a dog if your product is the cat’s meow. Think about it; the successful businessperson will always have a hot date to the dinner party. We’re talking about human behavior here, folks.

But let’s not be too smart by half. Craigslist, for instance, is a clear winner with an un-design, but it’s not an example of bad design. The site content is nothing but relevant text links, and rightly so! The “design” it uses is well-suited to the type of content, so it is quite effective. This site is not like eBay or Google, as it succeeds because of the design rather than spite of it. Google and eBay have layout components and content that were clearly added as afterthoughts, ruining any true layout or design. Not so with Craigslist, the layout is solid and design appropriate. Design is a solution to a problem, not a decoration or embellishment.

So we should stop swallowing tripe for cream. As designers, it’s time for some of us to see that the emperor has no clothes and to use our insight, understanding and training to define what we agree with rather than mindlessly going along with idiots in the crowd. We have a responsibility to avoid pseudoscience and pseudointellectualism as it relates to what we produce for our clients and what we share with our fellow designers. If we’ve not got a sufficient grasp of things to see through this sort of drivel, perhaps we should go back to school or find another line of work.

Bottom line is designers need a foundation to ward off ridiculous ideas like “bad design creates success”. We shouldn’t relegate ourselves to simply sailing whichever way the wind is blowing this week. When the wind smells bad, it’s time to get upwind of the bullshit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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Comments

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That is because it’s hard to make a validating standard version of the Google frontpage, that is smaller in filesize, STILFX.

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Design is not just skin deep. Has anyone ever viewed the source code of Google? This is 2006 – who uses a font tag! Oh, and God forbid anyone of the supposed “designers” hating on this article ever try to validate 1 page of Google: http://validator.w3.org/check?uri=http%3A%2F%2Fgoogle.com

The design is RUBBISH!

Hoorah Andy! Love the Article…

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You should really try to avoid using words like “Suckass,” especially when you want to be taken seriously.

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Alex:
Since when did people copy of Google?
I like this one better, by the way: “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”
– Albert Einstein

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A lot of people are coming back with “who cares if Google is ugly, the results count” replies. That is kind of the point Andy makes. The problem lies in that fact that because the product is so great people start thinking that the design had something to do with it and hence want to copy it. Trying to change Google’s branding is like trying to change a flag, you’re doomed even if your new design is technically better.

Good design might not always be required to make a business succeed but bad design certainly never helps. Super-simple isn’t always right, over-design never is and as someone once said, “more isn’t more, less isn’t more, just enough is more”.

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Richard Hendel asserts in his excellent book-format treatment of book design (“On Book Design”, beautifully designed, I might add, a pleasure to hold in your hand and to see) that whether a book is designed well or not, that is, whether a book designer has been hired and done their book design thing on the book, is generally not an indication of the book’s commercial success.

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Google has to be a billion things to a billion people.

The best way to achieve that is by 1) not being complicated and 2) not changing hardly at all.

Since most non-tech people think Google is the front door to the internet, less and familiar are the best attributes.

I may agree that visually it does little for me as a designer. But as long as the field autofocuses upon page load, I’m fine.

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Your piece may have a valid thesis, but it’s “written like a designer,” to use a favorite expression of mine. From paragraph two: “Websites like Boingboing, Google and eBay are successful in spite of their poorly designed sites . . .” Websites are successful in spite of their sites? Um. Also, why write “This is commercial success we’re talking about, boys and girls. In commerce, if your product sucks, you suck” twice? Need an editor? I’m good, fast, and affordable.

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Do you get a lot of clients when you write “suckass” and “shit” a lot?

Won’t disagree that eBay is clumsy but I think Google is brilliant. When it started out people gravitated towards it not because it was a better search engine than Yahoo – but because it was a simple clean page.

Now page two of Google sucks… but 99% of the users never get beyond the first page.

And the logo is great. It’s legible and the mods are fun. How many other logos are built to be modified daily?

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I think you’re focusing on the wrong aspect of Google by examining their homepage. Google works because of its results, not what its homepage looks like. I agree with you, Andy, that the homepage is crap. But really all I need from the Google homepage is a working search field. The real case study is in the results listings and in that arena, Google has done a marvelous job. Every search listing contains the information I need and it’s laid out properly. If I pass intelligent search parameters, I get intelligent results.

Not to demean your efforts (I think the Google Redux looks terrific and is eminently more usable) but even if the Google homepage was replaced with your Google Redux homepage layout, I don’t think it would significantly affect the number of people who use it or the frequency with which it is used. I’ll bet there’s a memo in Google HQ somewhere that says the homepage should never, ever be modified beyond recognition. The spartan, slightly cluttered look of the Google homepage says, “The homepage looks like this because we spend all of our R&D budget on improving the search results and developing other tools.” In the grand scheme, how much time does one spend looking at the Google homepage vs the results? There’s nothing to navigate and no info I need to parse through. When I really need to locate something on the Google website, guess what I use? Yep, the search, not the navigation.

“We’re so confident that our search is superior that we shun homepage development so that you’ll use search to navigate our website.”

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The December 2003 Wired Magazine featured a piece that asked several “experts” in user interface and web design how they would redesign the Google home page. Several designs were submitted, including one by Joshua Davis who used visual display God Edward Tufte as a test subject, designing an incredibly complex and supposedly Tufte-esque Google UI. I can’t find the exact quote, but Tufte rejected Davis’ design, saying that the Google UI was perfect the way it was and shouldn’t be touched.

I hate that Larry and Serge make so much money and that they get all the chicks, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Google interface (web site if you will) is brilliant in its simplicity, and the search results are good, and that’s why it works.

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.03/google.html?pg=12

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In summary:

_…feeding you a load of crap… time to call bullshit… boys and girls… if your product sucks, you suck… Google’s logo pretty much sucks… these companies that have suckass website designs… the design sucks… boys and girls…. if your product sucks, you suck…. we’re talking about human behavior here, folks… stop swallowing tripe for cream… the emperor has no clothes… it’s time to get upwind of the bullshit._

I feel like I just read a rant by a 12 year old!

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don’t forget MYSPACE in all of this crap. ;)

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Let’s be honest if you have a good product and a good business idea then no amount of bad design is going to hinder the internet companies you have described. Packaging a product on the other hand is an entirely different matter.

Your article is only focussing on large internet brands such as Google and Ebay, two simple ideas executed in a great way; leaving the competiton behind.

Your ideas don’t really apply to anything else but these types of companies.. seems like you rant on to much!

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I appreciate everyone’s comments. I also appreciate your questions about the source of the idea that bad design + success = good design. And, true, in the context of this publication the article comes off as shallow and cursory. But it was not written for this publication, but rather for my own site. It appears here by invitation. If I had written it for a publication such as UX, I’d have taken more pains to cite specifics and tone down the “emphasis” upon which I based the piece, contextually appropriate for my personal site.

The idea that I take issue with in this article comes from what I’ve read in a host of comments generated by many articles and discussions online over the past couple of years. I cannot cite specifics on this one, as I visit a great many sites and read dozens of articles and discussions each week – and I don’t regard individual comments as substantive unless foolish ideas gain a foothold in that context. But it’s not my intention to build a straw man or fabricate a topic.

I assure all that if I had a beef with any certain well-known or influential individual I would name names and not mince words. Instead, I’m merely responding to a recurring nonsensical theme I’ve noticed over a period of time within the design community. Nonsense deserves to be answered and not left to gain footing.

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google is a well designed site, as it is easy to use it to achieve what i want to do…

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“The Google brand has gravity, respect and delivers tangible results every minute of the day.”

THAT’S DESIGN, YOU DUMBASS. Design is not the color of a pixel.

Besides, this strawman argument that someone is out there saying “ugly sites are well-designed” is itself bullshit. No one is saying that.

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Interesting, but who on earth is saying “bad design = good website”? I have NEVER seen such a statement. Nearest is “no design can still mean good website” or “good design can’t save a bad website.” But the strength of your words implies loads of people are saying bad design = good website, and I’ve just never seen anyone say that.

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Less or more

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Clint: I hadn’t heard of this trend either. I respect the author’s viewpoint on this, but I would respect it more if he would site the sources of this trend.

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Thank you for recognizing that Google and eBay have sucky design! The Google logo looks like someone’s nephew overdid it with a Photoshop bezel effect and Fisher-Price colours.

eBay is a design and usability nightmare. My wife runs an eBay store, and there are basic auction functions that should be one click only, and instead take five clicks and two log-ins, assuming she can even figure out how to do it in the first place. In fact, I’d say even their product sucks, but no one has come along and built a better one yet (at least, not one with the critical mass of customers required to succeed).

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Interesting piece,

I hadn’t heard about this trend of “success because of poor design” at all. Are you citing any sources in particular or is it just the “buzz”...

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Those sites are not poorly designed. Maybe they are plainer and less aesthetically appealing to fussy graphic design types than some of the kickass modern CSS based sites, but looks aren’t everything. Looks are important, but looks alone are not design. And nearly everyone has opinions on how various popular sites should be reorganized or improved, so welcome to the club.

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The endless time I’ve hear the client asked for Amazon-tab navigation or Google-simplicity is mind-numb. Then I’ll have explain to them that the project is better served with better design.

Bullshit it is but bucking the clients request a lot harder. Great article.

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I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you! I love the voice in the article, and think this subject absolutely warrants it.

* I agree it would have helped to have additional applicable examples of “bad design” and “good design”. Maybe examples where bad design really did equate to poor business results? Or good design that led to successful business? etc
(Pics & diagrams are always nice too.)

* Another thought on the Google redux design—which I had seen another time, and really enjoy it being addressed!—the “search” and “I’m feeling lucky buttons” below search bar aren’t centered. This is inconsistent with the rest, what’s the thought behind that?

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>> Boingboing is one of the best-known and most popular weblogs because everybody loves to go there to hate on the Bush administration.

Really? Ok, I’ll give you that boingboingers tend to be liberal, but come on. There’s a whole world of interesting stuff to talk about, maybe a fraction of that is Bush related.

Excellent read btw, don’t mean to nitpic.

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bq. http://www.andyrutledge.com/google-redux.php

Nice article but “A” is up there ‘cause of coherence: it’s placed in the same position in any other Google service (Gmail, Groups, etc…).

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Thanks Ann. I think you’ve discovered a way of solving our information overload problems. Simply stop reading things because you think the writer is egotistical. Sheesh.

I think this article was necessary, although a little repetitive in places Andy. Thanks.

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Au contraire: bad design sells all the time, because a majority of users don’t have the vocabulary to critically analyse what bad design is (c.f. Windows etc). When having difficulties, users often see themself as the problem, not the tool that they are using.

Also, I would argue that your examples are not examples of bad design, they are just not examples of overdesign, or “designer’s design”. They may not aesthetically please you, but neither do they create massive impediments in their own functionality with their design, their usability is realtively good. Your praise of craigslist confuses your arguments more given your previous examples.

Everything can be improved, for sure, no interface is perfect, but I think you could have cooled down a bit and thought of some more applicable examples for your arguments before sitting down to write this article. A passionate yet shallow editorial in need of an editor.

[ -1, emotional _ ]

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Someone sent me this article. I couldn’t get through the first paragraph. Get over yourself.

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Andy Rutledge:
I’ve seen it, the google redesign is allmost the same, except some colors added. Does it differ so much that you would say that google design is not a bad design anymore?

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can i get an AMEN!

Well said. Would seem like a “duh” situation, but some people just “yes sir” everything they hear.

thanks for the post.

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I agree with the fact that google, ebay and amazon nailed it on execution and were first to do so. I also agree that all the cool websites in the world will not make a shit sandwich taste good. But I wasn’t aware that there is an undesign philosophy? Is this a case of a couple of lazy wankers in marketing going “it worked for google, it’ll work for us” or is there really a school of designers who practice this?

BTW. Sensational design and interesting content. Good work!

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> How should the Google page look like, then?
Apparently it should have 1/2 the page set aside for tiny links to the google local site of every city you aren’t in.

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Hi Tor,

Funny you should ask:
http://www.andyrutledge.com/google-redux.php

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Couldn’t agree more.

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How should the Google page look like, then?

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Well said, but trends are always trends, and if the amazon model has gone well, many would love to adopt. Thanks for the thoughts.

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