Ugly and disorderly as a strategy

I’ve been noticing a lot of buzz around the success of a few “ugly” web sites, like MySpace and specially how that has been ‘surprising‘ a lot of people.

In parallel, I’ve been experiencing – specially during the IA Summit – a change of perspective in terms of how our skills may be applied in the context of a new economy, supported by new technologies (AKA, Web 2.0).

During the Summit, it became obvious to me that a feeling I had been struggling with, is only natural, that we trully need to let it go and allow people to take charge of their experiences with products. Though I had been agreeing with that notion and reinforcing it, I had been reluctant to admit the real implications on my every-day work because of my traditional formalist attraction to creating structures.

The same way ‘ugly’ can be a visual strategy to achieve success with a particular design, disorderly structures (like, tag clouds, for example), can be just as successful in achieving success. I think it’s hard for information architects to embrace this as an approach, though there seems to be a general agreement on the principle.

Donna Maurer’s presentation during the IA summit on what Lakoff teaches us about basic level categories, as well as Rashmi Sinha’s continous thread about the social implications of categorization systems were the most striking take aways from the summit, because they made me feel more confortable about these “truths” on what organizing information means, outside of ‘categorization’ per se.

3 thoughts on “Ugly and disorderly as a strategy

  1. agovella

    Ooh! Thanks for posting this. It reminded me of some thoughts I had after reading JJG’s article in BW.

    Letting people control their experiences is important, but I don’t think ugly has much impact. Form has no implicit connection to function.

    MySpace is succesful because it minimizes the investment to participate. LiveJournal is a decent comparison. With LiveJournal, users are more likely to ‘garden’ their friends list, adding new members and removing old ones. Similarly, it’s dead easy to comment, and dead easy to track conversations. You can be notified of any response. With LiveoJournal, it’s easy to participate, but it’s still expensive because the application keeps you looped in. Even if you don’t want to be.

    In comparison, MySpace makes it easy to join the community, and even though participation is tucked away, it’s still cheaper than participating in LiveJournal. With MySpace, you participate as much as you want (even though the design pushes against you), but participation is one way.

    It’s difficult to keep up with conversations, so you don’t. It’s cheap. Throw in your piece and then you just tune out.

    Likewise, MySpace is easier to customize because of the plethora of online tools that handle it for you. LiveJournal requires you learn one of two custom format styles.

    LiveJournal is cheap to join but requires constant investment. MySpace is cheap to join and requires no constant investment. With LiveJournal, you’re encouraged to tend your garden, but with MySpace you’re encouraged to have an overgrown backyard you never pay attention to.

    The design of each site has clear implications for both popularity and participation. MySpace is more of a vanity space. LiveJournal more of a community.

    I just downloaded Rashmi’s presentation so I haven’t gone through it yet, but I agree it’s bigger than “categorization”. The choices we give to users are all about social implications.

  2. Livia Labate

    Mmmm, I dunno about ugly not having much impact Austin. I really can’t speak for MySpace or LiveJournal, but I do think ugly can be a strategy for success.

    Take Orkut.

    Maybe it’s a social/cultural thing (ha!), but Orkut became immensely popular among Brazilian users at some point. So much so that they dominated the community pretty much overnight (to be exact, May 24, 2004) and now make up 73% of the entire network. What made Orkut so attractive to Brazilians? I get asked that a lot, first because i’m Brazilian and second because I am “one of those web people” who think about this sort of stuff…

    The first thing about Orkut is how low the barrier to entry is. You get invited, you accept, done. If you never touch it again (like you describe MySpace) you’re still good. But most Brazilians actually DO use it way beyond signing up for the first time.

    Orkut’s interface was ALWAYS ugly (light blue and purple? seriously). And by ugly I mean unnatractive and uninviting from a visual perspective. It always looked unfinished and home-made. It would not have passed on a focus group.

    Side note:
    Brazilians speak Portuguese. I don’t know what’s the percentage of people who also speak English, but I’d expect that to be a low number. So, even though Orkut was always entirely in English, that was not an impediment to use.

    I think that what attracted Brazilians to Orkut was the ability to befriend people and stay connected to friends (I’d say the stereotype of peoples who are characterized by friendliness and warmth is mostly true). But Friendster and other social networking services ALSO provided the same thing. I think it’s Orkut’s ugliness what made it welcoming and non-threatening to Brazilians who mostly do not speak the language to use it again and again.

    The fact that it was in a language that was not understood could have been the deal breaker, but because it “looked” like it was put together in five minutes and felt “non-professional”, allowed users the confort of messing around with it and do whatever they wanted.

    Like you said, “the design of each site has clear implications for both popularity and participation” and I think that also applies to visual design in itself.

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