Unfriendly Web design 'may be just fine'?

Written by Adrian Holovaty on November 6, 2002

Business 2.0's "Who Needs a Pretty Website Anyway?" reports the ugly, cookie-cutter RealCities sites are profitable despite their much-criticized look:

KRD is proving that Web design that's unfriendly to users may be just fine, as long as it's friendly to advertisers and cheap to operate.

"Web design that's unfriendly to users" is not just fine. The logic is quite simple: If you annoy users enough, they won't come back to your site -- and not a single non-comatose advertiser will want to spend his or her money wooing your shrinking audience.

I'll also point out that any decent content-management system will allow for design customization while maintaining the ability to share content.

More comments on this topic are at E-Media Tidbits and Barry Parr's MediaSavvy.


Posted by Carl on November 6, 2002, at 10:53 p.m.:

"may be just fine"? No.

There is a great difference between merely making some money, and being excellent. What happens when a competitor decides not to be mediocre like you?

What about the difference between making today's buck vs building an ongoing customer base and brand name? You can put crap up, and someone might buy. That's not the point. Will they see you in a good light? See you as trustworthy and professional? Refer others to you?

The real test is simple - when companies carefully redo their web sites, they generally increase sales, if done right. THOSE would be the numbers to study. Until these sites try to upgrade to a better site, they won't know what they are missing.

The article's premise is basically the same as "proving" that, because a supermodel married an ugly poor guy, looks and money no longer matter. Not.

Posted by kpaul on November 7, 2002, at 1:23 a.m.:

at the big shops (at the least the one i currently work for) there's too much use, i think, of phrases like 'economies of scale', 'bottom-line,' 'ROI', etc and not enough use of terms like UI, usability, community, etc.

i'm convinced someone will come along and teach them the lesson if they don't wake up soon. maybe it will start in one small town, the person succeeding and then, not being too greedy, sets the biz plan free on the web. others in other towns do the same, eventually wrestling dominance from the big boys on a town-to-town basis.

i'm such a dreamer sometimes ;)

"Web design that's unfriendly to users" - that is indeed a scary, brazen statement. ..

i've been on the fence thus far about being 100% standards-compliant. a statement like the one above, though, just reinforces to me that it's important to worry about the issue more - and actually finally do something about it.

Posted by Vin Crosbie on November 7, 2002, at 3:18 a.m.:

For most newspaper companies nowadays, readers are merely the grain they harvest to sell to advertisers. Knight Ridder's combine of Web sites reflects this indifference towards to public that company ostensibly serves. Hilary Schneider knows that she doesn't work for her sites' users; she works for a boss who works for a boss whose aim is to please various stock analysts. The marathon she claims to running isn't towards making Knight Ridder Web sites great for users, but towards the benefit of her bosses. The side she's taken in that Marathon is the Persians'.

Posted by Julie on November 7, 2002, at 5:39 a.m.:

I almost don't want to comment on this topic -- in part because just thinking about it gets me too worked up -- but mostly because I have to grudgingly admit there is a grain of truth in the KRD theory. Don't get me wrong...when I saw this article yesterday I was actually stunned, almost speechless at the audacity of it -- "horrified" I told a couple of people. Truly a nightmare.

But, let's face it. Knight Ridder is the McDonalds of online journalism. The product is complete junk but people keep going back. Millions served. (Or is it billions now?) Seriously, the food is beyond awful, the people who eat it frequently tend to become hugely obese and develop heart conditions, but still there is a McDonalds on every corner. The lesson? There are hundreds of millions of Americans who will not only accept the bottom rung, they unwittingly seek it out.

I would like to believe, as Adrian said, that "If you annoy users enough, they won't come back to your site" -- and in theory I agree -- but I'm just not sure it's the case (unless you bombard them with pop-up ads or your site loads incredibly slowly – these are the two things that really do seem to succeed in driving people away).

I think there are a whole lot of people online these days (yes even people who frequent online news sites) who are completely unsophisticated (Internet-wise) and who will continue to go to the same junky site over and over and over again just because they don't know any better or because it's easier than finding a different one.

Just to be sure my position is clear, I absolutely do NOT advocate the RealCities sites as a model. I'm sticking firmly with my original "it's a nightmare" conclusion...I mean jeez if you follow their philosophy why don't we all just slap our local mastheads atop the New York Times and go home...but I think it raises the question of how to combat the evil that is American lethargy.

Here's idea number one: since KRD so happily embraces the 'soulless ad whore' philosophy (ok that's my name for it, not theirs), perhaps the more enlightened news organizations should ban together and start advertising on RealCities sites so their users at least know what they're missing. =)

Posted by Rob on November 7, 2002, at 9:05 p.m.:

During a conversation a couple months ago, Adrian and I came across something called Cofax, short for Content Object Factory. We were somewhat impressed with what they'd accomplished: the system uses XML (or MySQL) and JSP and is open-source.

This is the technology used to drive the Knight-Ridder sites. Since it's built fairly well, design should be customizable -- and it appears that it is. Smile, the French company that ported the system to MySQL, is allegedly running Cofax and has a completely different look from the Knight-Ridder sites.

So perhaps Knight-Ridder papers have just been too lazy to customize their sites beyond the default template, or they've been forced to stick with one design. Either way, it's frustrating because the underlying system seems solid (and even promising). The Cofax page shows that only Knight-Ridder papers have adopted the system in the US. It seems that Knight-Ridder has doomed Cofax to obscurity (at least in this country) because they didn't give much credence to the idea that each of their papers have a distinct identity.

This also goes back to trust; people will probably trust their local paper more than a wire service. By imbuing each site with the same design, they've lost the hometown advantage and created the negative illusion that each of their papers holds the same kind of second-class content.

Posted by kpaul on November 8, 2002, at 1:20 a.m.:

[[ or they've been forced to stick with one design. ]]

I would say this is most likely.

Posted by Jay Small on November 8, 2002, at 11:10 p.m.:

It's a safe bet you will begin to see KR sites break away from the cookie-cutter templates in the coming months. Let's hope they can also break away from the poor URL redirect schemes and other weirdness that makes the sites difficult to brand and bookmark.

Posted by kpaul on November 9, 2002, at 2:52 a.m.:

Will be interesting to see when they split their designs. They'll still have the same engine underneath, though, which will make it easier for corporate most likely.

Posted by Patrice on November 23, 2003, at 12:07 p.m.:

I can confirm that the Smile web site is running Cofax, and so are many sites designed and built by Smile, such as egide.asso.fr or www-dsv.cea.fr. I also confirm that a tool such as Cofax induces almost no constraint as to design, and we hardly have any particular guidelines to our web designers for such a site. We even have sites powered by content management tools that have a full Flash navigation system, yet reading sections and menus from the content base. There are truly no limit, design and tools are quite different issues.

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