Thinking of a new website or web application? Well, you are going to need a great visual design, a carefully planned interface, a solid social media presence, as well as many other considerations. This is usually the mindset many people enter when undertaking a new web project. To be honest, in most cases this is the approach I would take as well. The problem with this is that this paradigm can break in the real world when your website or web application is launched and “out in the wild” where it is subject to all sorts of factors and rules. Some web based companies utterly and completely defy these rules yet are still incredibly successful. What is going on here? Let’s examine a couple examples:
According to Wikipedia:
Craigslist is a classified advertisements website with sections devoted to jobs, housing, personals, for sale, items wanted, services, community, gigs, résumés, and discussion forums.”
Craigslist is an incredibly popular website. It is currently ranked 49th in the world for web traffic and 10th in the United States (for the craigslist.org variation) according to Alexa rankings (http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/craigslist.org). There are several things interesting about this site. The most noticeable is the design (or lack there of 🙂 ). This site breaks many (if not all) current rules for best design and usability practices, yet is still very successful. It does not even have a tablet or phone view for their website. Let’s take a look at some of the details:
- Although there are usability issues which could be improved upon with Craigslist, they are not so drastic such that people are willing to completely switch over to Kijiji or similar services.
- Craigslist has a personal, honest feel about it’s brand which people like
- The site functions properly, and users get results. They don’t care too much about looks. This is the equivalent of using an old text book to prop up an uneven TV stand. Or perhaps a really good ethnic restaurant which serves great food, but has very dingy, outdated decor
- People use Craigslist because they want to sell something or put up a listing of some sort. They want the most exposure with the least amount of effort. It would be much more effort for users to post on several other less popular ‘Craigslist copycat’ sites then it would to do so just on Craigslist.ca. Stepping outside of the scope of single site usability steps to complete a task, posting on Craigslist is actually simpler and faster. Although users may need to overcome some minor usability hurdles in a few areas, it is still easier and less steps than having to set up a posting on several other less popular websites, even though individually the process for posting is more usable and streamlined on these other sites.
In a previous post I mentioned how Facebook essentially copied MySpace’s concept, cleaned up the conceptual, and usability problems and then stole their entire market. This is a different scenario here, a different phenomenon is going on. The flaws with MySpace were very foundational. The flaws with Craiglist are very minor. Regardless of how many new copy cat Craigslist sites sprout up, it will be very difficult to push Craigslist out of being at the top (or close to the top). It is kind of like a Toaster or Kettle. I think these appliances have reached the peak of their evolution. Any additional features or changes won’t increase the overall effectiveness or value, and cause consumers to switch to a new model.
Craigslist breaks the rules of social media as well. Their Facebook page is featured nowhere on their website. They have a Twitter account as well. This too is featured nowhere on their website and has not been updated since 2010.
Plenty of Fish (pof.com)
According to Wikipedia:
Plenty of Fish is in the same ballpark as Craigslist when is comes to visual design and usability. Although it has improved in recent years, for a long time it had a very amateurish design and broke many usability rules. It had these qualities while simultaneously owning the number one spot in various statistics such as most popular dating site world wide. What is going on here? Again, a similar phenomenon to Craigslist is happening:
- Personal, honest feel about it’s brand, people like this. They are not trying to sell you anything or trick you into signing up. It is simply a place to meet people online
- People like free stuff! Other dating sites were offering the same features POF were offering when the service first launched, but competitors were charging money for it. So although POF was not the first dating site out there, the fact that they offered equivalent services for free was enough to sway many users to switch over from other similar sites
- The product POF sells is it’s customers. So as more and more people sign up, the value of posting a profile on the website increases. The more people that sign up means more potential people to connect with, which is where users find value in the service. This momentum builds exponentially
The value users receive from the overall service of POF far outweigh the visual design and usability flaws. Many users are still willing to stick with POF even though many other online dating services exist today with a much nicer design and cleaner admin controls. POF has the huge bank of potential people to meet which is ultimately what users value most in an online dating service. It will be very difficult for another company to take this away from them, at least in POF’s demographic and market areas.
Again, similar to Craigslist, POF breaks the rules of social media as well. Although they do have a Facebook page and Twitter feed, it is featured nowhere on the site. If users want to connect with them on these platforms, they need to seek them out through other means.
Although breaking these rules works for Craigslist and POF, and perhaps a few others, almost all other websites do not have this luxury. In order to break these rules your website must meet the following requirements:
- it still needs an acceptable levels of usability
- the concept of the web application must be sound
- the users find the main value of the website in the content the website creates (typically created by users themselves)
- the nature of the website creates a momentum effect such that the more users/visitors there are, the more value there is for users to create content
Only social based services which involve connecting with other people in some way can get away with breaking these rules. Services like MailChimp, Freshbooks, Wix, or Survey Monkey can’t get away with this. With social connection based web applications, the core value is in the content (learning about what others have posted, or created, in some way, shape, or form). Users are willing to tolerate sub par visual design and usability in these cases. While non social connection based web applications have their core value in the functionality, features, and the price of their service.