Bang The Drum 2.0: “Getting It” Edition

What follows is a whole ton of Unsolicited Advice. About websites. Run away if you can. You have been warned.

Every time I help launch a major website I find myself meditating on lessons learned, what I might have done differently and will I ever get to do a website whose launch will not generate these thoughts because it was exactly the product it needed to be with no corners cut or lousy decisions pushed through to appease x and y. I view this through the lens of something like 15 years’ combined experience in print and web design. None of it revolutionary, mind you, but I think it gives me at least half a leg to stand on.

So ParentsConnect, that site I’ve been working on since June, launched today. Yay!

It was a bit of an ordeal to get off the ground but, all in all, I’ve had far, far worse. The site is built on a good foundation, with a decent premise and lovely grace notes sprinkled throughout. I’m sure parents everywhere will flock to it as word gets out.

And in a seemingly-unrelated note, I was happy to learn I’m not the only one to notice that Old Media Doesn’t Get The Net. I’ve been banging this same drum for years, through one dot-com bubble/bust and into the present one. Among friends and colleagues, some have half-agreed, others have strenuously disagreed, but no one’s really given me as hearty an “Amen” in response as this article has. Might the time have arrived when these people decide to quit throwing good money after bad ideas? C-Net opts for a hagiography of CondeNast’s recent efforts in New Media, in essence saying, “see, here’s one Old Media company that ‘gets it.'” Based on my experience helping the Fairchild Publishing peoples (newly acquired by CondeNast) launch, I’ll grudgingly admit I felt more of an atmosphere of possibility there than at other Old Media groups with whom I’ve also partnered. Far from perfect, however: considering the enormity of the task, the webdev team seemed remarkably slim to me, for example (but of course a developer would claim that). Too small meant constantly overtaxed resources, but it also meant that they were oh-so-agile, able to effect prodigious feats quickly, capably and with a bare minimum of bullshit. When I needed a Mac to cross-platform test the site we were creating I asked my supervisor, he checked with IT and, when it became apparent the request would take too long to fulfill he went to his desk, unplugged his own iMac and handed it over. Not coincidentally, launched on time and with very little last-minute drama (as far as I know, anyway), despite most of the project’s timeline consumed while Old Media types dithered over the perfect shade of cornflower blue icons. Was the small-but-nimble strategy intentional? Hardly. Merely a consequence of talented people making the most of the situation where a “my 12-year-old nephew can do that” mentality presides. In this manner, Old Media dooms its every half-baked attempt at competing in a New Media market.

I think the one fundamental concept Old Media managers consistently fail to grasp about building a website is this:

Websites are software

That’s it. Learn the implications of that little statement and your outlook can’t help but to improve. That means you shouldn’t sit around arguing over ligatures and micromanaging design printouts down to the last pica. This web-thing you’re building is alive: it grows, it contracts, it changes minute by minute, sometimes unpredictably as in those cases where its content is user-driven. You need to design and build with those considerations in mind. Don’t build the site around a publishing schedule, don’t religiously mark-up screenshot printouts, leave your pica ruler at home. Read The Mythical Man-Month. Learn how to manage a software project, because that’s what you have here. Better yet, bring in someone experienced in software development to run things, and let them run things. Get out of their way. (That’s probably the most revolutionary, and least likely to be implemented, idea I’ve suggested so far.)

Instead we get 95% of the web. (For brevity, I’m sort-of letting the entity ‘website’ stand-in for all New Media, which of course may or may not have anything to do with your web browser. Just bear with me here. Or rip me a new one in the comments.) This may be a weird forum in which to air this grievance, but I detest most websites I come across. There’s very little out there making my browsing experience pleasurable or even particularly useful. Intrusive and overabundant advertising modules are one thing, but even in their absence most websites are tedious, unimaginative replications of Old Media paradigms: books, TV, magazines, bulletin boards. Yawn. Here’s a tip: Don’t send magazine designers to design your websites. All they’ll do is design a magazine they don’t expect to have to print. Especially if you instruct them to. Sometimes they’ll try to build you a nicely conceived website but you hired them because you liked their magazine layouts and you’ll end up asking them to redo and redo until you end up with… a magazine layout. Magazines were designed to be seen all at once, in your hands. But websites don’t work that way. You probably don’t use the web enough to notice that.

It occurs to me that, if you must settle for an Old Media designer (and the web may be too young for there to be any other kind, really), filmmakers and storyboard artists might be better suited to building websites because they’re more familiar with the challenge of designing for a frame in which content changes. (Comic book artists also spring to mind.) I imagine they’re less likely to submit Photoshop mockups that look great when you fill them with exactly the first 300 words of Lorem Ipsum but completely fall apart as soon as you try to flow real-world content into them.

So back to, I hate most websites. A great deal of my “online time” is thus spent on applications other than the web browser. There’s IM clients. E-mail. Internet “radio.” And I still read through Usenet (use-what?). You can process the same information through this or that webpage but I much prefer using standalone applications optimized for each task.

Counter-examples? Beautiful or entertaining personal showcases aside (even museums tend to screw this one up)… Google, of course. There’s only so much you can do to embellish one text form and two buttons, so they don’t try. Maps sites, most notably Google Maps. (Yahoo Maps also looks nice, but Mapquest is an abomination.) Netflix does its one rather ordinary task well and does so elegantly, for the most part. Flickr, although just a photo album — nothing mind-blowing there — augments the experience of viewing and collecting photographs admirably. The standard blog convention is simple, intuitive, and to the point. Others are great tools with offensively bad interfaces: portal pages (eg, MSN), most shopping sites. eBay. MySpace (shudder). Craigslist. Newspaper sites. coughNYTimescough Too many choices, people. My eyes glaze over just thinking about some of these.

In the process of researching this rant I’ve been able to observe many of the major sites re-design with a less-is-more mentality, fewer choices organized in a more cogent fashion. The Yahoo! homepage is no longer a sea of blue underlined links. The MSN page is several screens shorter. Here’s an idea that’s worked for Microsoft and scores of other successful companies and individuals: learn from other people’s mistakes.

So, umm, how do I tie this up? Instinct urges me to correlate these observations with my recent experience building ParentsConnect but, really, I have no scathing critique waiting on the wings. I could quibble on this or that nuance or personal preference, sure. (And project timelines? Fuggedaboudit.) But at the end of the day I have made a startling discovery: MTVNetworks may not have had a nice little C-Net writeup yet, but this company “gets it.” Everything web-related I’ve seen emerge from here is high-concept and ably executed. (‘course everything I’ve seen come out of here is nifty Flash games and movies for the kids.) Whether the sites validate or adhere to WaSP standards is another matter, but that’s hardly the point. Their success rate suggests to me that someone in the upper ranks is giving serious and credible thought to the details governing new and existing web projects, and that’s a good portent.

7 Replies to “Bang The Drum 2.0: “Getting It” Edition”

  1. i’m not reading it i’m not reading it i’m not reading…Hey i invented new mantra! 🙂 I’ve read it, you happy?!

  2. I’m on vacation and don’t have time to read a novelle on screen. Can I have it on paper, please?

  3. I LUV the Craigslist interface – it’s so old school! And that’s what makes it good. But I am so glad that someone competent in the matter confirmed what I always suspected – websites that have way too many options and take you through an endless maze without actually giving you the info you want are BAAAAD. The BBC website has been driving me nuts for a long time now…

  4. I get lots of compliments on my web site, because a very talented person built it.

    Do you still take on small freelance jobs? A filmmaker friend wanted me to do his site, thinking I had built mine. I explained you did it, and he wants to hire you, if you can spare the time.

  5. you’re right. that’s why i gave up. once i got into ajax a little, i realized the future looked like applications and applications look like. . well. . . nothing really. no need for a designer there.

    . . . thinking i’ll just sell records or brownies.

  6. “For 50 years, creatives went into advertising so they could tell 30-second stories. As far as they were concerned, that was the next best thing to working in Hollywood. As a result, they’re culturally impaired when it comes to creating experiences online, because a narrative like that won’t work. It might work as a component of a larger whole, but it can’t be the whole experience. So they have to adapt from owning the brand voice to being a little slice of it, and that’s very difficult for them.”
    -Recent Business Week Article

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