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Evolution vs Revolution – changing your site’s design

I tend not to talk much about web design any more, but my attendance at IA Summit 2009 brought a thought to mind. I sat in Jared Spool’s talk on “Revealing Design Treasures from the Amazon” where he pointed out what others can learn from Amazon’s design decisions.

Among his points is that over the last 15 years Amazon has never “redesigned.” They’ve evolved and tweaked their design so that today it doesn’t really look at all like it did a while ago, but there was never a glorious unveiling of a whole new design. Jared’s been arguing against large-scale redesigns for a while, so this point didn’t surprise me.

What Jared neglects to address is the context in which these design changes take place. Because I’ve seen wholescale redesigns work (I lead one at Epinions), and I also know of many services that currently require a fundamental redesign. Amazon has never warranted a wholescale redesign because Amazon’s basic value proposition has never changed: they sell stuff. And it’s business model hasn’t changed — they make money through selling stuff.

But look at a service like LinkedIn. LinkedIn has done what Jared suggests — many changes over time. The problem is, LinkedIn is a mess from a user experience point of view. I know there’s heaps of value buried in LinkedIn that I cannot realize because I can’t figure out how to use the system. The difference with LinkedIn (compared to Amazon) is that its value proposition has evolved, the services they offer are radically different than what was available at their outset, and their revenue model has also changed. What a site like LinkedIn needs to do is step back, assess who they are *today*, and go back to first principles and design a site that matches their current reality, not a cobbled-together experience that has accreted over time. (And don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of LinkedIn, and use it frequently. That’s *why* it frustrates me so much, because it’s so incoherent.)

Anyway, my point is that, well, sometimes you do need to blow up what you’re doing and approach your site’s design from whatever fundamentally new position you find yourself. Don’t be locked in to old ways just because they made sense once.

  1. So how do you rate Twitter? I find it a mess and frustrating because some interesting exchanges get started and then lost in its labyrinth. Some of its rss feeds are not accepted as valid on some of my web sites. And navigation is frequently halted, apparently by overloaded servers or poor programming.

  2. Aren’t you creating a false dichotomy here?

    You say yourself that LinkedIn’s value proposition has evolved. It would seem to me that the interface also could have evolved over time.

    It sounds like the problem with LinkedIn is not that they changed their business model, but that they let the interface drift further and further from what was really going on. Perhaps now that the gap is so large, the solution is a giant redesign. But is it really an impossible design problem to incrementally change the design as the business changes?

  3. I think I’m agreeing with William.

    What’s interesting here is not that LinkedIn has evolved, but that they seem to be evolving without a vision or direction.

    Amazon is a mess, but Amazon seems to have a solid vision of where they want to be. Therefore, the evolutionary approach has been working well.

    If LinkedIn knew what it wanted to be when it grew up, could it have evolved in that direction; adding, removing, and enhancing functions and their interfaces until they attained the goal they were approaching.

    I’m betting that if LinkedIn were to just rethink and redesign from scratch, they would end up with a new design that was equally a mess. And, they’d have to deal with *every* stakeholder in the company to do it while they upset the entire user base in the process.

    That’s my $0.02 on the subject.


  4. I guess it depends on what you consider “redesign”. I would say they’ve had at least two major redesigns (the change from the very first page to the more modern layout, and then the switch in aesthetics and removing of top tabs that occurred in early 2000’s). But yes, relatively speaking they are fairly incremental.

    For me, it’s overloaded and has been for a while. ( (Zappos is even worse – I love their service but HATE their site, esp because the search function is not very good). There are whole sections of an Amazon product page that I’ll zip right by, just like there are aisles at the supermarket that I never go down. But that’s probably OK with Amazon, they have all things on one page to please all people.

    They also have great strategic patience (2nd time today I’ve used that phrase!). Bezos was quoted in an NY Times article recently:

    “Our willingness to be misunderstood, our long-term orientation and our willingness to repeatedly fail are the three parts of our culture that make doing this kind of thing possible.”

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