Google Search, Amazon, Wikipedia, what do these companies have in common ? They’re web giants, they were created at least 15 years ago, and they’ve all showed a very conservative approach to web design.
While social-related services such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter have greatly evolved in terms of design in the past ten years, Google, Amazon and Wikipedia have showed little aesthetic improvement. Obviously though, their services have greatly involved:
- Google Search’s algorithm became so sophisticated that the smartest engineers are not able to fully understand it, and Google is now a global web player that dominates the online industry way beyond search;
- Amazon enriched its online sales power through new features and developped a winning online retailing strategy;
- Wikipedia developped a great, vibrant community, it now exists in almost all the languages used by humankind, and it contains tens of millions of well-documented pages, all-the-while maintaining its free and open policy.
But that stuff lies under the hood for the most part. What the user see hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years. Which brings the question : Is a plain, generic design the key to a stronger brand on the web ? If an entrepreneur had big ambitions with a new kind of online service, should he try to make his design as groundbreaking as possible, or should he stick to the Craigslist-like list of links and plain text ?
A Google engineer would remind me at this point that Google spends a whole bunch of money testing its design on user groups to ensure it gets it right. And while you can hardly argue with scientifically-proven facts, it seems that web design has made lenghty progresses in the past 15 years (HTML5 held the promise of a greater, more interactive web for example), thus it would seem logical that those big companies should have followed this lead to remain attractive. They haven’t, and yet they keep prospering.
Content is king; Design doesn’t matter, content does; Build great content and they will come. You better believe those statements are true as Google, Amazon and Wikipedia are proving it right. These companies are showing that users are attracted and retained through simple interfaces and easy to understand ergonomies. So if you think you have a great idea for a new web service, try to design it as plain as Google, Amazon or Wikipedia. If it looks useless and leaves you clueless, then there’s a great chance that your idea is not that great after all.