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November 17, 2011

To Design or Not to Design? Review of Marshall Brain’s presentation at Internet Summit

Are all the designers crying in the back of the room?

Marshall Brain (@brainstuffHSW) from HowStuffWorks.com took the stage to kick off day 2 of the Internet Summit in Raleigh and threw down a great argument for why we should care less about design and more about function.  Now design matters of course and I would be thrown to the lions if I said that if it didn’t. (Working for a firm that cares a great deal about design that we should take design and shove it is crazy talk)

My goal here is do give an overview of what he talked about, why some of it is valid and what I think the true balance is. (Full disclosure – I am a developer and my User Interfaces look like crap without our design team).

His examples though were quite compelling: Google Search Results, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Reddit.  The content is what is truly driving customers back to these sites over and over again.  Now I would argue that the experience is what matters and how quickly one can access content, FOR these examples is what makes them hugely successful.

Now for us in the industry we can all be fairly certain that a great collaboration occurred to create Google’s new search results:

Annotated Google Search Results
User Experience Improvements in Google Search Results

My point is that these are elements of design!  Now what they really could be is a great collaboration between UX and designer. Check out the Search menu is in red and it knows my location.  Savy? Also it is subtle, but changing the top search button blue is a great choice that draws attention to it.  But I argue that was indeed a design choice.

Now Marshall’s real point was that in start-up mode don’t really waste your time pushing pixels around and making things perfect.  If you create great content your followers will come and they will use your product.

He said, “I shop at Walmart.  Fonts and colors go over my head and I don’t even see them.”

His point was here that most of the regular everyday people out there that don’t care about design and if you are trying to get investors they don’t either, they want to know how much traffic you are getting and whether or not you are “converting”.

Now it is tough to argue with this point, but again, I go back to the fact design, form, and function are all required.  So I nuance his point slightly and say perhaps spend a little more that he is abdicating for so you can make your site accessible for all, usable for all, and create an experience with content that tells a story brings you back for more.

His other great point was that great content tells a story and if you tell a great story it will resonate with people (and I add then share it with all your friends @darylhemeon ha!).   Marshall also outlined his major issues with sinking too much design time up front:

  1. It is expensive
  2. time consuming
  3. It is never done – fashion is always changing
  4. browser compatibility issues
  5. distraction from what is important

Marshall’s points are well taken. All I am saying is that is our jobs in this industry to find the right balance for every customer.  What he did say rang true though about the top three most important features are the Content (Content is King #ISUM11), Navigation is simple and functional and SPEED.  If your site is a dog, no one will run with it.

I do understand that what he was trying to do was stir people up on the morning and I started this conversation first thing at my office and people started to wig out!  Which personally I think is great because what it does is make us think about what matters for our customers and that is what is truly important.

Marshall Brain, thanks for a great talk, thanks for stirring the pot and thanks for recommending WordPress…by the way, this blog uses that too.

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