Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, January 29, 2004
# 8:27:00 AM:

It's got personality

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People compliment me on this website. "Great site!" they say (and here's the important bit...). "Lots of interesting stuff there."

This site isn't much to look at, because I have no real design skill. It's not even all that easy to navigate, because most of the material has just accreted over the past seven years. But, as my visitors say, there's lots of interesting stuff—as well as a fair share of boring stuff. Lots of stuff, anyway, and lots of links to other stuff in other places. The Web is about stuff, and about links: about the content of websites.

A site's appearance is important, sure, but primarily as a way to frame the text, and maybe sometimes the photos and sound and movies. But most of the time it's text. That's what Google cares about, even when it's helping you search for images (you don't draw your search terms, after all). That's what you care about when you search for a writer and editor in Canada or information about the Aerolatte milk foamer or Ikea's Jerker desk and end up here.

Gerry McGovern has written a piece on why ad agencies generally design terrible websites (via D. Keith Robertson, who was via Tom Coates), and identifies it as a look-vs.-content problem:

What was the first e-commerce success story? Books. People who buy books like to read. Why do people go to a car website? To find out what sort of safety rating the car has. To find out if there are any deals going. (People are cheap on the Web.) Last night, my 12-year-old son went to a James Bond website. He wasn't looking for film clips. He was looking for a list of all the James Bond films.


In many ways, the products that sell best through traditional advertising don't do well on the Web. My kids love Coca Cola. They have never once visited the Coca Cola website. Why on earth would they? To find out what "the real thing" actually means?

The best websites are ones people come back to. A beautiful website that isn't usable and interesting may be lovely, but lovely doesn't last. Even if a site redesigned itself every day, and every day was a new and beautiful and spectacular new look, few people (and probably no one who wasn't a designer themselves) would hang around for more than a minute or two to admire its fresh loveliness. But the ugliest weblogs using the most boring default design templates can be fascinating for hours on end.

So to frame it in an old teenage cliché, a good website is less like a fantasy prom queen cheerleader underwear model (or class hunk football captain movie star) than it's like a real woman (or man) who's got personality. Sure, people (and sites) with personality can be beautiful, but the key is that a good one is worth knowing for the long term, has interesting stories to tell, and will improve with age. Even if the looks go away.


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