There’s this interesting trend with software: The first release of a program is barebones, and only focuses on accomplishing its primary function. As the process goes on, extraneous bells & whistles are added on. In the end, you have a program that looks fancy and does a lot of stuff, but you find that it runs like a pig and it takes many more steps to accomplish simple tasks. Pretty soon you find yourself longing for the version you ran 5 years ago. I remember running ICQ ‘99 until 2006, using Windows 2000 for years after XP was released, and sticking with ACDSee version 2 long after version 6 was out.
In part this trend comes from a desire to try to resell your product to the same people over and over again. But, I don’t think it’s just that. I think there is an ingrained idea in Western philosophy that change brings improvement. The problem of form and features supplanting function is not limited to software, but also pervades the world of website design. To illustrate my point, let me present the recent redesign of the Engadget website:
I could almost get angry over how bad this design is. It is much worse than any of the Facebook redesigns people moan over. The old Engadget site was just a simple header with the day’s technology headlines starting immediately below it. The new design has so much bloat on it that you can’t even fully fit the most recent story on it. Let’s just take it from the top down.
At the very top of the screen, there is grey bar with a text ad and a banner ad in it. This bar takes up about 10% of the vertical area on my 1920×1200 monitor. Below that, there is a black Engadget toolbar that allows you to search the site or log in to your account. This toolbar is about twice as wide as it needs to be because of the size of the logo. Below this is a special reviews section. This bar takes up at least 15% of the vertical area and features their Motorolla Droid review. This review is dated October 30th, meaning that regular visitors to the site would have been seeing the same thing in that space for 3 weeks now. Below the reviews, we have a 2nd toolbar. That’s right, two toolbars at different heights the screen. Below this we have the ‘featured content’ area, which takes up 40-50% of the area. The problem with this section is the most recent featured item is 2 days old. That may be alright for people who visit the site once per week, but for the people who actually use the site multiple times each day, it quickly becomes stale. Finally, after another wastefully large section header, you get to the first fresh headline, which only barely fits on my 24″ screen, with none of the actual story visible. Even the headline is hidden on my 22″ monitor. On my laptop, I need to scroll almost two screens before I see the real content I’m interested in. When using their competitor Gizmodo’s website (also terrible in its own right) I can see 2 full stories and part of a third without having to scroll.
It shouldn’t be hard to see that people hate designs like these. The stark simplicity and functionality of Google’s website is one of the reasons they were able to poach people away from more bloated search engines in their early days. Until Engadget gets their act in order, I’ll only be reading their stories via my RSS reader which probably means less ad revenue for them.