Apps Expose Poor Web Design

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tech blogger Jeff Atwood compares the clean interface of his eBay app with the difficult-to-use parent web site and asks, "Will apps kill websites?" I don't use eBay, but I have noticed some of the things he points out in his subsequent discussion of apps (and mobile versions of web sites) versus web sites. I think the essential point about his comparison is as follows.

The implied lesson here is to embrace constraints. Having a limited, fixed palette of UI controls and screen space is a strength. ... The nearly unlimited freedom that you get in a modern web browser to build whatever UI you can dream up, and assume as large or as small a page as you like, often ends up being harmful to users. It certainly is in the case of eBay.

If you're starting from scratch, you should always design the UI first, but now that we have such great mobile and tablet device options, consider designing your site for the devices that have the strictest constraints first, too. This is the thinking that led to mobile first design strategy. It helps you stay focused on a simple and uncluttered UI that you can scale up to bigger and beefier devices. Maybe eBay is just going in the wrong direction here; design simple things that scale up; not complicated things you need to scale down. [bold added]
I'll add that it isn't complexity per se that kills user experience on web sites, but the unfocused more-is-better mentality that seems to pervade web design now in so many ways.

I'll also add that the paring down of a web site can be done poorly. For example, the Google Maps app on my phone displays a huge address flag that obscures a big chunk of the tiny map on my phone. (I recall thinking, "I just typed this in: What do I need it here for, anyway?") It's not obvious how to get rid of it, either. And then there doesn't seem to be an option in the app to show mass transit -- a major flaw for a Bostonian on foot. (I base this on using the app a few times when in a hurry, but apps are supposed to be somewhat intuitive, so I don't think I'm being unfair.)

Since my first reaction to seeing Atwood's title was, "No. Bad design will kill some websites," I guess it's safe to say that I agree with Atwood's conclusion. However, I disagree with Atwood that there is no clear winner in the comparison between apps and websites. I think (and hope) that decently-designed web sites could eventually make the variety of apps that act as surrogates for web sites obsolete.

-- CAV


annaharris said...

One more important thing s in Web designing: Good App might kill a bad website and bad app would not kill a good website.

Gus Van Horn said...