walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

usability, Amazon and that whoopsie over on google+

Recently, an employee of Google posted a very long, um, commentary on google+ that was publicly visible until he took it down. It was so, um, interesting that a bunch of people copied it where you can read it if you have time for that sort of thing. The employee who did this is not a shy guy -- he's been blogging and writing about matters technical and other for years and not in a neutral sort of way. I didn't read the whole thing and I'm not planning on reading the whole thing and I would have considered it not actually nearly as interesting as a lot of other people seemed to find it (I just get pissy when people insist that the Important Thing is something-or-other that would destroy the business. I really do. It's like breaking out in hives) EXCEPT for what appear to be repeated comments that Amazon's website is not usable.

Amazon.com's website isn't usable? I'm not entirely certain what that would even mean, but it turns out there are _years_ worth of people making more or less the same argument. (To be fair, I may remember a certain ex-Microsoft newly minted VP of Marketing back in 1996 making that argument. And a whole lot of other people disagreeing with her about what should replace it, but agreeing in principle to the idea that Amazon.'s website is not usable.) Amazon apparently hired Larry Tesler (!!! Not a reality based guy. The Lisa and the Newton were both Uber Cool products that should have never gotten _started_, and should have been canceled every step of the way. They did not make any business sense at the time because it was too early for those products to be made and thus sold at a price point the market for them could handle.) and ignored him when Tesler complained about usability issues. The rant includes this phrase: "Larry would do these big usability studies and demonstrate beyond any shred of doubt that nobody can understand that frigging website" [Amazon.com], and, later, this paragraph:

"I think Larry Tesler might have struck some kind of chord in Bezos when he said his mom couldn't use the goddamn website. It's not even super clear whose mom he was talking about, and doesn't really matter, because nobody's mom can use the goddamn website. In fact I myself find the website disturbingly daunting, and I worked there for over half a decade. I've just learned to kinda defocus my eyes and concentrate on the million or so pixels near the center of the page above the fold."

Ignoring the obvious fact that tons of moms "use the goddamn website" (including me) quite successfully thank you very much, that last sentence is important so I'll just repeat it here.

"I've just learned to kinda defocus my eyes and concentrate on the million or so pixels near the center of the page above the fold."

I am absolutely certain that _that_ is what mass audiences do with visually presented material. Visually presented material which assumes attention to the components irrespective of their location in the visual field does not work well with a mass audience (boy, howdy is that an understatement). If you want to sell to a large market, you _design_ to be consumed the way the mass market likes things.

As for the clutter on the periphery, it has come and gone over the years and depending on whether you are logged in or not and a variety of other things (as I am sure the author of the piece and some fraction of his audience is aware). Moms who have been shopping on Amazon.com for a decade or more know which bits they like and are happy when they are consistently placed, even if it doesn't satisfy the needs of a new customer or, really, anyone's aesthetic preferences. But we're probably okay with it moving a little ways, just not all the way across the page and reshaped, recolored, blah, blah, bleeping, blah.

Here's the real moral of the story. The elf drove across country to start a little bookstore on the internet because he saw an adoption curve and he wanted to sell crap to those adopters. But within a year or so of being in business, the elf, being numerate, understood that there were only So Many Customers, so he was going to have to figure out a way to sell More to the existing customers and worry less about new customers. It would be years after this decision that people started carping about Amazon and its unfriendliness to new customers, while simultaneously acknowledging that whoa did that machine extract the change from the pockets of the repeat customer. Well, yeah. They're late adopters. And if there's a moral to the adoption curve story, it's that it's way freaking easier to get 10X the money out of someone who is an earlier adopter than X money out of a later adopter. Also, 10X > X (assuming X > 0). Amazon's design is intended to extract maximum cash for minimum effort from existing customers. The sooner people realize that, the better their subsequent critiques will be.

That, in 2011, there are still people will to emit comments along the lines of Amazon-is-unusable (without any qualifiers beyond a slam at presumptively technologically impaired mothers) is a tribute to the power of Aesthetic to overwhelm any data to the contrary. Just because it's coming from a scruffy, possibly drunk guy, screwing up on a social networking site doesn't make it any less about Aesthetic than if it were, say, Oscar Wilde (who, come to think of it, could be described as a scruffy, possibly drunk guy, screwing up in a social setting).
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