LP Login

Think Big. Move Fast.

I posted recently on the importance of context for social media sites; the need to be “easy to learn and hard to master”.

Two recent stories/posts have reminded me on the consequences of failing to adhere to this approach.

Viruoso Busker

The most recent was a story in Sunday’s Washington Post that I found via Paul Kedrosky. It tells what happens when Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest violinists, plays his $3.5m Stradivari violin in a subway station in downtown Washington DC during the morning commute, looking like an ordinary busker.

He is not exactly appreciated. In forty five minutes he receives 27 donations totalling $32.17. Of 1070 passers by, exactly seven stop to listen. This is a guy who fills concert halls where the cheap seats are $100.

Context matters. People didn’t know what to expect, so they were not cognitively prepared to recognize the greatness of the performance

Conforming to web metaphors

The second was posted a couple of days after my original post. When Topix reinvented itself, Rich Skrenta (Topix’s CEO) wrote a much linked to post about what led to the relaunch. One of the team’s two insights was that there was:

… sort of a structural flaw with our news pages. They didn’t conform to any standard web page metaphor. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Back in 1995, when the web was new, visitors to a new site would lean forward, squint at the page, and try to figure out how it worked. The Southwest Airlines page was a picture of a check-in booth at the airport. You had to click on the picture of the phone to get the phone list, and so on.

That metaphor didn’t last. People don’t lean forward and squint at web pages to figure out how they work anymore. They instantly recognize — within 100 milliseconds — which class of site a page belong to — search result, retail browse, blog, newspaper, spam site, message board, etc. And if they don’t recognize what kind of page they’re on, they generally give up and hit the back button.

Our news pages didn’t conform to any standard metaphor. Some people thought they were search results. But they weren’t, our pure news search was a separate section of the site. Some people thought we were a newspaper, with human editors. Some visitors thought we were a blog. But our news items didn’t behave in very bloggy ways. Most people just didn’t know who we were or what the page was trying to do. Further confusing matters was our front page, which really didn’t have anything to do with the local news pages within the site. From the front we either looked like Google News or a national newspaper, depending on who you asked.

To use the words from my original post – the original Topix was not “easy to learn”, and users had a tough timing understanding what to do there.


In both of these cases, great content went unrecognized because users didn’t have a familiar frame of reference from which they could parse and hence appreciate the quality of the content. Once again, the takeaway is to make it cognitively easy on your users. Make sure that they know what to do at your site, and what to expect from it, as soon as they get there. In this case, quirky design, or sparse, stark design, is not your friend.

This is doubly important if many of your users are not “regulars” – they arrive via search or links, and not as part of habituated behaviour.

If they don’t “get it”, they won’t “get into it”.