The uncanny valley of proposed website redesigns

September 10, 2009

I’m intrigued by all of the negative reactions to Andrew Wilkinson’s redesign of Zappos.com. I don’t recall seeing any such “strangers’ vitriol” (Wilkinson’s words) in response to Dustin Curtis’ similar venture with American Airlines, which I previously touched on here (as an aside: Posterous should really let you edit permalink slugs).

Does Andrew Wilkinson not see how arrogant and insulting it is to publicly offer his unsolicited redesigns for popular sites?

There’s an entire thread on Hacker News railing on Wilkinson. I personally see a bit of a double standard going on here. Why didn’t anyone get all up in arms about Wired‘s “Extreme Makeover: Craigslist Edition,” wherein six designers/companies offer their just-as-unsolicited takes on an interface that hasn’t been updated since 1996? Is it because they consulted stars like the NYT‘s Khoi Vinh?

It seems like the consensus is that Wilkinson just didn’t set the right tone with his open letter. Says Hacker News commenter “potatolicious”:

Personally I object to the presumptuous and condescending tone that this redesign is done in – you’re assuming that Zappos is staffed by a team of idiots who couldn’t care less about clean web UI. I don’t work for Zappos, but given their success (and their site) I highly doubt this is the case. Making something web-2.0 does not automatically make it better.

[…] You [Wilkinson] started your entire post with a very confrontational “why is your website a confusing mess”?

And then you fail to make any meaningful changes to the UI.

The other, and very sad, argument is: “What is the point of ‘user experience’ on an ecommerce site if it doesn’t boost sales?”

I think what it boils down to is that Wilkinson’s redesign wasn’t radical enough. Aside from the more prominent testimonials section—which does not immediately strike the viewer as trustworthy and, in its wording, doesn’t necessarily make me want to click on it—I found it difficult to discern exactly what changes he’d made. I even looked for the specific changes he said he would implement (a prominent shopping cart icon and help button, for example), but those didn’t appear in the screen capture, so I had to click through to the fully-modeled site.

In essence, Wilkinson’s redesign was more of a reorganization than a revolution. It looked like he just dragged-and-dropped Zappos’ items around the page, then branded it as his own and touted it to be better. And I think it is better, although he had a lot he could have worked with, and the result is some unfulfilled potential.

Perhaps there is an uncanny valley effect in website redesign, like how some Mac users were disappointed in Snow Leopard because it wasn’t different-feeling enough (Jason Kottke blogged about this wonderfully). If you say you’re going to create something better, it can’t in any way inspire people to look at it and think, “What exactly did he change here?” They’ll only react negatively, and see flaws where there otherwise might be none.

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