A Tale Of Two Design Philosophies: Consistency Vs Wow

This morning I read an interesting article courtesy of the New York Times comparing the approaches of Google and Yahoo when it comes to releasing new applications. Yahoo’s approach has been to maintain consistency across it’s various products where Google has usually gone after the ‘wow’ factor when releasing something new. Most of us aren’t Google or Yahoo though, and the two philosophies has gotten me thinking about designs in our own smaller sites, particularly this site, and if either approach is better than the other.

Google And Yahoo: ‘Wow’ And Consistency

The article in question, In the Race With Google, It’s Consistency vs. ‘Wow’ begins with a mention about Google Maps and about the ‘wow’ factor of being able to drag the map around the screen instead of waiting for a complete refresh of the page. The same application is one of the main applications responsible for the rise of AJAX and the Web 2.0 tag. However Google Maps still currently lacks many conveniences that most other map programs include, such as remembering your home address when asking for directions.

Yahoo has tried to ensure compatibility when launching new services with the existing services it currently has in place in the Yahoo network. Offering their users consistency and a predictability is something Yahoo sees as a competitive edge. While that has often delayed the release of new applications, Yahoo has seen people sign up for new services at a greater rate than Google.

Both approaches come with benefits and both with risks. Google can test more applications, by launcing them quicker, while letting their use or lack of use determine which ones to develop further. Yahoo spends more time trying to understand what their users really want and thus can deliver a more useful product from the outset. Google risks alienating users with false starts and having all it’s applications forever in beta. Yahoo risks being seen as irrelevant by being so late to market with any idea.

Consistency And Wow In The Design Of Smaller Sites

Like I said the article got me thinking about this site and the sites of other small businesses. Is one or the other of the two philosophies of the search giants better for small business sites? What advantages to they offer us. I know I don’t have a large network like Yahoo that would require their level of consistency, nor do I have their budget to do usability testing with all who visit this site prior to creating a new design. I’m also not as concerned with being first to market like Google. Only so many people will likely be wowed by anything I do in the near future.

I have been wanting to redesign this site though since the day it launched. The site serves it’s purpose. It’s usable and easy to navigate I think. It loads faster than most and uses valid code, except in a few places. It’s not beautiful though it’s certainly not ugly. Yet it’s always been missing something for me.

Much of good design is maintaining a certain level of consistency. This site looks essentially the same on all pages. You’re not going to think you’ve left the site on any page. Good design also maintains a level of consistency with accepted web standards. Menus typically across the top or down the left, though right side menus are coming back in vogue with the rise of blogging. Good design will also show a consistent look in the hierarchy of it’s headings and various page elements.

It can be important to meet the expectations your visitors will have about websites in general before they ever see your particular site. Consistency can make for a much more usable site as visitors will already know how to interact with it. You don’t run the risk of visitors leaving in frustration due to confusion over your shopping cart when it behaves like most of the others they’ve previously seen.

On the other hand there’s something to be said for that ‘wow’ factor. I mentioned feeling like something has always been missing from this site for me. It’s the ‘wow’ that’s missing. ‘Wow’ can run the risk of confusing visitors as they react to something new and it can lose them by putting style over substance. It does get you noticed though and can attract many new visitors just for having something or being something like no other site.

I was reading an article over the weekend, which I believe was on SEOmoz, though I’m unable to find it at the moment, talking about how having a beautiful aesthetic design is a great example of link bait. Design a site that looks great, and is coded with css and xhtml and you can easily get that site displayed on any number of sites devoted to displaying ‘wow’ designs. Offering link bait on your site can be one of the most effective means of building long term links and is the reason you see most seo sites offering more and more free tools.

‘Wow’ isn’t all great though. Flash sites certainly have that ‘wow’ factor, but also offer roadblocks to being found in search engines. ‘Wow’ will take more time to achieve or will cost more to have someone else produce for you. While it can bring more traffic quickly ‘wow’ can risk losing traffic permanently if it’s seen as lacking substance. ‘Wow’ can also be difficult to maintain. Not everyone has one great idea after another flowing through us all the time. Put out too much style too fast and you may be expected to consistently come up with more. ‘Wow’ isn’t necessarily easy to create once let alone time after time.

My thought has been that for most of us smaller businesses and sites a combo approach might be the best philosophy. We don’t have the marketing budgets of Yahoo and Google and probably can’t afford to lose to many of our visitors. Keeping things consistent and usable will help us not lose them. Our visitors will have expectations about us and we may not want to stray to far away from those expectations. There is a minimum of consistency we’re simply going to need to achieve.

Still there’s no reason we shouldn’t strive to have aesthetic designs that have value for their aesthetics alone or why we shouldn’t be looking for ways to ‘wow’ those who come to our sites, with something few if any sites have. We’re lucky in a sense that you and I probably don’t need to ‘wow’ them in a way that Google needs to. We don’t necessarily need to create Google Maps. We just need to find a creative use for them.

We can spend a little more time or pay a little more for a design that will stand out from the cookie cutter template look. That extra time and money might, and probably will, go a long way in bringing the traffic that will pay for the initial cost. We can also look for ways to provide something unexpected that will get people talking and get more people looking to see what the buzz is all about. ‘Wow’ to bring them in and consistency to keep them there.

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