Kevin Cheng  

When Newer is Not Better

August 20th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Redesigning a site has traditionally been a fairly big event. Whether one likes a design or not, one tends to grow accustomed to the design. Any changes made stick out, especially an entire overhaul. When Honda redesigns a car engine, they don’t just pray that it’s a better engine than their last one. They test it; measuring its acceleration, top speed and dozens of other numbers I can’t even begin to comprehend. Yet when sites are redesigned - often with new or different functionality - there seems to be an assumption that newer = better and change = good. Let’s look at a recent example.With all the fuss that everyone was raising about it, we couldn’t really ignore the redesign of All Music Guide if we tried. For those that don’t know, All Music Guide (AMG) is a popular music site that serves as almost an encyclopaedia of facts regarding music, much like the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) does for movies. AMG redesigned their site about a month ago and was heavily criticized for their changes. Accusations included being slow, IE-only, and generally much more difficult to navigate.

AMG’s response was interesting:

We’ve been on the net since 1995 providing a free music reference resource. We would hope that we’ve earned a little patience from our users as we work through the transition to the new site and some of the difficulties we’re experiencing. We’re a small company with small company resources. While we’re flattered by our users’ expectations, we are not Amazon or Yahoo! We’re a small company from Ann Arbor, MI, trying to provide a great resource for music fans.

Optimizing a site of allmusic’s complexity and size for all browsers and operating systems is no small feat. This isn’t a simple ?brochure-ware? site of static pages. While we would love to optimize the AMG sites for all browsers and all operating systems, we simply don’t have the necessary resources to do so. Despite some users flattering comparison of our site with that of Google, Amazon and Yahoo!, we are a small company with limited resources. So, we had to pick the most widely used browser by our users (over 87%) to optimize the site for and then work on compatibility issues with the other major browsers as we go forward.

We are first concentrating on fixing some compatibility issues with the Mozilla browsers, which are mainly visual, not functional. The main Mozilla problem is a glitch in how tables are displayed. We’re hoping to have this fixed in the near future. We will also be working to fix some compatibility problems with Safari (Mac).

I see two major flaws with these remarks. The first is centred around the, “we’re a really small group and don’t have the resources to test”. You also are a small group with an incredibly large community.

OK/Cancel is a site run by just Tom and I. We’re by no means as big as AMG but we certainly feel the pain of time constraints. Do we run formal usability tests on our site before each design change? No. What do we do instead? We ask you, our readers, to test for us as we did last week with the commenting bar or late last year with the slight redesign.

AMG has a large community who are big fans of the site and from what I can tell, willing to chip in and give their opinion. Usability testing doesn’t have to be this scary formal task with cameras and one way mirrors. They don’t even need to find the right sample users, or set up representative use cases since they’re provided for. Put a beta site up, ask the users to visit it and most importantly, give an obvious and painless feedback channel and they would have their usability test. Tom even used this method to do our platform testing juts last week.

The other stems from the browser issue which we started discussing last week. With limited resources, they chose to focus on the majority browser - which I suppose makes sense. Forgetting for a second the fact that the three other major browsers (Mozilla, Safari, Opera) all render in similar fashions to each other, that still means they’re chosen to release a redesign knowing full well they’re affecting 13% of their users. How can that possibly be justified over just releasing it a month or two later?

As one reader pointed out in response to AMG’s e-mail, very little, if any, of the site seems to have anything so complex that only IE would suffice despite their claims of being more than just brochure ware. If the majority of the bugs are visual, and not say, fancy dhtml functionality that only IE could support, I fail to see why the extra effort couldn’t have been expended beforehand.

Redesigns are really fun for the developers and designers because it’s something fresh, potentially built from the ground up. As such, it’s very easy to get caught up and forget who the redesign is for. Although I take AMG as an example for this article, I do commend them for responding to the user outcry and seem to be slowly working improvements to the site. I think they learnt a valuable lesson from the backlash that occurred.

Changing your design runs the risk of changing the audience’s attitude towards your site. When CSS Zen Garden’s Dave Shea redesigned his blog for the second time in six months, the quotes he received illustrate just how much impact these designs have on your image. Just because a design is new, doesn’t mean it’s an improvement. So long as designers remember who they are redesigning for, they can take steps to ensure that their changes are in the right direction.

11 Responses to “When Newer is Not Better”
Keith wrote:

Well said. I work for a hospital (what a coinikidink) and we’re forced to constantly update our Medical Staff Web site. I mean we’ve redesigned and re-architected this things on average about three times a year, and that doesn’t include all the small changes we make.

Most of this is done with the users best interest at heart. The changes usually are made to try and make things easier, but that doesn’t always turn out to be the case.

I was in a non-Web related forum where various, randomly selected folks from around the hospital get to share issues with our leadership. On of the concerns that was brought up was that it was hard to find even the simplest forms, pre-referral guidelines and such on this Web site.

At the end of the day, they don’t care so much about how it looks and all of that, they just want to find information and have it stay there once they’ve found it.

An improvement is usually only an improvement if it helps people, in the case above we’d probably have been better off just leaving it alone.

You live, you learn. No I just need to figure out how to convince and educate our decision-makers…

Roger wrote:

That comic shows really well how many sites are made, focusing too much effort on visuals that most of the people who actually use the site don’t really care about. And anyone who dares to complain is called “boring”, “behind the times” or “someone who doesn’t understand branding”.

Regarding the browser issue you mention: unless you plan on only allowing IE/Win to access a site, it’s much better to target Mozilla/Opera/Safari first, and then tweak it to make IE happy, than the other way around.

Jez wrote:

Just followed your link to the new AMG site, and saw “Welcome to the new allmusic. We recommend you begin your exploration by visiting the Site Guide.”
So I clicked their link.



Darren wrote:

There’s a difference between an IE-only site and the “forced upgrade” implied by the wheelchair example in the comic (although it’s an effective and harsh real-world example). On the web, you have to side with the webmasters who show people the way to get up the stairs.

There’s incompatibility that forces people to upgrade their browser and then there’s incompatibility that locks people out entirely. Locking out all Mac and Linux users shouldn’t be an acceptable solution. Giving a message to Netscape 4.x users that tells them where to go to get a more standards-compatible browser is acceptable, and hurts mostly people using public or restricted computers they can’t upgrade. One goal of redesigns should be forward compatibility if they don’t have it already, and getting people to upgrade their browsers helps the web standards effort.

Anonymous wrote:

Reading the response smacks of excuses excuses.

We’re a small company with small company resources


Optimizing a site of allmusic’s complexity and size for all browsers and operating systems is no small feat. This isn’t a simple brochure-ware

doesn’t wash. On the one hand they are saying look at us, we created this large complex site. Then when the repsonse from their users wasn’t what they expected, as a defence they say we’re only tiny, with limited resources.

Ask most user-conscious designers and they will tell you that they went about it the wrong way. Designing/testing with Mozilla/standards compliant browsers then fixing for IE is a quicker way to have your site supported by all browsers than designing for IE and trying to fix the design for other browsers.

From their tone

We would hope that we’ve earned a little patience from our users

it seems that when they chose to design for IE they crossed their fingers and hoped that no-one would have the audacity to complain.

Louise Ferguson wrote:

I was one of those that blogged the AMG relaunched back in early July. I have to say that even if you use IE - for which it was supposedly designed - the site still looked poor and performed badly. In other words, even for IE users, it was a retrograde step. Result? I haven’t been back since.

Bob wrote:

Another opportunity for user testing is to make you test site available and invite (registered) users to test it out and provide feedback. This gives good, free feedback and gives some users the chance to feel they’ve given back to one of their favorite sites.

BlndCat wrote:

oops, the anonymous comment was by me. I did preview it before I posted it *honest*

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Another opportunity for user testing is to make you test site available and invite (registered) users to test it out and provide feedback. This gives good, free feedback and gives some users the chance to feel they’ve given back to one of their favorite sites.

Anyone remember when Amazon randomly sent a small percentage of their visitors to their new design for feedback? I thought that was a pretty good system as well. Although I would have liked to have been able to actively choose to check it out instead of refreshing a few times in hopes of getting it.

i&ta wrote:

Hmmm, I visited AMG within a week of their redesign and had no problems using the latest versions of Firefox or Opera. The problem must be with old browsers. Stupid users, don’t they ever update?! ;)

gabriel wrote:

screw the IE only thing. you can navigate very well with opera and fireAnyAnimalYouLike. The problem to me is that UGLY UGLY UGLY flash banner-thing at the top. inviting me to navigate trhu genre, style, band, yada, yada and yada.

The flash is so AMATEUR that my PIII 500 drops to its knee just to render it! i can barely scroll the page while it’s on screen.

and if it wasn’t enough, clicking it is just like clicking a banner. you don’t browse on the same genre you’re reading, you go to another page and has to start over. dumb.

I think i will leech all their site, pass it trhu tidy and use it localy.

(PS: what the hell is that preview button in this site? i got a yellow page with centralized text, fuckedup line breaks… how am i suposed to preview something here?)

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?