Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Design Matters -- but Content is King

In Never design what you can steal, I praised this amusing guerilla redesign of Jakob Neilsen's which is widely derided by the design community for its radically bare-bones layout.

Well, the design guerillas are at it again. This time, they've set their design eye on Craigslist:

Original Redesign
Craigslist Austin homepage Craigslist Austin homepage redesigned
Original Redesign
Craigslist Austin apartments for rent view Craigslist Austin apartments for rent view, redesigned

I like the redesign. It feels more usable, better organized, and less cluttered. Heck, it even uses sparklines. But I can't get over the nagging feeling that redesigning craigslist is a waste of time. Joel Spolsky elaborates:

But there's a scary element of truth to [Napster's hideous user interface] -- scary to UI professionals, at least: an application that does something really great that people really want to do can be pathetically unusable, and it will still be a hit. And an application can be the easiest thing in the world to use, but if it doesn't do anything anybody wants, it will flop. UI consultants are constantly on the defensive, working up improbable ROI formulas about the return on investment clients will get from their $75,000 usability project, precisely because usability is perceived as "optional," and the scary thing is, in a lot of cases, it is. In a lot of cases. The CNN website has nothing to be gained from a usability consultant. I'll go out on a limb and say that there is not a single content-based website online that would gain even one dollar in revenue by improving usability, because content-based websites (by which I mean, websites that are not also applications) are already so damn usable.

Craigslist is the very definition of a content-based website. The content is such a strong attraction that you could probably change the stylesheet to use green text on a red background and usage would still continue to climb. The redesign is clearly a small improvement, but it's just a statistical rounding error next to the value of the content.

And that's why, sometimes, 'ghetto' is a valid design choice:

[MySpace] empowers people to get their message out and make connections. That's the only way I can put it. Same reason why Xanga, FaceBook and LiveJournal are crazy popular. Get a community together where people can communicate easily and you have yourself a winner. Ask Amazon.

Besides all of that, [the MySpace] site sucks and I never use it, but I know that doesn't matter much when I can enter a club and the first question out of a woman's mouth is "Are you on MySpace?"*

Happens more times then you would think...

Someone we know at a venture capital firm once said he'll only fund for two reasons: if it gets you laid, or it gets you paid. Design is important, but content is king. Make sure you set your priorities appropriately.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: