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The Amazon of Usability... A New Model of Content-Centric Usability?

All that quaint talk about simplicity was nice while it lasted, but those days are done.

Synopsis: A post to a recent discussion referenced an Amazon page for an example of a minor usability technique. Upon visiting the page I was instantly struck by the fact that I was looking at one of the most intricate---I avoid using the word 'compex'---software pages I've ever seen. If it's not just a blip on the radar, there might be big message here: we've turned a corner on complexity.

A post to a recent discussion referenced the Amazon page for Alan Cooper's popular usability book. I was instantly struck by the fact that I was looking at one of the most intricate---I avoid using the word 'compex'---software pages I've ever seen. Here's a preview:


Consider its contents:

  • ~70 interactions (links of various sorts) above the fold.... that's not counting the whole page, just the first glance!
  • 10, yes, 10 "page-downs" and that was at 1152 resolution. At 800x600 you can press the PageDown key 19 times before reaching the bottom of the page. (A vigorous slap in the face to those who've been waving their fingers about long page all these years?)
  • Three rollover popups with 50, 14, and 27 links in them, respectively... apparently a torture test for those using trackballs. Oops, make that 4: when I access from home, the Gold Box also has one.
  • An in-page function, Rate-it. This is a series of stars you can click to rate the page.
  • Edgy jargon, SIPs and CAPs. Check their page for explanations.
  • Lots of supersmall print at default size.
  • 30(?) different font variations in all... I'm too dizzy with this one.

This all flies in the face of the rules I've been hearing for years. Some would say the page should have serious usability problems. On the plus side, the overall graphics are top-tier and there's effective preservation of whitespace. Any way you cut it, this is an immensely intricate page. Now bear in mind that Jakob ("Mr. Usability") Neilsen says Amazon simply can afford to break all the rules and we imitate them at our peril. But still, you've got to wonder if this level of complexity—I mean intricacy—tells us that the targeting, that is, where we set the bar for usability, has changed.

Now, you might wonder if Amazon can justify this design on Cooper's page in particular because it's a book for technical audiences, but I looked at other pages. Consider the Amazon page for [Warning: Shameless Self-Promotion Ahead] my 5-star book on repepepepeptitititive strain. Just as complex, the only difference being SITs and CAPs.

So what are the possible messages? Some options:

  • Users are getting more advanced, and Amazon has to cater to the most feature hungry. They can't hold back features because of slower users or they risk losing the market.
  • The old rule-of-thumb that pages should be one or two folds long is a throwback to the days of 28.8 modems. Long pages are OK.
  • The browser wars are over, so profuse functionality is fashionable now? Or now that it's feasible, its value pays off?
  • Personas ("Fran, always with chicken grease on the hands when reading Emeril's recipes, hates popup navigation") were nice lip service to the notion of getting designers and developers to empathize with specific user perspectives, but all users are now equally competent, at least as far as the law of diminishing returns dictates.
  • Amazon is nuts. They'll be bankrupt in a year.
  • Lots of companies just loose it when they don't have to genuinely compete anymore. Amazon is not unique in this regard.

Here's my weighting:

  1. Single-page ("one long page") design has always (!) been the right design for a lot of situations. Slow modems just meant it had to be used very carefully. Since the advent of RealAudio, which I think introduced the concept of "streaming," I've been begging for streaming code and every other form of content. Now that it's here, whether with Ajax, broadband, or any other technology, scrolling in a single view has a lot of benefits, not least of which is printing a whole topic in a single action. This print-in-single-action feature will one day have another ubiquitous workaround: a sitewide checklist to print multiple pages but that's a story from another day.
  2. Personas and the notion that differences between users should drive decision making about design will fade into the background. The "background" includes better browser support for accessibility and better framework code that accommodates many different users' needs without writing the code anew. In other words usability will be built into web code in the same way that lots of usability was built into Windows itself (compared to life before Windows). In general, people will accept more intricacy, but this doesn't mean that rollover menus everywhere are the best solution. Nor does it mean that text can be fixed at a super-small size, and Amazon does not; you can scale the font if you need to or just want to.

In school they taught us that essays should always have a conclusion.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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