Several years ago I wrote a two hundred page thesis for a Masters program all about user interfaces. The premise was that simplicity and usability were guiding principles to making any online site successful (seems obvious, I know, but it didn’t use to be). Since the late nineties, the importance of usability had slowly been getting more and more important. If the beginning of the web was about presence (look, we have a website!) then in the late nineties and early 2000s, the focus shifted to improving that experience and making it more usable and intuitive. So, here we are in 2007 and the new buzz is Web2.0 and interfaces that are focused on helping people to collaborate with one another and network. The largest social community online is MySpace – and every month new sites are launched promising the latest and greatest in technology to make your friend circle wider, your life more productive or your blog more popular. The only problem is, many of these sites are losing focus on the power of having a good and usable interface.
MySpace is the easiest example of the devolution of user interface quality, but neither Facebook or Second Life offer what anyone could call an easily usable experience (though after using each for enough time, most users likely get over it). I see new sites every week with basic usability problems such as poor navigation, unclear menu items, confusing design, unreadable text, and extra steps. So it’s easy to wonder if, in the craze of Web2.0, we have lost sight of the importance of a good user interface? Thankfully, there are a few sites that still have great interfaces, and they seem to be getting recognized for it. Here are just a few (of the hundreds I have seen) that I would single out as being great examples for anyone out there putting together a site and needing a guide on interfaces that work:
- 37Signals – The company behind services like Basecamp, Highrise, and Backpack, they are probably the ultimate company to watch in terms of creating an amazing interface that makes it easy to work better. Basecamp is the one site and service that I have recommended to the most people – and one that I am using extensively to coordinate research for my book. They even have their own book on building successful web applications.
- Wufoo – I have written about this site before, but it’s worth mentioning in this list only because they make something that used to be extremely tough (creating forms for websites) into an easy drag and drop experience. Wufoo makes forms sexy, and adds good reporting on the backend.
- Harvest – As someone who has spent years working in agencies, I am used to timesheets. No aspect of agency life is as universally hated – but the reason most people despise it is because of the systems companies have in place to track it. Harvest is an alternative that offers an easy to use interface to track time, and reinvents this hated task into something much easier to do.
- Picnik – A relatively new site, Picnik is already getting rave reviews from all kinds of sites, including one of the most influential … TechCrunch. The site lets you edit your photos with easy fixes and save the edited versions. Offering a much simpler interface than Photoshop, the site has lots of little features (like a running tracker telling you the pixel dimensions of your edited image) that make it a pleasure to use for editing photos.
- Flickr – This is the only site that makes my list of great interfaces which you might call "mainstream" with millions of photos, dedicated users and a growing community. The site is not only one of the largest photo sharing communities online, it also offers lots of tools like photo clouds and tags to search and organize images. All that stuff is great, but what makes it really useful is that it can be used by all members of the family – even the non-techie ones.
What each of these sites have in common is an understanding of what their users are trying to do and an interface designed to help them do it. Web2.0 shouldn’t just be about finding new ways for technology to let people collaborate. It should also mean that we don’t forget all the lessons we have learned over the last ten years about how people use the web and the importance of usability.