Last weekend, The Power of Minimalism: A Story of Redesigning Yelp was published on Medium. It is an attempt to redesign Yelp by an external designer.
It’s easy to redesign the site in a minimalist and attractive way. And I’m not surprised the results you get from small scale usability testing validates the new design — it makes sense. If you’re trying to solve for the lowest common denominator (which frequently means low frequency users), doing things like making a search box really dominant make a lot of sense.
I think, however, that sites like Yelp depend on a wide range of user segments, and it can be a surprisingly difficult challenge to satisfy all their needs — not to mention the overriding necessity of optimizing for SEO in high-volume low-value, ad-driven businesses. In short: I don’t believe that Yelp ended up with its current site by accident, or through design by committee.
Frequently when I conduct product interviews, I ask my interviewees to identify the flaws in one of their favorite online products. From there, I always ask why they think the flaw exists. For a handful of businesses (particularly early stage ones), the right answer is probably one of prioritization — it matters, but it doesn’t matter more than the hundreds of other things the team is working on.
For most established companies, however, I think that there are good reasons flaws exist. Even at old behemoths — eBay, HP, Yahoo — there are cadres of really smart people who have spent their entire careers optimizing the portals. The risk for these established companies, however, is that even perfectly good reasons (probably SEO in Yelp’s case) can be a case of finding a local-maxima.
That’s one reason I’m really proud of OpenTable’s massive website redesign that launched a few weeks ago: Even if the product we launched wasn’t perfect, it puts us in the early stages of an ambitious hunt for a global optimum.