VC Hunter Walk, formerly of YouTube, recently blogged about Lady Gaga’s visit to the YouTube HQ during his time there. While visiting the campus for an interview, she was shown some proposed “premium” (i.e. nice looking) design revisions. Her response probably sent a bunch of designers into a tailspin of righteous designer indignation.
No, keep YouTube looking sh***y.Lady Gaga
Despite all the eccentric weirdness of her showbiz persona, Ms. Gaga seems to have very astute sensibilities. Her reasoning was simple. In the words of Hunter Walk:
As a community product it was important that we didn’t lose the authenticity of the product in an effort to upgrade the look and feel. Usability was separate from shine. A creator or fan needed to feel like their “fingerprints” could be left on the site. That the site is different for their participation. Incrementing a view count, commenting to a creator, “liking” a video, leaving a response. All of these features were meant to increase the feeling of accessibility and engagement. Allow folks to feel “I WAS HERE AND I MATTER.”
Hunter Walk – The Time When Lady Gaga Told YouTube to Keep Its UX “Sh***y”
So this got me thinking about the tale of two online video giants, Vimeo and YouTube. Both offered essentially the same product, but one got sold to Google for $1.65 billion, while the other made it’s initial backers close to zero ROI. The reasons for Vimeo losing out to YouTube has been dissected and analyzed more times than Lady Gaga has released hit singles with questionable morals. One thing that is rarely discussed however, is why a site that is such a beauty to behold lost out to sh***y. Lady Gaga offers us a clue.
An article on Fortune Magazine called Vimeo the “Hipster Youtube”. An apt epithet considering their respective homepages.
YouTube’s #1 video is an elevator prank, while Vimeo’s is an award-winning short-film. That alone makes each site’s market positioning pretty clear.
YouTube is your regular coffee shop at the end of the street serving good coffee at affordable prices. Vimeo is the hipster cafe at some uptown location where some hipsters like to pay extra to sit in a manufactured “retro” environment and drink lots of milk and sugar with a dash of coffee.
If you’re a hipster who got offended by that analogy, my apologies. Please consider this hipster-friendly analogy instead: Vimeo is HBO, which plays blockbuster movies 24×7, while YouTube is your vanilla free-to-air channel with programming for everyone including cartoons for the kids, Candid Camera for the bored teenager, boring soap operas for housewives, and lots of b-movies for everyone. Only a few subscribe to HBO, while everyone watches the free-to-air channel.
Intentionally or not, design attracts a specific demographic to a website. Vimeo appealed to creatives who deemed the site’s aesthetic a worthy platform on which to showcase their content. YouTube, on the other hand, appealed to the masses, who include the v-bloggers, pranksters, makeup tutorialists and random people who like to dance on their bed.
Vimeo successfully managed to win over a niche audience, garnering a cool 170 million monthly viewers worldwide. It’s quite an accomplishment, but is no comparison to YouTube which passed the one billion viewers a month milestone back in 2013.
Let’s dig a little deeper into Lady Gaga’s advice with a side-by-side comparison of the video pages.
First off, YouTube contains a prominent view count along with a like/dislike button + count. The user instantly notices something change permanently on the page when they view/like/dislike a video, giving them a sense of ownership of the site. The instant count increment also gives them a sense of accomplishment knowing that they supported a creator they love, or detracted from a video that was an abomination.
Vimeo on the other hand, has it’s like button as an overlay on the video, only visible on hover. The like count is on a separate section of the page below the fold, out of view of the user when watching a video. No instant feedback. Vimeo also offers a view count only upon hitting the “Stats” button, where it offers a detailed view with charts and all. While this info would be helpful to the creator, it’s not very useful nor relevant to the average viewer. A prominently displayed view count has a “wow” factor, which increases upon seeing that your view just made the count go up.
YouTube again has a prominent “Subscribe” button, while Vimeo’s “Follow” button is grouped together with a bunch of other buttons.
YouTube has a share button prominently and permanently displayed, with the label “Share” on it. Vimeo expects a knowledge of web conventions from its user with an icon-only share button only visible on hover.
Vimeo displays a top bar with other videos from the creator. YouTube on the other hand, frees up valuable above-the-fold space by displaying related videos as a sidebar, and shows videos relevant to the user. Vimeo has it’s focus clearly set on stroking the ego of the creator, while YouTube focuses on the viewer, which in turn helps the creator.
The Lesson From Android
So what’s the moral of the story here? When Android launched, fans raved about how “customizable” it was compared to iOS. These were not power-users talking about the ability to root their phone, or prolific app-users talking about how they can install apps outside of the official app store. No. These were your Average Joe users talking about how they could change the system font to Comic Sans and set the ringtone to their favourite song which they just downloaded illegally.
Conclusion / TL;DR
So the lesson here is that if you’re building a product for a community, don’t make it look so fancy that it alienates the majority of your audience. Make it look ok, and then give the user the ability to make it look better. Let the user feel that this is their own little section of the internet, like their favourite seat at the coffee shop that they visit everyday.
So how do you as a site owner decide how much (or how little) to spend on your site’s visual design? Read this pertinent piece of advice from Google Ventures.