What MSN Mobile can teach us about good design

As designers and user experience practitioners, most of us can look at web interfaces and immediately tell the good ones from the bad ones.  The good ones are usually an indication of execution built on a collaborative and equal effort between different groups and stakeholders.  The bad ones usually point to one of two things:

  • The site was chopped up and different teams owned different parts of the same pages without a clear plan for holistic design; or
  • Somewhere along the line relationships turned sour, decisions got escalated, and one of the groups/stakeholders won a contentious argument about the design of the product.

I came across one such example of poor execution today while browsing the MSN Mobile web site on my iPhone.  Here is what I saw:

Notice that there are (or appears to be) four editable form fields on this screen:

  1. The Safari address bar
  2. The Safari Google search bar
  3. The small MSN search box
  4. The big Bing search box

There should be little confusion with the first two fields — they are part of the Safari browser and clearly not part of the mobile web content.  However, the other two search bars present several problems.  Notice how both have the little magnifying glass search icon, indicating that you should be able to use both to search.  The questions users will ask themselves are, which search box should I use?  Do I want to search MSN or Bing?  What’s the difference between these two search boxes?

I’m sure most of you have also figured out what’s actually going on here — the Bing search box is not a search box at all, it is a clickable advertisement (pre-filled with “Miley Cyrus” for some reason, but let’s leave that out of the discussion for now).  It’s also clear from what we know about affordance that the user is encouraged to use the Bing search box due to its prominence, size, and iconography that’s consistent with search behavior across the web.  I think we can all agree that this is just bad usability, plain and simple, but I also started thinking about how something like this could happen.  I can think of two scenarios:

  • Informational content and advertising are owned by different groups. It is very likely that the advertising team were given the top banner placement on this page, with not much oversight about what they put in there.  They likely have their own designers who design for the advertising team, with no need or desire to think about the context of the entire page.
  • Revenue goals trump good usability.  Another possibility is that the designers are fully aware of this issue, but that Bing, possibly a different business unit than MSN Mobile, has strong revenue goals that they have to meet for their advertising campaigns.

Or it could, of course, be a combination of these two scenarios.  I think we can learn some very important design lessons from this seemingly innocuous usability flaw:

  • Never design in isolation.  This is such a simple principle, but it is still so remarkably easy to guess a company’s organizational structure just by looking at their web site.  Siloed design is one of the easiest design problems to fix, but it does take some courage: strong product management, a sincere desire to collaborate across business units, and an executive mandate to make it happen. All the MSN team had to do was get the designers/PMs together and design a Bing ad that fits with the page structure and doesn’t cannibalize search queries that should go through the MSN search box.
  • Aggressive revenue goals are not an excuse for bad design. As a user experience product manager, I am a realist and completely in favor of feature prioritization and pushing for meeting aggressive revenue goals.  But revenue-generating features should never be implemented at the expense of the usability of your web site. Too often we see examples of poor implementation of an interface because the team couldn’t find a way to reconcile the business goals with proper user-centered design.  I believe the MSN Mobile example is such an occasion.

But wait, there’s more!  Unfortunately, the MSN Mobile example then goes from bad to worse.  Clicking anywhere in the Bing ad brings up this page:

There’s just not much you can say about that.  At this point you’ve lost customers who could have done their searches through MSN Mobile.  Game over, everybody loses…