Design Couldn’t Save Yahoo

Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. To my mind, it’s a terrible idea to combine two foundering behemoths in an attempt at besting an even bigger behemoth like Google (and moreover to do so with only enough ambition to shoot for being number two). But the point, I think, is that Yahoo has failed. The company flew high for much of its life, but it would surprise no one to say that it’s been in trouble for some time.

Why is Yahoo in this position? I won’t pretend to have all the answers to that question, but I can say one thing: design apparently had nothing to do with it.


Design Is Good for Strategery

Designers and enlightened business thinkers alike are fond of touting the strategic importance of design, the competitive edge that a strong design sense can provide to a business. I’m a believer in that logic, but given Yahoo’s less than flattering position as an ailing company subject to the whims of stronger players, I have to ask: did design make a difference?

Because Yahoo had a very good design sense. Actually, Yahoo had great design sense. And it apparently didn’t help them.

Over the past few years, the Sunnyvale, California company has been responsible for or associated with some of the best design on the Internet. Its second-generation Yahoo Mail client was a beautiful and early example of how astonishing, desktop-like experiences can be reliably created within a Web browser. Its acquisition and subsequent even-handed nurturing of Flickr has successfully sustained that photo sharing site as one of the most elegantly and smartly designed social networking experiences anywhere. And its Yahoo Design Pattern Library, a publicly available playbook of Yahoo’s interface conventions and innovations, was a huge and influential gift to the digital design community.

All This Useless Design

Any single company capable of just one of these innovations is a design leader, but to have been responsible for three of them is impressive.

And yet, design hasn’t been the crucial factor in the company’s health. Even with these assets, the company finds itself the target of a potential hostile takeover, or even the subject of a kind of back-handed charity case, as Google attempts to thwart Microsoft’s acquisition, ostensibly to protect the competitive landscape.

In what ails Yahoo, design is a non-factor. Neither search nor online advertising, the real battlefields on which Yahoo, Google and Microsoft spar, are meaningfully impacted by how very good is Yahoo’s design acumen. Looking forward, whether Microsoft is successful in its bid to own Yahoo, Google is successful in torpedoing the deal, or some other chain of events determines Yahoo’s fate, it seems unlikely that design will play a particularly pivotal role.

By no means am I saying that design is without value. Rather, I just think it’s odd — and slightly disingenuous — of the champions of design strategy to fall silent when it comes to the failure of a company that’s very good at practicing it. Surely, if the roles were upended here, if it was Yahoo who was the dominant player, we would be regularly extolling the virtues of Yahoo’s design expertise. Perhaps we can’t expect design to save failing companies, but if not then perhaps we should be more judicious in talking up how design can make companies successful, too.

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  1. My mind is still boggling. I have never been an advocate of Yahoo! but you have made some very strong points here Khoi.

    I was equally boggled when Yahoo! bought Flickr. But I was wrong there. Yahoo! did a great job and were sensitive to the Flickr community and indeed have made it stronger I think.

    If Microsoft start messing around with Flickr should this deal go through, their poor design will no doubt surface. So in saying that, you’re spot on — design isn’t a saviour, but it sure helps.

    Microsoft are desperate. They will go into debt over this move. Just say no Yahoo!

  2. Design is one of many pillars to support a business model. Nothing revolutionary certainly. Other possibly more important pillars are execution and in Yahoo’s (as well as Google’s and Microsoft’s) case content and the overall quality of the content. There are also the pillars of community. Adding value to people’s lives. Etc.

    Merely building it doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. Making it really attractive also doesn’t guarantee success. (I agree that Yahoo did design very well.)

    I’ve liked Yahoo as a company. I’ve just never felt that they’ve given me (us) something that was awe-inspiring. Something I had to have. Couldn’t live without (perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but I think you get my meaning).

    Apple does this. I love my iPhone. It executes not only being a phone really well, but the best damn mobile device on the market. Period. I also love my new iMac. Design is a huge pillar of Apple’s success, but far from the only one.

    Apple has executed so well! OS X just works and works very well. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly closer than XP and of course Vista have gotten.

    Yahoo has had many chances, but they just have not executed in my opinion.

    Kind of like Xerox and AT&T’s Bell Labs back in the day. They came up with some marvelous tech, but could never really bring it to market and make it pay.

    Execute, execute, execute.

  3. Not sure I agree that Yahoo ever had a good design sense, especially if we’re taking Google into consideration. Yahoo’s apps look more polished on the surface, but are nowhere near Google’s offerings as far as usability and a good sense of basic design principles go. The new Y!mail is nice, yes, but really only from a technical standpoint — design-wise, it’s just a mashup of functionality that Gmail and desktop email clients offered for years before.

    I think BAD design might’ve killed them — the homepage’s ridiculously overwhelming link soup, Y!mail’s ridiculously overwhelming ads, sections like the profile editor that haven’t had their designs touched since 1997… the list goes on. And don’t get me started on the maze that is Flickr.

  4. Agree with what Eric has said, and to further add on, design is not only, but is often misunderstood as, about making things look pretty.

    Yahoo’s webmail looks really good, but somewhat gmail’s simple interface has stuck around with me more. It feels unobtrusive, and you get the feeling that it does what it’s supposed to do best — email. Same goes for Google’s search engine. It simply searches. That’s part of design as well, to focus on what really matters.

    Google has succeeded leading for now with its innovation, careful takeovers, giving out a lot of stuff for free (like google analytics), endearing itself to people’s hearts, and more importantly, somehow managing to make people integrate its solutions into their workflow.

    I guess in terms of design, Google has successfully used it such that it doesn’t turn people off, it’s really great in terms of UI, and it doesn’t take the attention away from what it actually does. Great design is often invisible, and I’m sure this is something you would agree with. :)

  5. Yahoo’s “let’s get web2.0″ thing that’s been going on over the past 5 years has been very fun to watch. The YUI stuff was very useful, the Yahoo mail application looks and acts like a desktop application, their main site is a huge Pandora’s box of allsorts… But none of these things speak of great design per say.

    And as a company, they really have failed to stay financially viable, or really give anything spectacular to users.

    For one, I really wasn’t expecting designers of the world to unite in condemnation of the tides of the economy for having brought to a natural end a box that wasn’t by any means a leading light in the design world.

  6. I too agree with Eric. Though I am sure Yahoo is very good at making this “look pretty” and does apply some design savvy to extreneous projects, I do not think that experience back to the core.

    In fact, I think that is the biggest difference between Yahoo and Google: look at Yahoo’s default page and look at Google’s.

    When I want to search, I want to search; I don’t want to see “Popular Candid Celebrity Photos.”

    What Google does that Yahoo doesn’t is filter out all the noise – irrelevant results, distracting content and design. And that’s what good design does: streamline your flow.

  7. I think it’s as wrong to undervalue design as it is to overvalue it — but let’s not devalue it!

    I agree with Jason, it’s a piece of the puzzle, but design is no substitute for strategy.

    If “design pundits” are especially vocal about the importance of design, it’s because they (we) need to be vocal to be heard at all.

    It’s all too easy for businesses to focus on the ‘bottom line’ (which usually means operations or technology) and overlook design.

    So — design can’t save a failing business — but it doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

  8. Luckily I don’t have to argue from scratch, and others have already said what I first though: Yahoo! isn’t very good at design.

    Much of their best work is actually just management decisions, instead of truly design work. Flickr, therefore, can hardly be counted one way or the other in this argument.

    But lets take something that (as far as I know) is a Yahoo! internal, ground-up project, the mobile Yahoo! Go product, I reviewed it here a bit.

    Its indeed shiny as hell. There might even be some emotional attachment to the relatively pervasive prettiness of the whole thing. Until you use it. And then its sorta irregular, inexplicable, clunky and weird. All Yahoo! products seem to fight me, all the time.

    So if anything, I’d tend to put Yahoo! in the same camp with Microsoft, on the bad-design side of the fence. They are perfect for each other. If the deal works, they can go out and buy ugly curtains together.

  9. You overlook the possibility that Yahoo! might have done far, far worse than they are doing now if not for their great design. Maybe their good design might have made the difference between them declaring bankruptcy two years ago and them still existing today.

    But you are right: you could have the best product in the world, but the slightest miscalculation in your business execution, from slow ad sales all the way to poorly-chosen health care plans, could sink the ship.

    We may never know.

  10. I think what makes Apple stand out is that Design is part of their strategy and comes from the top down – its a design-driven company. They are very focused, and everyone that makes product their gets it, and that may be the only way to get a clear ROI from it. Yahoo understands it as something that’s important (their UED group was a big investment and did some great stuff), but the MBAs took over and design, along with tech took a back seat to Powerpoint.

    I agree that overall Yahoo’s design (interaction and visual) is much more polished than Google’s (or Microsoft’s, for that matter) – clearly there is evidence of intention, not cleanup. GMail is a complete mess, and the home page is only that way because Sergey and Larry didn’t know how to code front-end (fortunately, they stuck with it). About the only thing they’ve done well is Analytics and their mobile apps.

  11. Khoi, I completely agree with you as an ex-Yahoo! UED for 4+ years.

    Don’t get me wrong, the UED culture there I am sure is still great (Web standard based developement, User Centric Design, rigid User Testing, etc), but design can only get you so far…. There’s a lot more to it then just having the best user experience in the world.

  12. I feel like the many years of bad design at Yahoo did a lot of irreparable damage (face it, almost everything they released until a few years ago was a total eyesore.) In fact I was a bit surprised to see you referring to them as an example of good design. Now that I think about it most everything they’ve worked on in the last few years is really well designed, but the idea that Yahoo = Ugly is still ingrained in my head from the 90s. Perhaps a lot of others have overlooked their design accomplishments as well.

  13. curious, for the nay-sayers of yahoo design, what data from the market are you getting your perceptions from? I believe your looking at what you think as a “geek” is the correct approach to designing apps for the web.

    Reality is. Y! mail has 200m users and gmail is nowhere near competition. Actually, most user data says that gmail is not the preferred approach. As far as scraping your email , is that so high tech compared to Y! mail? no, not really. I use gmail because I am the nerd audience that likes particular features, but reality is, most people on the net do not like its functions and are not ready for it.

    Brand, and time to market are the real drivers at this point. Design on the net will only take you so far. Apple didnt win over people with its web site only.

    ex AOL +8 years ex Yahoo 3+
    :)

  14. As a designer, I very much appreciate yahoo taking the time to compile and share their UI pattern library, both for it’s usefulness as resource and as a vote for good UI design – very generous of them (I wish google had a similar offering).

    But on actual apps – maps, analytics and of course search – google had them beat hands down.

    There’s no doubt which is ultimately more important.

  15. The fact that design played such a small role in the Yahoo-vs.-Google fight should surprise no one. If form were more important than function, craigslist would have folded long ago. It remains one of the ugliest sites on the Web, but it remains incredibly popular because it – like Google – does what it does very well.

  16. Ah but the real problem with Yahoo! and design is that they forgot the usability quotient. Yahoo! just doesn’t work. And their upgrades, at least to a Mac user, have made things more difficult if downright broken.

    Yahoo! seems to have a much bigger presence overseas. And even their design is better (compare Yahoo! Japan’s site with Yahoo! US site), but this seems not to be enough to save them.

    Also, there support of standards is a disaster. Again usability. Yahoo! was at the cutting edge. And I remember when Google came out and that horrible logo and thought, this cannot be an improvement. But it works. And in the end, I love it.

    Perhaps usability is more important than design.

  17. Yahoo’s demise is not so much a design flaw as it is a revenue failure. They could not figure out how to monetize on their internet property. You can have the worst design but if you’re making money, your stock price goes up and shareholders are happy. If you have great design, but no money then you’re swimming with sharks, then you will get eaten up.

  18. I’m not familiar with Yahoo’s financial workings, but to call them a failure or to talk about them as if they are bankrupt seems out of place. Being one of the most trafficed sites on the web and the number one player in the world of banner/display ads seems like a substantial accomplishment, and yes, their focus on design has got them here.

    What we are seeing is a company being beat up by the stock market because they aren’t delivering head over heels growth every quarter. I think we need to ask ourselves if that is really what companies should be striving for.

    This Microsoft bid was rejected in private and now in public and could soon become a hostile bid. I don’t think Yahoo folks are trying to grasp onto their sinking ship, they just don’t want to be gobbled up and picked apart.

  19. i agree, yahoo has great design sense. their home page is still the mental image of the internet for a lot of users out there. but design alone won’t save yahoo from being bought.

    yahoo is not in any way losing money. they are still profitable, they reported a $700mil income for 07. what we have here is greedy wall street who thinks they deserve more and that there should be another 0 in that income.

    yahoo, google and microsoft are totally different companies. but since google is making the most moolah in the internet right now, investors want the companies to jump in and take a piece of that.

    yahoo has always been about offering useful apps. case in point is ymail, which gmail failed to dethrone. for a time, geocities was a hit when webhosting was expensive, and googlepages is a laughable attempt at trying to overshadow it. yahoo groups is dated, but its still being used for casual mailing lists and is still more popular than googlegroups.

    now the table is turned and yahoo is the one trying to catch up. they should do what google did when they were in the lead, google stuck to their guns. at this critcal point, yahoo should also stick to the things which made them in the first place. but investors don’t understand that, all they see is google and their money.

    good luck to yahoo on this one.

  20. What strikes me as funny is that we have a popularity contest going on here where most people see Google as center of the universe because, “Hey, everyone else sees it that way.” Google does do some things good but I get the overwhelming sense that many people are drawn to it . . . well, just because. It’s the flavor of the month. I’ve seen many web trends of the years and it’s always about going for what’s cool at the moment. Like with YouTube: Everybody acts (acted) like it was the greatest thing ever but its strength lies in what users upload to it but all the same content could (and has) been uploaded to other online video services but the COOL thing is to wave the YouTube flag. Anyways, I use Yahoo!’s front page every day as an Internet portal and use all different search services including Google among others. Don’t give any one company too much power or the day will come when you complain about them having too much power.
    Also I find it very slimy that to use many of Google’s services you are forced to sign up for a gmail account. This stands in stark contrast to Yahoo! where you can use any of their services that require a user ID and password without being forced to sign up for a Yahoo! e-mail account. So that’s at least one thing that Yahoo! does better than Google, but if you have your Google goggles on you will never be able to see that.

    “But none of these things speak of great design per say.”

    It’s “per *se*.”

  21. I can really only speak for myself and why I don’t use Yahoo!, for anything really. The biggest reason is that, to me it has no brand. I know it is web giant, but for what. No one thing pops into my head that Yahoo! is just awesome at. I would say also I have never really been impressed with their design. Flickr is their best I think. They have pieces that are really good, but it gets lost it everything Yahoo! clutter. The contributions to the design and development community is priceless, I would have to agree with Subtraction on that one. But we are not big enough to carry Yahoo!.

  22. I agree that Yahoo has not been rewarded for their design prowess.

    I would also say the same for ask.com. My friend was showing me their new mobile interface (which is very nicely designed).

    We then found the city.ask.com service, which turned out to be highly cool (try drawing a shape on the map and then searching within that shape, then save a picture of the results).

    ask has also been pushing their design on tv advertisements.

    I don’t have statistics to back it up, but i feel ask is still in google’s shadow.

  23. It’s design plus timeliness. By the time Yahoo! launched its ajaxified webmail, Gmail had already taken started stealing the market (even when it was invite-only), by offering virtually unlimited storage and a snappier (faster/easier) interface. Another example of this slovenliness on Yahoo!’s part is Yahoo! Music, which apparently took YEARS to port to Mozilla, even when it was obvious that Flash players and Firefox were the direction everyone was moving in.

  24. I am surprised to hear Yahoo spoken as having great design sense or prowess.

    Just go to Yahoo and ask your self upon arriving: why I should be interested in this, its almost impossible to ascertain, there is a low level of quality communication, no clear statement of what they do, how this is useful to me its just an old style portal site, thank goodness these are disappearing.

    The brand as you go across categories is not overly strong, and the navigation system a little weak.

    There is an overwhelming quantity of content and functionality but.. in the shadow and noise of each other, these are hard to see individually. This is especially true if you have not been a Yahoo user from day 1, and seen these changes come in gradually, and I suspect that even then many old Yahoo users still do today what they started using Yahoo for in the beginning with only some progression.

    Yahoo probably should be thanked for the public patterns library, although perhaps it may been more worthwhile to the company if the focus and time spent had been on improving the strategic structure and design of the Yahoo proposition and site.

    But it is not surprising that Yahoo is failing to compete with others, (buying is always an option to provide a stay of execution / increase a companies perceived value, but it is not a long term model – at some point there needs to be a clear central model for the brand, after all it has not been set up as monolithic brand.

    Having a design pattern or process will not help you if don’t understand the issue at hand. A process is used to enable consistent repetition – it is no guarantee of quality, it can even add to the difficulty of striving for quality. When first implementing a process based standard it can be very useful in identifying areas of weakness or strength and allow for many process improvements. But it can also once in place become an obstacle – we have always done it this way – or this is what I have been told to do, I don’t understand really why I do it.

    Bring on the new and leaner, nothing wrong with things coming to pass, it is a natural process after all.

    Richard

  25. Can’t say I agree much about Yahoo’s design.
    When they came on the scene they branded gorgeously. I’ll give you that. But how many years did it take for them to finally break that mess of links that were crowded under their header into a single vertical column? And it’s still a mess when compared to Google’s streamlined approach, although this is not a fair comparison, a portal to an engine.

  26. Yahoo was/is run by business people. That is why it is failing. Even though it uses good design, a company will not survive if run by business people.

    A company that is driven by design or engineering will be motivated by the product and the facilitation and the service.

    A company run by business people is motivated towards profit.

    Profit is not service.

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