Part 2: The User Interface for The Caveman Majority

Part 1:

There are two main definitions of “user interface” that I know of:

  1. Alan Kay and J.R. Licklider
  2. Joel Spolsky —

I will be using Joel Spolsky’s definition.

Back in the mid-to-late 90s, there was a scramble for domains names and “portals”. This was before the “mobile Internet”. So when you opened the browser, you would be presented with a homepage. Yahoo, AOL,, Excite, etc. were vying to be the homepage of users when they open a browser. It’s hard to imagine how much importance they placed for this prize.

They all had similar features: email, message boards, personals, news, games (Java and then Flash), etc.

Here is how extensive was:

Let’s not forget AOL (the installable app):

All these companies had the talent, money, and engineers to create the companies we use now. Despite their popularity and resources, smaller companies came and grabbed users’ attention: LiveJournal, Xanga, Friendster, MySpace, etc. Those companies also came and went like AOL & Excite.

I’m arguing these companies’ main advantage was not advertising and engineering, but their “user interface”. At this point I must warn you to stop reading. I just said something crazy: the “user interface” is more important than advertising, marketing, target audience, and business strategy.

This is unacceptable to the majority of people on the planet.

However, to me it makes sense: The less intuitive the user interface, the harder it is to use the product, the fewer the users.

Naturally, there are other factors. Joel Spolsky mentions the popularity of Napster despite the horrible UI it had:

Never-the-less, when each product has the same features the UI is important. Most people would want to compete in niche services: a social networking site for musicians who own dogs. I’m going for a general purpose product that can be “molded” and customized to each user: The Anti-Niche product.

How is this possible? The answer is “user interface” design. To finish reading this article, you must now read:

  2. The first 50 pages of:

Most people are attracted to marketing, advertising and negotiation. They can never accept UI as something more important than marketing.

However, if we look at Google and Facebook today, we must realize the functionality they provide is not that different than AOL and Yahoo of the 90s.

The main difference is the UI. In fact, Yahoo and AOL had more features and in many ways were “more social” than Google/FB of today. However, many of those features were hard to use because of the “user interface”.

For the Anti-Xanadu to succeed, it has to have an interface that is intuitive (i.e. you can use it without the need to read a user manual). However, it would also have to be more “fun” than other products. With the right UI and the right “fun”, I argue such a product can survive.

In the next “article”, I will go into detail by what I mean by “fun” and why so many companies can’t create it.

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