A few years back one of YouTube’s product leads was giving Lady Gaga a private look at some of our proposed UX revisions (this was when Gaga visited Google to be interviewed by Marissa). The team has mocked up design explorations in different directions including a few that were “premium” style looks. The minute Gaga saw that one she stopped our product managers and said, “No, keep YouTube looking shitty.” Gaga elaborated.
What she meant was that 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.”
Gaga is right. Looking “shitty” isn’t an excuse for poor design (and you can have your own opinions on how YouTube’s look and feel has evolved — or not — over time) but important to remember that product design is about producing emotion and spurring actions, not a set of guidelines around beauty. Product designs optimize for usability not how they look when framed and hung on a wall.
I think often of Gaga’s words when using Snapchat (OMG that’s a weird statement to write). Not because Snapchat looks “shitty” but because of the purpose it serves in framing the user content. First, the relatively starkness of the UI (framing the screen, mostly white icons, little text) allows the content to be front and center — as both a creator and viewer. Disposability of the content plus ability to write on pictures, etc all leads to intentionally ‘less than perfect’ composition — no filters, no editing. My fingerprints feel all over the content.
Second, while I’m watching the Snapchat curated Local Stories (which I think are the best part of the product), it always feels like the next clip in the story *could* be something I shouldn’t be seeing. Something unfiltered. Something raw. Not illicit. More like authentic. Like life is occurring and I’m peering in. The story location (Coachella, London, Indy 500) is context not content in and of itself. The people are the content. Snapchat is people.
So yeah, I’d say one of the most important UX theories in recent years was delivered to me via a multiplatinum recording artist. Gaga, I’ve got a Designer in Residence seat open for you at Homebrew.