two, no three, redesign misfires

We use 37signal’s Basecamp project management application. We love it. Makes projects so much more manageble and a cost we can even afford as a tiny design shop. I freely endorse it, and this is without even an affiliate agreement—they don’t need this because their application is that good. The criticism that follows is purely aesthetic—has nothing to do with the way Basecamp works (both as an application and as in “works for us”).

And it’s this: switching to a pale gray background looks sucky. Wimpy. And it screws up the way our logo looks. All I want to be able to do is select a white background, or be able to set it to match our branding rather than some idea of what the 37 Signals designer think looks good. Because it mucks up our branding, that hideous pale gray background. It sucks away my pleasure with using Basecamp. I don’t grok why the folks at 37signals think we should have to re-do our branding to work in an application that we PAY to brand with our logo and our colors—this is so contrary to what I thought was their overriding, customer-centric philosophy. I’m trying to live with it but, really, when I go to the log-in screen and see how awful it looks to have my logo forced into a white box floating on a sea of wimp gray, it really irritates me. Makes me less productive.

I did let Basecamp guru Jason Fried know what bugged me about it. He just said, “Thanks for your feedback and thoughts.” [whine]Maybe we have to get one of those premium subscriptions to matter more.[/whine] That’s not really fair—Jason Fried and the Basecampers have been exceptionally responsive to subscriber requests. They just missed on this design decision.

Ok, next. Salon. Salon’s redesign is so bad I hardly know where to begin. Setting aside the rapid deterioration in its content under new editor-in-chief Joan Walsh, it still stunned me that a redesign that they claim to have spent a year working on is so bad. The design is bad, and the implementation is so half-assed it never should’ve been tried. Didn’t they ever hear of dev servers? Beta testing? Usability testing? Sheesh.

There is so much white space it’s painful to look at the screen. It looks like a blog instead of an ezine. The colors are strange. The text is too hard to read. The line-width can get ridiculous. There is no sense of place—if you click on, say, News & Politics, you get a list of stuff under the heading “Directory” with an alpha box—WTF ? There are links to nowhere, and links that go to the old design (which I liked just fine—at least it looked like you were on Salon instead of in the middle of one of a million blogs that look just the same). Search is not yet re-implemented, which wouldn’t be so bad if the directory worked—but it doesn’t. There’s a lot of wasted real estate in this redesign—what’s with all the white space at the top?

To Salon’s credit, they did implement a commenting system (even this is half-assed, though) and subscribers are very vocal about the badness of the redesign. It remains to be be seen if Salon responds. My guess is they’ll make a couple of tweaks, and that will be that. If they spent a year working on this, they’ve spent A LOT of money on it, and they won’t want to do much about it. I have a hunch there are Salon staffers who think the redesign is a big mistake, but not enough of them in the right position in the pecking order to have enough impact to force the issue to be dealt with. So, things won’t get fixed other than a token twitch or two, and I bet they’ll just hope we, as premium subscribers, will just drink the kool aid.

If Salon isn’t fixed—and I’m not talking about the look, I’m talking about the navigation and wayfinding—and the content continues to sink into the sludge (they launched a blog for women only—what kind of bullshit is that? I think they should launch one for men only, whites only, gays only, blacks only, etc.—if they think setting up a ghetto is the way to go), I’m not spending another nickel on Salon.

And, last but not least in the redesign department, is WTNH. WTNH is what passed for our local broadcast network—we’re caught here in Fairfield County in this bizarre news deadspot—the New York City outlets don’t really cover Connecticut, and the Connectcut stations don’t really cover Fairfield County. I’m not really sure why, especially if you consider the demographics (which I won’t get into now). The local Cablevision channel, News 12, is a bit of a joke.

At any rate, the WTNH redesign. It used to be that when you loaded WTNH, you knew exactly where you were. No doubt. Now, it’s a generic news site. I miss the blues. They revised the navigation so that you have to use those stupid drop-down menus to get anywhere (and not all of the links work the same). The drop-downs either close too fast, before you can click, or they open and won’t close if you move your mouse over any of the buttons (buttons—ugh). They need to change this to onClick rather than onHover.

Then, the width is too wide. It’s a corporate width, not a consumer width (people might have big monitors at work, but not necessarily at home). So you have a horizontal scroll if your browser is opened up to 1024 pixels or more. There are at least three blinking ads per page so that it takes time to find the news. Oh, and in addition to blinkitis , there is a scroll on the header bar. So there are four things moving around at the same time—maybe that’s why I get so seasick when I try to read anything there.

Old familiar and well-used sections, such as the traffic cams, are gone. Kaput. Where is the consumer section? The boxes break inFirefox. And it’s SLOW. Really slow. It’s done in ASP—and ASP is slow. Especially in non-Microsoft browsers.

There’s a LOT of stuff on each page—half of each screen is taken up with ads of various sizes. It’s very confusing. But, on the other hand, there is a LOT of content there—it’s definitely not slim pickings.

I guess what bugs me is it looks like a template site, like some corporate VP designated that this package had to be used with very little latitude for what’s popular or serves the local population well. Or any room for creativity, uniqueness.

Some things are done right. The text size can be made very large. The search is available at the top of the page (although I missed it twice since it’s a bit of an unusual location). A site map would help. And the content is updated constantly. I’m just disappointed because it’s so 2000, so homogeneous ...

Ok, enough bitching for one day.

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