One of Microsoft’s latest ventures is their Start.com portal site. This is an easy target for this series, but I felt the need to write about it because I can’t stop seeing links on how cool the site is with its AJAX featureset. Going to the site you will see this statement in the footer:
this site is not an officially supported site. it is an incubation experiment and doesn’t represent any particular strategy or policy.
I am going to try and keep this in mind when I go over the site, but seeing how it’s Microsoft and they control more money than the Roman Empire I find it hard to believe that even non-official sites have to be this crappy.
Quite possibly the most frustrating thing for me about Microsoft is that they have yet to understand the value of quality design. It might be hard justifying putting effort into something aesthetically pleasing when you can drive a million people to it a day without any effort, but what is the last well-designed website from Microsoft that you can think of? Our world has transformed from one where you simply can rely on your ability to generate massive amounts of traffic to one where you must create an emotional connection with your user.
Compare Start.com’s portal design to that of our 9rules homepage. If 9rules and Microsoft were the same sizedcompany with the same capability of drawing traffic I strongly believe that simply based on aesthetics our site would win in the long term due to the emotional value it creates (you either hate it or love it). Sidenote: the 9rules homepage is working on having some of the features found on Start’s page, but hopefully we can execute them a bit better.
What can Micrsoft do to improve the emotional appeal of the site? Better color choices in my opinion would go a long way here. Being a major international corporation I understand that their color options are limited (blue is recognized as the best color to use internationally due to its neutral appeal in different cultures), but that does not mean you should stick with light blue and light grey.
What makes matters worse is that the site supposedly looks totally different in IE than it does Firefox (which I am using to view it now) so it’s possible that there are more colors to the site and a bit more flair than what I am seeing.
What many people are finding so “cool” about this website is that you can customize it without a single page reload. It is filled with AJAX love, but it seems AJAX is being used simply because it can. I will quickly point out two major flaws in the design of the UI.
And then there was none…
On the Start page you have the ability to add and remove boxes with ease. Let me rephrase that. You have the ability to remove boxes with ease and add them again if you can figure out how to get the add list to show.
Here is a screenshot of a Start page with no feeds being used.
Now I am supposed to figure out that clicking on the double-down arrow brings up a popup menu that allows me to select the feeds and once I am done with the menu I am supposed to know that I need to click on the double-up arrow to close it. It’s just not intuitive at all. I know it’s not as cool, but maybe having just a “add news sources” link would work better?
They are hiring, but I can’t prove it
So after reading this you might be thinking that you are obviously the person to help Microsoft out. I am happy to report that the Start team is hiring, but I have absolutely no way to show you. I can only tell you to go to the Start.com page and click on the we’re hiring link that might be on the bottom, top, or side of the page and wait for the popup to load.
AJAX is meant to rid sites of page reloads, but not if you need to link to a certain piece of information.
I know Microsoft is supposed to be the hated corporation, but I really do care about their view of design because I believe if they actually put some thought into it they could have a great impact on the world. As it stands now they seem to always be playing a game of catchup with inferior products (eg. MSN Space).
The Start.com page is nothing special and can be done by anyone who understands a tiny bit of AJAX and Magpie RSS. And I would like to think that everyone reading this entry could do a better job with the design of the site as well. It’s frustrating to see a site like this get so much attention when you know you could create something better, but are unwilling to because it won’t get the attention.