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Joel on Software

There's no place like 127.0.0.1

by Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Back home in New York. We had about 75-100 people come to the New York demo yesterday, along with an army of Fog Creek technical staff in matching sky blue kiwi polo shirts.

When I got back to my desk on Monday afternoon, I turned into the prototypical bastard client from hell. Our web designers probably hate me. I did the one thing that drives web design firms completely crazy: I suddenly took a look at the new web design they've done for us, which I've been approving every step of the way, and didn't like it any more, so I told them we had to start over.

In one of Gerald Weinberg's books, probably The Secrets of Consulting, there's the apocryphal story of the giant multinational hamburger chain where some bright MBA figured out that eliminating just three sesame seeds from a sesame-seed bun would be completely unnoticeable by anyone yet would save the company $126,000 per year. So they do it, and time passes, and another bushy-tailed MBA comes along, and does another study, and concludes that removing another five sesame seeds wouldn't hurt either, and would save even more money, and so on and so forth, every year or two, the new management trainee looking for ways to save money proposes removing a sesame seed or two, until eventually, they're shipping hamburger buns with exactly three sesame seeds artfully arranged in a triangle, and nobody buys their hamburgers any more.

This is sort of what happened with our new web design. We've been tweaking it and polishing it and changing things carefully, and the firm we hired to design it has been taking us step-by-step through information architecture, site maps, wireframes, initial designs, and several rounds of design. All with a carefully-designed process to get our buy-in at every step along the way. And so far every step I thought the design was converging and we'd get a nice web design out of it.

And then I came back after a week on the road, took one look at it, and thought, oh crap. We can't go public with that.

And they said, "but wait, look here, it's right in Basecamp, you said that this design was 'excellent work' and you were 'elated' to have the 'best web design ever in the history of the universe.'"

True that. I did say that. I even thought that.

But a week later, the same basic design just looked terrible. We've been removing sesame seeds from the initial design they did in hopes of making things better, and, lo and behold, at some point the design flipped from being good to being bad. Links had sprouted up all over the place, making it hard to tell where to go next and where you've already been. Most of the elegant whitespace in the original design was lost when we went from the original 1024 pixel wide design to an 800 pixel design. The web designers had presumably been working on Macs and showing us bitmaps, but since the antialiasing technology is different, when we finally got the HTML, the page just felt completely different and had crossed into the realm of plain and, subjectively, ugly.

Ah, well. We'll start over. It's better to have something we're both proud off than to try and salvage the work done so far. Sometimes you have to go all the way through the design process before you realize that you've built the wrong thing, but it's ok, it's a learning experience, it's not the end of the world to take a deep breath and go back to step 1.


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