It came late to the market -- so late, in fact, that by the time it launched, people were already declaring the product category dead. It offered no new technology -- virtually every feature of the site was an imitation of something someone else had already done. It looked amateurish, lacking even the most basic level of visual consistency and appeal, never mind the high-gloss polish of its venture-backed competitors.
It seemed like an also-ran. But in less than two years it built up a community of more than 20 million users. And then it sold for half a billion dollars.
The site is MySpace, a social-networking space where people connect with their friends and make new ones as they share their interests and personalities through the blogs, photos, comments, video, and audio they post. MySpace has developed a particular appeal for young people because the site makes it especially easy for bands to set up pages to communicate with their fans.
Today, the statistics are staggering: 43 million users so far, 150,000 new ones every day. Ten percent of all advertising impressions across the entire Internet happen on MySpace -- twice as many page views as Google (GOOG). And in the wake of its recent acquisition, MySpace's growth has only accelerated.
HEAD SCRATCHER. Although MySpace has become an integral part of daily life for its mostly teenage users, only recently has it garnered the attention of those over 30. What caught their attention was the person who bought it: Rupert Murdoch.
But when the grown-ups came around to see what Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS) thought was worth $580 million, they generally ended up scratching their heads. Half a billion dollars? For that? By any measure of product innovation -- technology, functionality, design -- MySpace seemed to fall way short.
MySpace won't be winning any design awards. There's nothing cutting-edge about its look -- in fact, the best elements of the design would have fit right in among commercial sites around 1997. But some key contributors to its success can be found in the design choices MySpace has made.
GO FOR IT. The bulk of the site -- the millions of user profiles created by its community -- is unfettered design chaos. MySpace permits users to do almost anything to the look of their profile pages, and the prevailing aesthetic is decidedly "more is more": more color, more animation, more typefaces, more sound, more of everything makes a better profile page.
User pages on MySpace can look truly hideous (and many, many of them do), but the site's operators aren't trying to help users make their pages look better. If they were, they might offer some pre-built page design templates or color schemes, or even constrain the design choices users have.
Instead, the system allows users to do almost anything to the look of their pages, whether it's a good idea or not. Regardless of its aesthetic consequences, this customizability is one of the site's most attractive features, and the do-it-yourself sensibility of the site resonates with the audience's desire for self-expression.
BOUNDARY BREAKER. Even those areas that can't be customized show little more design sophistication than the user pages. If the default presentation and the common areas of MySpace had cleaner, more professional designs, users might hesitate to customize their spaces, feeling intimidated by having their amateur design work side-by-side with the professional-looking defaults. Instead, the unpolished style invites users to try things out, telling them they don't have to be professional designers to participate.
The unrefined look of MySpace sends another message to users: We're like you. You're not a designer, and neither are we. We're not here to show off our design skills, we're here to connect. When a user first joins, they will have at least one friend in their social network by default: Tom, the site's founder.
Throughout, MySpace knocks down the distinction between the people who run the site and the people who participate. You'll never be isolated on MySpace, because the site's operators are your friends.
WHAT USERS WANT. The real mystery is whether MySpace did any of this on purpose. To a Web professional, it looks like something of an accidental success, with features piled on top of features, and no visible evidence of a master plan behind them.
And maybe that's O.K. The MySpace team has demonstrated over and over again that they're in tune with their audience by focusing on features that really matter to users. The visual sensibility of MySpace shows that they also understand what doesn't matter to their audience -- their design is as good as it has to be, and no more. And crafting a site experience that acknowledges both what users care about and what they don't may be the smartest design strategy of all.