Larry Tesler has made a career out of making computers easier to use -- the man invented the idea of cutting and pasting when he was an engineer at the legendary Xerox PARC research facility in Silicon Valley in the mid-1970s. But these days the 60-year-old whiz is facing a distinctly different design challenge. As the new vice-president of the user experience and design group at Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO ), he's charged with fine-tuning some of the Internet's primest real estate: the Yahoo.com home page.
On one hand it's a rare opportunity to shape the design of a seminal Web portal that draws millions of visitors in a single day. "Anything I do will have a huge impact on a lot of people," he says. On the other hand, by many important metrics, what he's fixing ain't broke. While the page's current design won't win any beauty contests and lacks the simple elegance of archrival Google Inc.'s (GOOG ) welcome mat, it works. And those millions of daily visitors might chafe at any overhaul that displaces Yahoo's myriad features. If Tesler were to scare off just 2% of Yahoo's daily users, it would amount to 300,000 fewer visitors.
That's why no one is recommending a dramatic overnight overhaul. But design gurus and former Yahoo insiders interviewed by BusinessWeek all say the same thing: Yahoo.com remains cluttered and scattershot, almost schizophrenic. If looking at a company's home page is like reading its palm, Yahoo's tells the story of a company trying to be everything to everyone. There are headlines, celebrity gossip, e-mail logins, search -- even Web hosting for small businesses. Is it a media company, a services company, or a search company? Says John Zapolski, a former manager of several design teams at Yahoo: "You can't immediately tell why Yahoo is the best at anything."
It's not just a matter of looks, either. Companies are increasingly embracing the idea that design is a key element of strategy, particularly for a Web company such as Yahoo, where user experience is paramount. True, Yahoo -- which basically pioneered the concept of the portal -- has been on a tear, capturing the No. 8 spot in the BusinessWeek 50 list of top corporate performers. But it faces hungry, well-heeled rivals such as Google, Microsoft (MSFT ), and America Online (TWX ) -- all of which have made design an integral part of their strategies for catching up.
In fact, Zapolski and other former Yahoo employees describe the home page as the single most contested issue within the company. Yahoo researchers endlessly try to divine which are the most-used services. Meanwhile, business-unit fiefdoms within the company fight for potentially lucrative spots on the page, ex-insiders say. The result: While Yahoo has had some innovative breakthroughs on "inside" pages -- such as its new music player and interactive local maps at maps.yahoo.com -- the front page has remained stagnant. Says Tony Hahn, former director of user experience at Yahoo who left to join software startup Rearden Commerce Inc. in April: "[The page] suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen."
Tesler downplays such internal jockeying for position, but even to outside design experts it shows. The page reads like a hodgepodge of agendas, they say, where finance is given the same hierarchical importance as horoscopes. It lacks focus and, surprisingly for a company named Yahoo, it lacks personality. It's "a page that wants to be so many things that in the end, it ends up being nothing," says Jesse James Garrett, director of user experience strategy at design firm Adaptive Path in San Francisco.
Yahoo's competition is striving to avoid this problem. Google.com is essentially a logo and a search box, surrounded by lots of soothing white space. The message is clear: Google is all about search. AOL has recently redesigned its home page to emphasize the company's exclusive video content. Even Microsoft's MSN home page -- no beauty, either -- is looking a bit more streamlined these days. It launched a redesign last February, with 25% fewer links, says Lisa Gurry, group products manager for MSN. "Based on our feedback, it was absolutely the right decision," she says. MSN is testing even more radical changes with a spartan news site dubbed simply Start.com, which was put up several months ago with little fanfare. Tech enthusiasts appear to like it, Gurry says. It's such a clean, streamlined version of MSN's page that Netizens don't even have to scroll down to see the whole thing.
For the moment, Tesler is tight-lipped about what's in store for Yahoo.com, but he does offer some hints. "One thing I've been pushing hard since I got here is that using Yahoo should be a delightful experience," he says. Expect him to take advantage of more advanced Web browsers, and he may reduce clutter by "hiding" material so users can opt to see more news, for instance, by rolling their mice over a topic. That would be a big improvement. But he has a long way to go before Yahoo is a delight.
By Sarah Lacy in San Mateo, Calif.