Pinterest today is all the rage. Earlier this year, the site cracked the 10 million monthly unique visitor mark faster than any site—ever. Whether you personally “pin” or not, it’s interesting to see the impact that Pinterest is currently having on web design. Case in point: New start-ups are launching with what basically amounts to a Pinterest interface (the new travel recommendation engine Wanderfly is just one example). Look for more Pinterest-inspired sites to come, what with WordPress developers hard on work at picture-laden themes.
Now borrowing elements from popular and successful websites is nothing new, of course. As I write in The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business, new platforms combine true innovation with liberal borrowing of others’ good ideas.
In this post, I’ll reflect on just a handful of the websites that have had the most influence on Web design over the past 15 years.
Go back to the days of Netscape. Remember when the Web was new? During the dot-com boom, sites like Amazon.com and eBay exploded in popularity—with massive revenues to follow. They served as exemplars for their e-commerce competition, with many sites “borrowing” shopping cart functionality and, eventually, simplified checkouts. While these sites have certainly evolved since their inceptions, they influenced countless sites over the years.
Why they mattered: These sites were the trailblazers. While a tad clunky at first, they laid out the basic functionality and design for ecommerce. And profits—not eyeballs—mattered. That’s why these companies are still around.
Remember MySpace? Users could customize their sites with their own content, including photos, layout, and even annoying music in the background. Many sites tried to emulate MySpace functionality.
Why it mattered: While not the first social network, MySpace underscored the importance of being social. But MySpace’s excessive busyness and lack of a standard user interface were not lost on Mark Zuckerberg.
With its customizable portals, Yahoo took customizable content to its logical next step. Forget adding pictures. What if you could create a small Web universe, equipped with information that only mattered to you? Many sites mimicked Yahoo’s functionality, including now-defunct sites such as Excite@home.
Why it mattered: Adding new widgets like weather, stocks, and local sports in a way served as precursors to apps and “hyper-local” content.
If you think that the new redesign of Twitter looks familiar, you’re right. It borrows heavily from the latest incarnation of Facebook and, in particular, its News Feed. As Mark Zuckerberg explained on 60 Minutes, News Feed and TimeLine are designed to allow people to easily glean the basics about you. That’s why you’ll see workplace, location, and other essential pieces of information at the top of newly designed users pages.
Why it mattered: The emphasis on chronology reflects one (some would say sad) simple truth: We tend to only care about what happened most recently. By making it easy to see what’s going on for a person, company, or group, Facebook maximized engagement. This was critical in an age of limited time, attention spans, and smaller (read: mobile) screens.
Much like Facebook’s Like button and the Twitter’s Re-tweet button, Pinterest is making it dead-simple to like something on individual sites. What’s more, it’s easier to see what any one person likes by viewing that person’s boards.
From a Web design perspective, is Pinterest somehow “better” designed than other sites? That’s the wrong question to ask. The better question is, why are so many other sites rushing to copy Pinterest? Short answer: We can process and “pin” photos very quickly and we get tired of text. Images are often easier to digest than words.
In the long term, what does Pinterest mean for Web design? I have no crystal ball. To be sure, certain design principles are as true today as they were 10 years ago. Books like Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (published in 2005) are still remarkably relevant. Whether Pinterest becomes the next great platform is anyone’s guess. Less uncertain, though, is the impact that its photo-centric design is currently having on many websites.