Sitepoint's monthly newletter has a great anecdote about redesigning an ugly, mistake-ridden web with a more attractive, more accurate site. After the redesign, to everyones amazement, sales on the site dropped precipitously.
The crux of the story is that the old site contained little info and forced interested parties to call a salesperson, who often closed the deal Once the site was redesigned, users were given all the information and had no need to call. They therefore made the decision without the added persuasion of a person on the phone, and less often bought.
Designers often design based on what users want. This is certainly the focus of the type of design taught to us at the (Stanford) d.school. Yet sometimes what the users and companies want are at odds. This often leads to result-centric design as opposed to user-centric design. Think of the process of buying a mattress or used car. Think how difficult it is to cancel services such as AOL.
Yet, over the long term, a company's brand is affected and a company wishing to build a lasting brand ignores users at their own peril. Microsoft consistently focused its design on building the bottom line, but in the process alienated users. Apple and Google have taken the opposite approach and have built up tremendous brand loyalty with users.
In the paper, Danah, a Berkley PhD and Yahoo researcher, serves to answer the question "What went wrong with Friendster? Why is MySpace any different?" This is a great question and one which most coverage, in my opinion, too often ignored. Danah goes beyond the "slow servers" issue and gets to granular design and functionality differences which caused influential Freindster users to flock to MySpace. Probably my single favorite reading in the Social Networking space.
Last week Diego Rodriguez of Metacool/IDEO dropped by the d.school to give a presentation. It was typically engrossing and the discussion focused on whether companies are designed around innovation (Business by Design) or optimization (Business as Usual).
We all love innovative firms, but some businesses function much better in the "Business as Usual" mode. Diego pointed out that he would prefer that his pilot not get overly creative about his approach to JFK. Heart Surgeons and Firemen face similar constraints. Alternatively, some firms live or die based on their ability to continually innovate. Many car and electronics makers would fit in this category. A firm that has been able to do both? Apple is a rare example.