Everything I needed to know about User Experience I learned from National Lampoon
There was once a time I used to be funny. Not anymore. Not now that I have two small children and a baby at home, anyway. But never mind that. A longer time ago, back in the 1970’s, there used to be this really funny magazine called the National Lampoon. You may have heard about it because of Harold Ramis’ recent passing. Ever seen Animal House? He co-wrote it. Anyway, along come the late 90’s, and the magazine stopped being funny, and as a result almost ceased to be a thing altogether: the Harvard Lampoon literally shut it down, as was their contractual right. And then in October ’99, the new owner had the brilliant idea to start a website. I answered an ad and since I was the only one who knew anything about HTML and Photoshop and whatnot, they made me Webmaster.
Now, try to think back to 1999, assuming you are old enough to do so. Remember what it was like? Pretty much everyone was still using a 56k modem (that’s 56,000 bits per second) to get online. Even the most tentative of technophobes eventually succumbed to AOL’s relentless marketing push and installed one of the trillion “10,000 hours free!” CDs they had laying around the house, keeping their drinks from staining the furniture.
The CEO of National Lampoon announced the new website modestly: “We think we have the funniest and edgiest comedy anywhere on the World Wide Web—or in the larger world of television and movies.” But really it was just us five guys. One thing was true, though, we were all huge fans of the brand and we were all committed to recreating its original tone to the best of our abilities.
My editor, sadly, had other ideas. Coming from a purely TV background, his vision was to create the world’s most robust interactive comedy website. Our only competition at the time was the Onion and we’d be damned if we were going to waste our pixels on static words and images! Those days were over! For crying out loud, this is the internet! Now like I said, the problem was I was the only one who actually knew anything about programming, and about what was actually possible. But come launch day, the “interactive network” featured highly complex multi-player games, a Virtual Presidential Candidate whose specific characteristics users would help generate, and a spoof yearbook that integrated Flash with audio and still-image sequences to simulate video (you couldn’t integrate video with flash yet). Another piece, heralding the dawn of the new century, featured Flash with RealVideo, a technology nobody remembers.
So what’s the point of all this?
The point is, despite being nominated for a Webby, the website was basically a flop. Not surprisingly, the Onion beat us out for best comedy site. The reason? Nobody could see what we were doing! And the other half of the time our bits would crash or would fail to display properly. Don’t believe me? Check out this recording of an AOL user/NatLamp investor (yes, we actually had them) who called the office in 2000 and for some inexplicable reason had his call forwarded to me.
By far, the most popular section of the site was a daily gag called True Facts. Not because it was the funniest thing up there, but because it was simple: one image and a short caption. That was it. Everyone—even AOL subscribers—could see it and enjoy a quick chuckle.
So for all the money we spent hiring additional developers to help build these mammoth multimedia pieces (and we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands), the one piece that drew the most people to the site was a single dumb image paired with an equally sophomoric caption. To wit:
I kept telling my editor, “Look. We just need to do what the Onion is doing! Text and pictures! It won’t be copying since we already have our own established voice. For God’s sake, let’s at least bring back Foto Funnies!”
“Never!!!” he replied, smacking me in the head.
Well look where the National Lampoon is today (hint: nowhere, the site’s a dead end) and look where the Onion’s wound up (TV, movies, national adoration, etc). And even given today’s ubiquitous broadband speeds, mobile OS’s, and evolved programming languages, which sites remain the most popular? Twitter (140 characters of text) and Facebook (text and images) alongside every possible incarnation of text and images you can think of: WordPress, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
The moral? Keep it simple. Be sure your application aligns with the technological know-how of its audience. What works is what people already understand, what they’re already used to. Because it really doesn’t matter how robust your material is, nor how much it might be pushing the technological envelope. If nobody can see it, it might as well not exist at all.