The sites through which we mostly experience the web are more complex than they need to be. In addition to the basic necessities—a site logo, main navigation, page title, content area, and one or two calls to action—the web pages we spend most of our time reading are overloaded with advertisements, social media widgets, and lures to ostensibly "related" content. We've gotten so used to this that we barely take notice when the page's main content amounts to far less than the extras. A fresh look (try squinting) at the page reveals no sense of order or priority to the information it contains. That's bad design.
Ironically, all the extras often vouch for the professionalism of a website. After all, anyone can write an article, but not everyone has advertising relationships or can afford to pay for custom programming of all those fancy widgets. When we see more than just words on a page, we think, "this comes from something bigger than me, something I can trust." But bad design flourishes on the web when everyone thinks like that, such that if you were to actually do it better, users would be confused or disregard your page because it didn't look like what they were used to. How many designers can attest to this when they hear follow-the-leader requests like, "it's got to look like Facebook," or "that's not how Amazon does it?"
The error in the follow-the-leader mentality is that the leaders can afford to be wrong about design, but the followers can't. Mass media sites receive such huge amounts of traffic that overloading their pages with opportunites to click makes statistical sense. When hundreds of thousands of users access a site on a daily basis, it's guaranteed that just about every link on every page will be clicked at least once. At this level, it doesn't matter if any of that click activity is satisfying to the individual user. This is shock and awe, not special ops. But a site that receives a few hundred visits or less a day—the majority of the web—has no such luxury. One confusing interaction could cost a potential client or customer.
Why do we continue to trust the methods of the mass-media sites? We should know better than that. It's because when it comes to solidly debunking their strategy and providing a better one for our clients, we fall short of a good argument. We—designers, developers, and agencies alike—don't do a good enough job reassuring our clients that following the leader is not only unecessary, but bad for their business. So, for the remainder of this article, I want to dig a bit deeper into two examples of influential but poorly designed sites we're likely to take cues from and then provide a, well, simple plan for staying simple.