Fortune Tech – Did MySpace actually get its redesign right?
By JP Mangalindan
Whether or not the redesign turns the social network around, analysts and design experts seem to agree it's a step in the right direction.
When MySpace unveiled its radically different logo at the Warm Gun Design conference in San Francisco two weeks ago, the media -- Fortune, included -- scratched their heads. Was the struggling social network off its rocker?
At it would turn out, yes, but in a very good way.
Last month, Jon Miller, News Corp.'s (NWSA) chief digital officer overseeing properties which include MySpace, described the social network's redesign as a "full swing of the bat," or complete overhaul, so much so that it may alienate current users. "I can't see how it doesn't shed some people initially."
Indeed, the company's redesign, which rolls out to select users this afternoon and the rest of its 125 million members over the next month, is a pretty radical departure from the framework the company has milked over the last five years. Whereas the current iteration seemed creaky, static and scattershot -- what had MySpace become as a brand? -- the new platform repositions the social network as a niche player, an entertainment hub for users to get their fix if they're looking for information on musicians, movies, TV, and other forms of entertainment. Now, it's not so much the big brother fruitlessly trying to follow in the footsteps of the popular younger sibling (ie. Facebook) -- it's given up on that and decided to strike out on its own.
"We believe as the Web continues to fragment that niche players will win," says MySpace President Mike Jones. "MySpace, although originally very focused, became increasingly unfocused. We believe that we needed a new strategy to bring our audience and our product together."
Fortune asked an analyst and several design experts to weigh on the redesign. They all agreed (sometimes begrudgingly) MySpace did an excellent job of achieving its goals:
"The game was up for them in terms of being a general social network," says Forrester analyst Augie Ray, who until recently, was skeptical of the property. "Frankly, it's even better than I expected. It's a compelling entertainment destination. Entertainment is huge, and MySpace will be at the center of it."
Jason Brush, Executive VP of user experience design at Schematic, believes it's a step in the right direction.
"I quite like what they've done," he says. "The refined focus really helps them stand in contrast to Twitter and Facebook. People don't need a third competitor in terms of social networking, but in terms of being a 'magazine' for entertainment, it works."
If the latter are very open, neutral systems for what ever users want to discuss and share, the new MySpace, which switches from a Facebook blue to black theme, will take a much more controlled approach, using a tilebased system not unlike Windows Phone 7 to organize and show curated, personalized information. There will also be "curators," a subset of influential users not unlike Digg power users, MySpace will highlight throughout the network and a universally-accessible analytics dashboard breaking down curators' shared links, videos, photos, and so on with hard numbers.
"I was ready to hate this. MySpace has been kind of a joke in the experience design community," admits Donald Chestnut, global head of experience design at SapientNitro, who compares the previous user experience to letting the inmates run the asylum, at least in terms of customization. While empowering users is a great thing, in MySpace's case, it resulted in a chaotic, overwhelming experience that wasn't consistent or satisfying. "Here, they've done some really nice things. They've cleaned it up, focused on presenting the information in a very visible way, made it feel more real-time, and taken a modular approach that I think it will scale well."
Of course, any design can look great when presented in a heavily controlled environment, as the MySpace redesign was presented to Fortune, but the real test will be when it rolls out to the general public, which starts today. Also, not only does the redesign have the potential to drive away some current users who are used to the current experience, but MySpace will have to really work to overcome its own legacy in order to draw new users.
More importantly, the new platform must also please advertisers, MySpace's primary source of revenue, still a problem for the unit, who may or may not take kindly to the changed interface.
Regardless of MySpace's long-term prognosis, its success or failure won't be due to a shoddy user experience -- at least not anymore it won't.