"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 April 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Have It Your Way



These days, the face of the Web

morphs almost as rapidly as

Michael Jackson's remarkably

malleable mug once did. And

while the medium's essential

simple-mindedness appears

impervious to the

transfigurative influence of

frames, Java, and all the other

Web development tools coming to

market, the simplicity of its

facade is in definite peril.


[Hollywood Squares]

Indeed, if one uses the standard

software concept of "usability"

as the measure of progress, it's

hard to see how a Hollywood

Squares-style interface that

asks even "experienced Web

surfers" to prepare with a

400-word briefing qualifies as

an advance. Maybe the answer to

this paradox lies under one of

the over 70 menu options and

links the new Netscape site

simultaneously presents, and we

simply missed it.



We should probably get used to

such oversights. As far as the

Web goes, simplicity was last

year's virtue. From the very

start, interactivity - or more

precisely, the kind of

niche-marketing that

interactivity can enable - has

been the Web's great vaunted

promise. And now that this

promise is turning into a

reality, the consequence is

complexity. In their effort to

provide a custom-tailored

experience for every user who

comes their way, more and more

sites are beginning to resemble

the control panels of cartoon

flying saucers.



Still, if this year's model for

interface design is George

Jetson's spacemobile, next

year's model will perhaps be the

hot dog stand.



Because, while the world of

niche-marketing offers unlimited

choice, there's only so many

decisions the average consumer

wants to make. You only need to

look as far as your TV set for

evidence of this truth: as the

number of channels rises, the

ratio of how many channels a

person actually watches out of

all those which are available

decreases. On a similar note,

who hasn't had the experience of

walking out of Blockbuster

empty-handed because there was

simply too much crap to choose

from? We can only hope it won't

take long for savvy Web

marketers to absorb this

principle - had they been

studying the history of the fast

food industry, they would

already know it. Negroponte and

company may get the lion's share

of press when it comes to

next-wave interface design, but

it's the burger-hawkers of the

world who've perfected the art

of helping great crowds of

hungry consumers make efficient

transactions. What they've

learned, through their years of

grease-scented empiricism:

simplicity sells.



In its early days, McDonald's

offered diners eight items:

hamburgers, cheeseburgers,

french fries, chocolate shakes,

coffee, root beer, Coke, and

orange-ade. As it and its

imitators began to grow more

popular, they also grew more

ambitious. Their menus started

expanding, first with variations

on their staples, and then with

entirely new items. McDonald's

introduced fast food breakfasts

with the Egg McMuffin, Burger

King introduced

hyper-customization with its

Have It Your Way campaign, and

even Jack in the Box - which for

years existed as a kind of

fast-food Monkees content to

follow the trends set by its

more visionary competitors -

ultimately made a bid for

industry-leader status by

turning itself into a

self-contained food court: every

culinary fad, from gyros to

chicken teriyaki to Philly

cheesesteaks, eventually ended

up on its bill of fare.



These and other innovations have

led to impossibly overcrowded

menus, some of them boasting as

many as 60 different items. In

response, consumers have shown

confusion and indifference - even

with so many items now

available, the burger is still

the overwhelming choice among

fast food habitues. And while

McDonald's and Burger King

continue to dominate the market,

during the past decade many

smaller chains have profited by

bringing back the simplicity

that once characterized the



[Jack In The Box]

Case in point: Hot Dog on a

Stick. At first glance, it seems

remarkable that Hot Dog on a

Stick has even achieved chain

status. After all, it features

as its speciality an item so

singularly unappetizing most

people won't consider

eating one unless they get so

drunkenly ravenous at the county

fair that they can't bear to

wait in the pizza line.


[Hot Dog On A Stick]

And yet somehow, Hot Dog on a

Stick has become an

overnight food court fixture, at

least in California. While part

of its appeal can no doubt be

traced to the fact that men of a

certain age and turn of mind

enjoy watching teenage girls in

clown suits rock back and forth

as they grapple with

lemon-squeezing machines, the

most significant reason for its

success is its unembellished

menu: it offers three items

only, and they each cost $1.60.

The ease of the transaction -

that is, the usability of the

interface - more than makes up

for the gustatory disappointment

and imminent dyspepsia.



Recognizing the success of Hot

Dog on a Stick and other chains

with similar premises,

McDonald's and Burger King have

responded with the "value meal"

concept. Complete, pre-packaged

meals, identified by number and

large photographs, are given

primary emphasis on their menus

now. The other items remain in

small print, but instead of

scanning and assessing them,

choice-weary consumers can now

merely point at a portrait of a

Big Mac, fries, and a Coke, and

exclaim, "I'll have that." More

than value, these meals offer




Although at the moment few Web

sites can match the streamlined

approach of the fast food

giants, there are some that seem

to be striving for it.


[MSN Homepage]

Combining their love of Big Macs

with their finely-tuned knack

for appropriating a good idea,

MSN's Webmeisters offer a kind

of "value meal" with their

customizable home page. While

they give you a few too many

choices to qualify as

unequivocally simple, they do

stick to tried-and-true staples.

And after you fill out the

one-time, relatively

straightforward form, a complete

media meal will always await



Somewhat slow on the heels of the

would-be monopolists is Netscape

and its Personal Workspace,

which just debuted last week.

Displaying a complacency that's

often the consequence of turning

pieces of paper into mountains

of cold, hard cash, Netscape

makes only a half-hearted

attempt to outdo MSN's effort:

its big innovations are a set of

graphics that no one but

Andreessen and company would

think to call personal, and a

note-taking utility that makes

the "Workspace" half of the

page's name ring with a pleasing

hollowness. Ultimately, these

features are like the packets of

ketchup that come with your

burger - you're always happy to

grab a handful, but you don't

end up actually using them.



Even so, Personal Workspace -

with the limited number of

options it accommodates - is a

step in the right direction

toward simplicity. Now if only

someone could convince Netscape

to drop frames into the same

marketing void that proved so

helpful in erasing BurgerBuddies

from our collective


courtesy of St. Huck