America Online owns valuable Web turf at AOL.com. But what it has built there is less luxury condo than Quonset hut. Can this site be saved? To give AOL a new look, Fast Company teamed Web-usability expert Jakob Nielsen with our own Web designer, Dan Cederholm.
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- A pop-up atop another poorly designed ad pitching — of all things — a service that includes a pop-up blocker? Kill it.
- The logo gets a facelift: Not only does the ultrabranded "AOL" and its famous triangle get bigger, but the ".com" is also cut down to size.
- Says Nielsen: "Who goes to AOL looking for today's date? And that red text next to it, what is that? A link?" Obviously, we're not professional copywriters, so sue us (kidding!). But a zippy tag line here could work wonders.
- Nielsen moved the sign-in box to the most prominent spot on the page. This way, members don't have to spend more than the few seconds it takes to sign in. Also, it makes no sense to have links to six minor services (portfolio, reminders, and the rest). "Get rid of them," he says.
- Nearly all of AOL's ads feature some version of the Instant Messager "running man" twirling around an AOL triangle. "This ad is always so in your face!" Nielsen cringes. If AOL must keep the ad, Nielsen says, at least make it more elegant and understandable.
- Here's a riddle: If someone wanted to do a Google search, why go to AOL.com? Beats us. Also, what's with the tiny text under the search box? Are these links or descriptions?
- "Video Email Troops . . ." Huh? Mister (or Ms.) AOL Web designer, what would your 10th-grade English teacher say? Says Nielsen: "Another wasted link! Get rid of it!"
- Designwise, the three boxes work well. As for what's inside them, that's a different story. In Nielsen's version, clarity is the watchword. All three boxes target nonmembers, prompting them to learn more about AOL's services.
- Ten footers, including a cryptic "GetNetWise" link, is too many. Keep the essentials: privacy, legal, and spam policies.
- If you must have a banner ad, then this is probably the least offensive spot on the page. Way to go, AOL!
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.