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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

Paul DePodesta is the assistant GM for the Oakland A’s, a team whose winning ways have been documented in Michael Lewis’s excellent Moneyball (my review). DePodesta took part in CSFB’s 2003 Thought Leader Forum, presenting his ideas on The Genesis, Implementation, and Management of New Systems. He starts off talking about the situation in Cleveland, where he worked before going to the A’s:

Despite this situation, I was grappling with a significant issue: the Indians were very successful at this time. We kept winning the division year after year, selling out every game in our stadium and the owner took the team public at one point and was making more money than any other owner. Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “As in manufacture so in science-retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it.” There was no crisis in Cleveland, at least not on the surface.

Success breeds complacency and isn’t conducive to creating an atmosphere of critical analysis or innovation. Peter Merholz riffs about this in the context of user experience on the Web:

One of the most annoying realities of a user experience professional’s life is eBay, because it seems to flout everything we stand for. The Web’s most popular ‘pure play’ sports a remarkably unwieldy and unattractive design. eBay is wary of changing it because, hey, we’re making money, right? Yet I wonder about the untold billions more eBay could reap if it tightened up its experience. Yes, initially there would be a lot of grousing, and probably loss of revenue, as people adjusted to the status quo. But overtime, the site’s ability for higher productivity on the part of its users would lead to greater activity, and more sales.

As to why established systems (like eBay’s Web site) have problems making large-scale changes, DePodesta quotes Thomas Kuhn as saying:

The emergence of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity.

No one at eBay wants to lose their job. This applies not only to corporations, but also to other systems. Paul Hammond recalls a recent conversation with Matt Webb about Web design patterns, particularly as it relates to weblogs:

[Matt] argues that we’ve reached the point where website design is just iterating on the same handful of design patterns, and the gains made with each iteration are slowly lessening. If we were to start somewhere else, even if that something was rubbish, there is the potential for subsequent iterations to be significantly better.

The only problem with this idea is that the sites will suffer in the meantime. But even this isn’t an issue on a personal site…

You’re certainly not going to fire yourself if your personal site underperforms because you’re trying something innovative, but there are other barriers. For many, innovation isn’t a priority; people just want to write or share their photos. Or they don’t want to lose their audience (if that’s a priority) or have their friends get confused. And innovation is hard…the tendancy to follow others or to observe best practices is strong. But it would be fun to see if the introduction of some different web design patterns can do for the Web (or even just eBay) what Beane and DePodesta did for the Oakland A’s.

Reader comments

KeithFeb 12, 2004 at 5:55PM

Maybe all we need to do is wait for these successful Web companies to have a downturn. I've got a friend who just took a job with A company who's success would surprise many people. They're starting to fall of though and now their seeking to reinvent themselves in many ways, or at least that's how I understand it -- don't quote me on that.

I think one of those ways is to establish new design patterns and ways to interact with their service. I'm under the impression that they're going to be trying lots of new things.

Beane was able to do more at Oakland than Cleveland because he came in when they were nearer the bottom and needed to make a change.

Who knows? But I do agree it would be fun to see how some different design patterns would effect the way the Web works. There has to be a point where the innovation of smaller players begins to creep back up toward the big boys.

DanielFeb 12, 2004 at 6:23PM

"But it would be fun to see if the introduction of some different web design patterns can do for the Web..."

Nice idea, Jason. How about starting with the Undesign? You've made some content changes, but what about the design? Are you willing to experiment and turn off some of your readers?

monkeyinaboxFeb 12, 2004 at 6:36PM

In the web design world, Zeldman, probably has the most balls for putting something out there, getting people to like it, and then change it and then do it again and again. I don't think on a business level that's a good thing, especially if your trying have a brand image. The problem with websites is a lot of them made a design back in the ugly days and it 'got stuck'. Now everyone is fearing if they update the image, they'll lose their core audience.

Ryan SchroederFeb 12, 2004 at 7:41PM

innovation is hard..

That's it right there. Innovation is hard, and it gets (exponentially) harder the more anything is entrenched.

RobertFeb 12, 2004 at 7:44PM

I think those are great ideas for creating success through change, which is also known as progress. But I am baffled by how obsessed we all are with just that, in every aspect of our lives, we pursue forward change, and even though change is incredibly easy, we mistake it for progress. A very presumptuous leap I think we all ought to be more aware of, in web design, government, scientific research, relationships, etc.

AledFeb 12, 2004 at 7:49PM

This quote used to be on the wall in the office, which pretty much sums up why change never happens, especially in corporations:

"And one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order to things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies; and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear of their adversaries, who have the law on their side, and partly from the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have personal experience in them." - Niccolo Machiavelli

Wise Words.

ctm3Feb 12, 2004 at 8:18PM

As a web designer of ten years. I agree with the part of stagnation in web innovation. I still feel that web interface design will be changing on an incremental basis in this period of maturing, until the relevant technologies push the web to have more potential and leave traditional browser client experiences. Broadband has not brought that much but only made the graphics richer and the videos longer. Even the envelope pushing developers and designers are working in a small constraint. Its easy to go from no web to web..and be wow'ed, but a bit harder to bring it up another step after.

Scott JohnsonFeb 12, 2004 at 9:13PM

I remember a time about 3 or 4 years ago when eBay attempted a major redesign/recoding. They made one HUGE mistake: they didn't thoroughly test it. Within a week, they hade reverted back to the old code. People were mad.

I think that because of this event, eBay has a particularly strong historical case against making too many changes. And I have a feeling that it's something that comes from the people at the top. They're afraid of losing revenue.

I bet the people who actually do all the web design at eBay would love to make a change right away but just aren't allowed to.

AJFeb 12, 2004 at 11:03PM

I'm taking a class in Evolutionary Systems now and was going to post a comment, but it got too long. I turned it into a post of my own.

KaijimaFeb 13, 2004 at 12:09AM

Let's not forget plain old fear of criticism and censure. Treading off the beaten path can cause basic rejection simply for being different - more people than one might thing seem afflicted with "neophobia". They can harshly criticise deviation to an exaggerated degree, assuming any problems that arise following innovation or change are due to those things being inheriently bad, instead of looking at other factors.

I know any number of persons with lookalike personal websites. The monotonous design of their sites, as far as I've ever been able to tell, is due primarily to a handful of people in their clique saying something to the effect "Harumph, now see here, I went to college for web design, and this is the only way a site should be designed!" Then everybody gets afraid of censure (being poo-poo'd by said "experts") and religiously structures their designs after the percieved standard.

jkottkeFeb 13, 2004 at 12:22AM

From Aj's post:

"The best metaphor I can think of is described in the concept of a fitness landscape (specifically, this diagram). The three points A, B, and C represent three possible "ideal" designs for a given site (say, for the sake of consistency, eBay). Each is relatively ideal compared to the valleys on either side, but C is slightly "more ideal" than A, and B is clearly "more ideal" than either A or C."

Fitness landscape! I wanted to fit that into my post above, but for the life of me I couldn't remember what that was called. I read about it in Danny Hillis' Pattern on the Stone. Thanks for posting that.

mrjerzFeb 13, 2004 at 3:39AM

I am wondering if these quotes are some sort of baseball foreshadowing. DePodesta is about to be hired by the Dodgers as GM and one of the biggest fears is that Dodger Stadium will be gone with ther new owner. If the new GM is also on board, that can certainly make it easier to accomplish. I look at his comments in more of an everyday life sort of context. Any business that fails to innovate, not just in web design, eventually fails. Baseball teams are no different, and the A's recognized that in their young talents in the front office.

Kip IngramFeb 13, 2004 at 8:01AM

The fitness landscape illustrates the general problem of finding a global maximum in a situation where there are many local maxima as well. Traditional optimization techniques iterate on a single candidate solution; it's very hard for such a technique to avoid being "captivated" by a local optimum. Attempts to patch them up to fix this limitation are always "ad hoc".

New techniques, like genetic optimization, assault the issue head on by using a large number of candidate solutions, which may even be chosen at random initially. These techniques generally have a method of generating new solution candidates from one or more old ones, and "good" candidates get a better chance to contribute to that process. The result is that the population as a whole tends to "cluster" around all of the local optima, with some clustered around the global optimum.

Sounds a lot like the web to me. Many candidates, feedback from the marketplace on all of them, adoption of ideas and corporate mergers to produce "new" candidates from old ones, etc. etc. Yes, each individual site (candidate) may have a tendency to remain near its current local optimum, but system-wide we should see best solutions appear.

I'd never thought before about how nicely web-based innovation maps onto paradigms like genetic optimization. Cool!

Kip IngramFeb 13, 2004 at 8:19AM

One more thought. We would all love to see the the big players adopt maximum long-term user satisfaction as their optimization criterion. The big corporate players, though, will always regard corporate profit as their criterion. They obviously have to consider user satisfaction to some degree, but I doubt it will ever be their primary driver.

Regarding the long-term vs. short-term issue, American corporations in particular are terribly short-term oriented. That's a feature not of web-related business but of business in general in our country. I'd love to see that change, but I'm not holding my breath. :-)

matt pfefferFeb 13, 2004 at 10:29AM

True, radical innovation would seem to need to free itself of the constraints of HTML. Good design would be governed by what it was intended to convey and by the needs of its users first and foremost, and the tools used to render it only after. Web design may be becoming more and more stagnant, but it really does feel like all the many legion of creative-minded, independent-thinking and talented designers (who really do have a greater creativity than baseball's GMs) have tested its limits pretty well under its existing constraints.

And on the other hand there are innovative websites done in Flash; people are testing broader limits there, too. But Flash designers don't seem to havev settled on any optimal design. (Or have they?)

jkottkeFeb 13, 2004 at 1:14PM

Sounds a lot like the web to me. Many candidates, feedback from the marketplace on all of them, adoption of ideas and corporate mergers to produce "new" candidates from old ones, etc. etc. Yes, each individual site (candidate) may have a tendency to remain near its current local optimum, but system-wide we should see best solutions appear.

There's an awful lot of friction between candidates on the Web when you're talking about design and business practices though...lots of pressure to do what the other guy is doing. I wonder if the number and diversity of candidates is enough to overcome that friction. And how well does a genetic optimization model map to a network like the Web? It must map somewhat because innovation does happen from time to time and it looks very much like what you're describing. Interesting stuff indeed.

BobFeb 13, 2004 at 1:29PM

My friend went insane on his blog design, Philosophistry. Is that the peak or the valley of the fitness landscape? It's certainly new...

BobFeb 13, 2004 at 1:30PM

p.s. scroll sideways...

essFeb 13, 2004 at 1:40PM

Books have really improved over the last few 100 years. I'm glad people were brave enough to mess with that formula.

jkottkeFeb 13, 2004 at 2:08PM

Books have really improved over the last few 100 years. I'm glad people were brave enough to mess with that formula.

This seems sarcastic, but I can't tell for sure. Care to expand upon this?

Philip DhingraFeb 13, 2004 at 2:16PM

Thanks Bob! Spread the Philosophistry. Basically I lay my site out more like a map and less like brochureware.

I try not to do innovation for innovation sake. But if I have a message that I want to explain that cannot be explained through existing mediums, I'm willing to risk creating something new.

This post justifies my design philosophy.

The process starts with me lunging forward on something weird. Inevitibly, this alienates some users. But then I tweak the design more and more, checking for browser-compatibility and what not, and then things settle down. If after a month or two, I still like the innovation, I let it stick, otherwise, on to something new.

Peter CooperFeb 14, 2004 at 12:04PM

I also detected sarcasm in what ess said, although I don't know why, since books have, after all, changed significantly in the last 100 years (i.e. compare a Jeffrey Veen book to the original of 'A Christmas Carol'.)

nPhilFeb 16, 2004 at 5:42AM

Consider timescales and perpectives.

Think how much design (in relation to the web) has changed over such a short period of time.

Also, as people involved in this 'world' of internet technologies, we become accustomed to the pace of change. Marketeers would classify us as 'early adopters', always keen to buy-in to the latest and greatest.

I used to work with Paul Hammond (/wave Paul) directly. We had the same job title, in the same team. Now I'm working for a local government authority. The difference in culture has proven somewhat of a wakeup call.

Once you get used to the idea that you're just about the only person that knows how to finish the sentence 'All your base...', who knows about 'memes' or 'Googlewhacks' or even cares what doctype-switching is, then you become greatful for a toolkit of standard design conventions. Regardless of whether the boundaries are being set by ebay or by Veen/Krug/Nielsen/etc/etc.

'but there are other barriers'


I like innovation. New things are cool. I can handle it. I have NADD. This isn't the case for a lot of people. A lot of people that constitute the 'user' in 'user-centred-design'.

I'd love to input about the rate of cultural change in business, but I have to go to a meeting to explain how buying a CMS won't inherently improve 'quality'. Not without hiring more skilled people as well.

I can expect to have the new staff in by 2006.


This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.