How to rebuff stupidity: "Remember Boo.com"
By David Walker (Google profile)
The Web shopping jumbo known as Boo.com suddenly crashed to earth in May 2000. The much-hyped 18-country new-economy pedlar of "sports and streetwear on the Net", named by Fortune as a "Cool Company", a business that had reportedly burnt roughly $200 million of capital, found out that you can't lose money forever. Just six months after launching, Boo.com's owners called in those pillars of the old economy, the liquidators.
Where did Boo go wrong? Most memorably, on the screen. Everywhere on the screen. The site seemed actively designed to stop people just buying stuff. It demanded users have the Flash plug-in, then forced them to navigate pages of animation to get to the place where they could order something. It hid the navigation under cute graphics. It crashed browsers. It launched new windows at every opportunity. It demanded a fast connection (in theory 56k, but higher in reality). It blocked Mac users entirely (those iMacs aren't hip, are they?). It created an expensive online magazine only faintly linked to the shopping experience. It committed itself to "entertaining" users, on the premise (no doubt compelling to baby-boomers) that people under 30 would delight at receiving pale online imitations of TV. It behaved in exactly the opposite manner to Amazon.com, the site that first made consumer Web commerce seem like a good idea. In other words, Boo committed the sort of rolled-gold usability screw-ups that every half-sentient student of Web usability could identify.
So all the people who knew anything about how people really use the Web took one look and said "This stinks. This will crash".
Then it crashed. Right on cue. Just as predicted. You could see the fireball from 20 Websites away. The crater's still smoking, even now.
And sane Web-builders everywhere should give thanks for that spectacular demise. They should give thanks not because boo.com was evil (it wasn't) or stupid (it was). They should give thanks because finally the Web-building profession has an example of what happens when you break all the consumer Web site interaction rules. By so neatly fulfiling the usability experts' prediction of failure, Boo has given Web usability a new credibility. The next time some misguided soul suggests building a site full of bleeding-edge technology, bandwidth-hogging graphics and "Internet entertainment", you'll be able to respond simply: "That's how Boo.com lost $200 million, numbskull".
In truth, Boo.com failed for more reasons than just lousy Web-building practices. Even an Internet start-up must employ special techniques to lose $200 million that quickly, and Boo did. It reportedly had no project plan for months. The New York Times quoted a former staff member as claiming that "employees routinely flew first class and stayed in five-star hotels". The Industry Standard had a Boo founder realising, way too late, that the business had needed "a strong financial controller". Operating in so many countries, the site also needed to cater to several languages and currencies and a maze of cross-border tax laws.
And when it comes right down to it, trendy clothing looks just about the worst possible activity to take online. Investment bankers talk of the "elevator pitch" - the story you use to explain your company to the venture capitalist in just 15 seconds. Boo's elevator pitch was: "we'll take the experience of a day shopping in glamorous stores and turn it into twenty minutes of bewilderment in front of your PC". The only people dumb enough to buy that pitch would be ... well, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, the Benetton family, a few other fringe players.
But no-one will remember the market positioning errors, the project management practices from hell, or any of the other nuanced little details of failure. They will remember Boo's interface, because it was so memorably bad.
The next time someone suggests a big new cutting-edge Web interface project,the only line you'll need is: "Remember Boo".