Interface is important. It’s what conveys your message to new users. It’s what users interact with to use your service. However, it is not what defines your service. I think this is a message missed by many who obsess about eye candy and user experience. Don’t get me wrong; these are important aspects but more important is making sure that the service does what it says on the tin.
When I think back about many of the “killer Internet services”, I find it peculiar that their interfaces are not the sexiest looking ones. For instance, Google Search started and remained a pretty basic: a text box and a ‘Go’ button. Many other search engines that Google replaced (remember HotBot?) provided more sophisticated user interfaces at the time but failed to compete with the efficiency of Google.
Facebook started with a ridiculous interface: it looked simple but was riddled with inconsistencies. Also, it accumulated a number of weak applications: e.g. Facebook Groups are still far inferior to old-school discussion forums, friend feeds are not as versatile as its parent the RSS feed, etc. More to the point, its interface keeps changing and we all like to complain about it. But all of this doesn’t matter much and the vast majority of us happily continue to use it. Facebook promises convenient and sustained social interaction with friends and colleagues, and it delivers on this promise.
Twitter, similar tale. I must admit that upon visiting Twitter for the first time its user interface struck me as ugly and shallow. This is because I (as well as others who were quick to write it off) compared it to other feature-rich online social networks. What soon became evident is that we misunderstood their mission. Twitter is competing in a different arena offering something new, so it didn’t matter if their interface looked a bit sparse.
Another example: why are there much more people using YouTube instead of Vimeo? The latter offers a far glossier interface and a slicker video playback quality, not to mention less noise through better content filtering (i.e. less webcams). But that last point is exactly why YouTube dominated from the start and still does. It promises to be a platform to deliver your video to the world, and that it does.
These examples show how many Internet users are not really bothered with getting rich, ultra-interactive user interfaces, but instead are greatly interested in things that make life easier, novel functionality, and content that has not before been available or convenient to access.