When bad UX is good

A close friend of mine, Dennis, is one of the editors and contributors to Headache Comix, an underground magazine for comics, so far only available in print. He asked me to do a website for Headache Comix , and I said yes - why not? Visit headachecomix.com to see the result.

Headache Comix had quite strong opinions on what they wanted. Luckily for me, neither a designer nor a UX-er, they wanted what I call an anti-aesthetics.

Sure, the wording anti-aesthetics is an oxymoron, just like 'when bad UX is good'. But the fascinating thing with words is their ability to communicate beyond propositions about a external reality.

What I mean with an anti-aesthetics, is that they wanted the design to look good but not too good. They wanted a specific sentiment for the site and this sentiment excluded 'professionality'.

Headache Comix wanted a sense of randomness.

The marketplace is currently empty but will be filled with 'stuff', things they want to sell, uncategorized items. And why? Partly because they don't have 'merchandise'. But also because this kind of randomness, in lack of a better word, captures the spirit of the magazine.

Headache Comix wanted an experience that has nothing to do with what we as developers normally would deal with when producing an application.

All they wanted to have was text, some pictures, and a few links.

Headache Comix wanted no, at least not in this stage, integrations to the Paypal API or something like that, no shopping cart, not even a form for subscriptions nor a search functionality, or any other feature of a professional site.

My friend Dennis met Nic when he lived in Cambodia and did odd jobs as a designer. One reason Nic stays in Cambodia is that it is cheap. He can afford to live from his different projects by living there. Although some famous underground artists contribute they will never get rich in doing this.

Dennis and Nic were happy with the result as they think I captured the essence of the project. And as I understand their reaction, their target group enjoys it as well.

The Website did not take long to create. All there is, is an HTML and CSS template I fill with Markdown. All routes besides the root are based on the file names of the Markdown files. I use Showdown.js to parse the Markdown and a few lines of node.js, using express, to produce the backend.

The only frontend JavaScript is a few lines to change the class of menu items based on the path (of the URL), making a route active. If it is active the background is colored yellow.

I enjoyed doing this project.

It was not a stimulating project in terms of programming, I did not have to think about how to solve things. But it still triggered me.

In some sense, this project changed me.

I think one of the most amazing aspects of the Web is how it houses sites such as Headache Comix next to professional sites with advanced features.

And the Web would not be the same if one of the categories was lost.

When people speak about the Web of old as the Wild West, I say it is still there. The Web still has this. It's just harder to find.

I think those sites are worth finding.

Not because of my 'splendid' anti-aesthetic design (a good designer and/or a UX-er would have done soo much better than me) - because of the amazing comics, the fantastic covers of the magazine available in the archive. Because they do this because they love doing art and love sharing what they do. And because you can tell this is true. At least to me, this is inspiring.

The Web is still the Wild West if we leave the large towns, and sometimes we should.

I believe the contrast makes both the cities and rural areas of the Web more interesting.

The only difference between the Web of old and the modern Web is that the wild Web sometimes is harder do find due to the instrumentality of the Google search engine, for good and bad.

Anyhow, all this reminds me of the city I live in.

I have only lived here for a few years, but under those few years, more and more shops disappear from the city and are now situated in a large shopping mall outside of town.

I hate going there, malls don't have any soul and every store looks the same. Also, I feel trapped when visiting. I get anxiety from walking there and I never remember how to find store X if I need to buy something.

Personally, I miss the randomness of small shops. I've never visited a shop at a mall that's close to being personal. And if this feeling misses out, the things sold won't be experienced as authentic.

Most of the time, this is fine. We don't care about this since we go there to buy things for consumption, things we will not have in a few years. Things we don't care about. And we're all good consumers, we're all hypocrites. But we can try not to be.

The good thing with the non-physical spatiality of the Web is how little it costs to buy a domain and host some files. How easy it is to have a Website selling things. This admits sites like Headache Comix where you'd have to mail some random person to have a subscription. I can't even remember if it is apparent that you can… ;)

I love browsing books on Amazon. They have like all books I want to read, and you can often preview them. This feature requires a professional website and it is a very nice feature. But I also like more amateur-ish sites such as Headache Comix.

I think both types of stores deserve a place on the Web.

The Web would not be the same without sites like Amazon and Headache Comix. The Web should be equally professional and amateur-ish.

This is why sometimes bad UX can be good, I think.

Sometimes the feelings we have - the associations and sentiments born - when meeting bad UX in the meaning limited 'usability' have more benefits than downsides, since UX is a wider field than usability. Sometimes we want things to be amateur-ish because professionalism would destroy them. Other times we want professionalism and all the advanced features of a site such as Amazon.

In a letter, Oscar Wilde wrote,

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. […] A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse.

In this, I agree with Wilde. And I think these words capture something essential about this specific element of UX.

When the Web stops being a bazaar, we know the Web do be dead. But I am not very worried. The Web is built to house both megacities and small taverns. And we know it works just fine.

At times I am worried, but in the end, I always find new texts, images, videos, music, and ways of interaction and I stop thinking like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. And I am equally amazed by sites like Amazon and all amateur-ish sites out there. They enrich each other.

I give Puddleglum right in a way: pessimism has both uses and benefits and as long as one, in the end, does not lose hope all is good that ends well.