The Pinterest Layout Will Not Save You

Jesse Fornear

Oct 8, 2012

Over-attribution of success bias

Pinterest is wildly successful, but the ubiquitous Pinterest layout is a textbook example of over-attribution of success bias. Not much credit is given to their bookmarklet, sign up flow, email notifications, target market, Facebook integration, timing, etc., all of which worked together to launch Pinterest into the Alexa top 100.

The recent trend of emphasizing visual content in a Pinterest-like layout is influencing redesigns across the web. For example, this trend is seen with the recent high-profile redesigns of the new Digg and Myspace. Both redesigns seem to be falling victim to this Pinterest layout over-attribution of success bias by overemphasizing their relatively uninteresting visual content in a Pinterest-inspired layout.

What is the Pinterest layout?

For those unfamiliar with the Pinterest layout, it's based on jQuery Masonry, a plugin that calculates the height of all grid elements and positions them absolutely while minimizing vertical gaps in between. It allows for a dense layout of large thumbnails with variable heights. It's ideal for user-generated image bookmarking sites that are optimized for visual appeal (like Pinterest).

The Pinterest layout is unbalanced and asymmetric making parsing information and readability difficult. This can work against the design goals of news aggregators and profile pages, which is where this trend has failed the new Digg and MySpace redesigns.

Questions to ask before adopting a Pinterest-inspired layout

  1. Is the content primarily visual?
  2. If so, are the images interesting and worth emphasizing?
  3. Do images have variable sizes?
  4. Is cropping a no-go?
  5. Are you Pinterest? :)

Case #1: Digg

Digg is in the business of aggregating "linkbait" or news headlines that hook readers. Traditional news aggregators like reddit, Hacker News, Drudge Report, etc. are optimized for headline density and readability. Unfortunately, the new Digg layout overemphasizes visual content and has an offset grid layout that hinders readability. For example, only 6 stories are above the fold and their images are as uninteresting as stock photos. Whether or not this redesign was actually inspired by Pinterest, it seems to optimize for the wrong things, and their Alexa seems to show a negative user reaction.

  1. Is Digg's content primarily visual? No

I think Digg's front page would be better served with a single-column, dense list of headlines. The images, categories, summaries, etc. are not interesting and take up too much space. This redesign seems like it veered too far from the standard news aggregator layout.

Case #2: Myspace

The new Myspace looks inspired by both the Pinterest layout and Facebook Timeline. The new profile pages look like a Facebook Timeline in a multi-column Pinterest layout. This offset layout combined with mixed story types make for an unpleasant reading experience. Mixed story types are easier to consume in a single-column feed. How often do you scroll down on a friend's Facebook Timeline? Regardless, it looks like MySpace needs change, so hopefully this redesign works.

  1. Is Myspace's content primarily visual? No

I think Myspace profile pages would be better served with just one section dedicated to photos, another dedicated to status updates, etc. Parsing profile pages would be less overwhelming. The overall aesthetic and new music player look nice though.

Conclusion

It's tempting to veer away from your product's core offering when other products seem to be wildly successful with features that are easy to draw inspiration from. What works for them might not work for you. Design components like layout are often the tip of the iceberg. It's best to optimize for what you do best.

Feel free to leave a comment below or on Hacker News about what you think about the new Digg, Myspace, or trend of Pinterest-inspired redesigns. For more posts like this, follow @jfornear on Twitter or @jesse on ADN.