AOL has reached 20 million subscribers and, this past holiday season, AOL members spent $2.5 billion shopping online. In early January 2000, AOL announced a $350 billion merger with publishing giant Time Warner—the largest such deal in U.S. history. The merger has been characterized by many analysts as a buyout by AOL, thanks to the stock-swap’s favorable percentages for AOL shareholders.
AOL Largest Media Company
“AOL Largest Media Company mission is to make the Internet as central to people’s lives as the telephone and television, and even more valuable, ” said AOL Chairman Steve Case at a press conference announcing the merger. “By joining forces with Time Warner, we will fundamentally change the way people get information, communicate with others, buy products and are entertained.” He’s given us no reason to doubt those promises.
A sense of place
In the early 1990s, AOL was a hit with its members because of its tight sense of community. Unlike most Internet services, AOL has maintained that sense of community by providing a small-town feeling to millions of daily users. The trappings of AOL citizenship include folksy letters from Steve Case, online polls, celebrity chats, member contributions to an AOL time capsule and, of course, the now legendary “Welcome” and “You’ve Got Mail” vocalizations. It’s a warm and fuzzy place to be.
The notion that AOL is a “place” at all may be the biggest factor in its success, which is attributable in large part to its layout. AOL’s design goals are simple: Do everything possible to make the novice online user feel welcome and safe. The look is understated, easy and unchallenging—perhaps even a little infomercial-cheesy. Its catchword is “simplicity, ” according to Robert Raines, AOL Largest Media Company creative director and vice president of design.
“I try to avoid trendy design developments. We don’t use beveled buttons or shadows, and we try to keep things as streamlined as possible, ” says Raines, who began his career at Rolling Stone, was senior art director at Time Magazine and creative director for the Book of the Month Club. “The design of AOL is kind of like rock ’n’ roll: It has mass appeal and should be fun.”
Indeed, mainstream pop culture influences at AOL extend to the top, with former MTV executive Bob Pittman as chief operating officer, and continue with the formation of AOL Time Warner Inc. The combined company includes properties as diverse as Time Magazine, CNN, TNT, HBO, New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Entertainment, The Cartoon Network, the Book of the Month Club and Warner Bros. Music.
As far as the AOL service itself, its attraction for many users is a definite sense of being somewhere—a place where you can read, learn, communicate with others and buy things online.
After its 1989 launch, AOL found a niche within the Mac community, which appreciated its point-and-click graphical software. AOL’s first MS-DOS client, based on the Graphical Environment Operating System, was also very Mac-like, including pull-down menus, dialog boxes and icons for navigation.
With the popularity of Microsoft Windows in the early 1990s, the shift to graphical computing was on. AOL released its first Windows client in early 1993. Other services moved more slowly, with AOL’s chief competitor, CompuServe, sticking to its text-based roots well into the 1990s. AOL’s friendly approach was popúular with new users, who signed on in increasing numbers.
New rivals, like Sears-sponsored Prodigy, came and went after attempting to hit AOL’s target market, the “newbie” computer user. AOL continued to grow strong, reaching five million subscribers in 1996. In that same year, AOL switched from hourly connection rates to a flat monthly rate, in part to compete with Internet service providers (ISPs) like Earthlink and AT&T WorldNet. In 1998, AOL bought CompuServe and Netscape Communications, Microsoft’s chief Internet competitor.
While a graphical approach had been AOL’s original selling point, the move to flat-rate service necessitated a new business model—selling ad space and products online. It also presented an interesting challenge to the company: maintaining the relevance of its AOL client software. Most PC users use freely available Web browsers and e-mail clients to connect to the Internet.
AOL offers its own software for connecting to the service, an anachronism in today’s market. So the company must rely foremost on the design of its client software to get users interested and keep them loyal while encouraging them to spend time, and money, online.
AOL’s edge comes from being the boy scout of the online world—helpful, courteous, kind, cheerful and clean. AOL doesn’t take many design risks, relying instead on focus group feedback and user studies to drive its look and feel. In the mid-1990s, AOL was written off by industry pundits as the “Kmart” of online services, catering to new, infrequent users—a market that seemed to lack growth potential.
“AOL does focus group studies. It has a unique look and feel that’s supposed to make the service ultra-easy to learn and navigate, ” says Gene Steinberg, an industry analyst and author of ten books on AOL. “Almost everywhere you look, there’s a help icon or menu for additional assistance. But the problem with focus groups is it’s like designing by committee…it limits imagination.”
AOL is less feature-driven than much of the computer software industry, introducing newer technologies more slowly than other Internet companies. When a new service is rolled out, like AOL’s recent “You’ve Got Pictures” service, the service is touted as the easiest, friendliest way to do something that other Internet users have done for quite some time.
With a strong focus on consistency, the company holds the designers of its content sites to some important standards. All windows must be fairly uniform—chat rooms, bulletin boards and file areas all look the same. Even the unique front pages for content areas must offer some standard elements, including the special AOL keyword for the area, the Favorites button (so that users can bookmark an area as a “favorite”) and space for ads.
“We need to be very aware of how all the navigational devices are handled; make sure they’re intuitive and consistent, ” Raines says. “Within the AOL environment we’re trying to create a consistent interface and we work as a team [with content partners] to make the best possible experience.”
Banner ads, textual ads and links to AOL shopping areas are prevalent, offering value-added messages that are within the context of the current topic. For example, if you visit the Families Channel on AOL (keyword: Families), you’ll be encouraged to click-through to related sites like Parenting Magazine and Sesame Street online.
In fact, many such links point to sites on the Web—not sites hosted by the AOL service itself. Increasingly, AOL is an aggregator for Web content—a sort of 3D Yahoo!. With Web browser technology built into the software, AOL is able to mask the differences between the Web and the AOL service, making it appear to the user that AOL controls the complete experience. The fact that AOL’s own content looks a lot like Web pages further hides the difference.
For example, when the Writers Club on AOL Largest Media Company was bought by iUniverse and its content focus shifted to the Web, the Web site and the AOL area needed to mesh seamlessly. “AOL’s design allowed us to incorporate this new identity easily, ” explains Tracey Bissell, host of the Writers Club. “In turn, we can extend the Writers Club to take advantage of the growing number of iUniverse publishing and distribution partnerships.”
Another way that AOL manages the user’s experience is by taking the interface out of the hands of the operating system. This is done via AOL’s unique toolbar. Both the Mac and Windows versions of AOL feature the toolbar, where most commands reside—very few commands are actually found on the traditional Mac or Windows menus.
“It’s not a Mac or Windows look. It’s the AOL look, ” analyst Steinberg says. “AOL has taken on more and more of the appearance of a flashy Web site, with colorful graphics and easy-to-read text. It has integrated the Web so well into the service that I dare say many members don’t notice they are switching from an AOL forum to an actual Web site.”
Making it safe
Above all else, AOL offers a one-two punch of making things safe and making them easy. For safe surfing, the Parental Controls in AOL let parents designate a user account for a young child, a pre-teen or a teenager, progressively giving children more control over their AOL and Internet experiences. This makes parents comfortable about their kids’ exposure to the seedier elements of the Internet.
AOL’s design suggests that it’s safe to shop, too, offering guarantees throughout the shopping experience. According to Steinberg, AOL requires its commerce partners to adhere to customer service and fulfillment standards. In exchange, those partners are “AOL certified, ” and AOL drives business their way as much as possible.
“They’ve got shopping everywhere—open any channel and there it is, ” Steinberg says. “AOL is one place. With an ISP, you have an open door that leads to many roads. With AOL, you’re in the supermarket, with a bunch of aisles.”
Although many commerce links reach out onto the Web, AOL influences the relationship with its partners, often encouraging that they build separate AOL “storefronts.” The purchase process is streamlined with AOL’s Quick Checkout “wallet, ” where credit card information is stored. Vendors offer plenty of graphical elements that suggest security, including the Shop@AOL logo, AOL Guarantee boxes and large padlock images on order pages.
Reaching for the remote
Aside from safety and e-commerce, the AOL interface has been getting slicker in recent years, with an emphasis on photography, minimalist icons and magazine-like presentation. This look and feel allows it to remain an easy-to-use, welcoming community.
Will the merger change this? AOL Time Warner’s entertainment assets—television set-top boxes, broadband media and cable-based ventures—may turn AOL into not just a Web content aggregator, but a multimedia aggregator. Think of an interactive, on-demand TV guide that also offers chat, e-mail and, perhaps, video conferencing. (“You’ve Got Video!”)
“AOL is [getting] into broadband access and set-top devices, so that you can enjoy a fully integrated online experience with chats, instant messages, text, graphics, Internet access, slide shows, movies, etc.” Steinberg says. “It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to have original programming on AOL, if broadband becomes widespread enough.”
If that happens, AOL’s current interface may become even more more mainstream—some sort of hybrid between People Magazine and CNBC. The design continues to morph into fewer textual elements and more iconic, visual elements. This look can translate to different scan rates and screen sizes—from televisions to PCs to portable devices.
But, Raines points out, “keeping things streamlined” is still important, even with broadband. In the past year, AOL has actually lowered the standard number of kilobytes of data it uses to design individual pages. “Even with streaming video, the design should stay out of the way and not distract from editorial, ” Raines says. Already AOL and Time Warner are planning to launch the AOL Plus service in the spring of 2000, promising increased multimedia content for broadband customers. Features will include CNN news, movie and music promotional clips, and live events.
Designed for success
So what role does design play in AOL’s success? The site has a consistent, unique interface—one that transcends platform—that results in a safe, friendly haven for users that could translate to other mediums and other devices.
“We have cleaner backgrounds in the newer versions. We’re using icons and color as information guideposts. We’re tending to use photography more than illustration, ” Raines says. “Probably the most important thing is that the site doesn’t feel ‘techy.'”
It’s AOL’s ease-of-use focus that turns off many expert PC users, often for the same reasons that the site appeals to new users. A non-standard interface, hand-holding presentation and the constant barrage of advertising turns off some users who are savvy enough to set up their own ISP connections.
But AOL has succeeded so far by ignoring the digerati and catering to the rest of the market. And, as its industry-leading membership attests, plenty of folks love their AOL as much as they love their MTV (or HBO, Turner Movie Classics or even MovieFone service). In fact, the future is already unfolding as old and new mediums converge right before our eyes.