Realitycheck: What Works on the Web

June 15, 2007

We have been challenging a couple of common web and business assumptions. Here is our summary of what works and what doesn’t.

Making Money

Assumption: If you have a unique quality product that is easy to reproduce, you can sell it for low cost and make tons of money. We figured that pricing this hard earned iA design here at $1,500 was a pretty fair deal. You get two years of high end design for a small part of what it is really worth. No home studio could compete with this. If you sell 100 designs, you could make $150,000 without breaking a sweat. In order to make our offer even more attractive, we added installation and a one year update service, which actually would have ruined the initial idea, leading to a lot of one-to-one client work again.

Reality: No one bought it. So what should we do? We decided to go open source. And you know what? It feels really good. In the long term it is going to make us more money. The best contracts we’ve had so far come from all the free content we give out.

Getting attention

You can get a lot of attention if you are ready to give out your best content for free. Mere provocation doesn’t work (we’ve tried that). The web is too smart, but people do appreciate hard work:

  1. We got into a nasty fight with Tufte after publishing the Webdesign is 95% Typography article
  2. We were contacted by facebook to help them with their last redesign after we published the Interface of a Cheeseburger. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg read the entry and told his product manager to get in touch with us. The contract was on the table, but somehow we were too lame or not qualified enough to get it signed. I still don’t know why. They sure didn’t need our help, but I am sure we could have done a better job than what they have right now. (Interface wise a nice but lame twin of Apple Mail with a somewhat counterintuitive information architecture).
  3. We got contacted by the Wall Street Journal for an interview after publishing our Apple ads in Japan article.
  4. We got contacted by a major American Software company – which we are not allowed to mention by name – after publishing the iPhone Nano article (it was not Apple, by the way). But they turned out to be major tirekickers.
  5. We got contacted by a major Japanese Newspaper (for an interview) and Switzerland’s biggest Media House after publishing the Web Trend Map. The Swiss have kept us very busy since then.

The market value for any digitally reproducible product that is not specific to anyone’s needs is close to zero, as there is always another similar thing around that goes out for free. Why free? Because the free product gets a lot of high value attention and makes up for its actual sales loss with Google ad words or some nice contract…

Avoiding Trolls

Assumption: If you force people to sign up with their real name, people won’t be posting aggressive and dumb comments anymore. This is a very unorthodox step, as anonymity is part of the current web culture.

Reality: We tried it on the website of Das Magazin. People do sign up but they hardly comment anymore. Why? Because standing with your name for your words is scary. Is this bad? In terms of increasing hits it is. People love flamewars and flamewars make people come back to your site again and again. But in the long term, small amounts of high quality comments is better.

Making Old Media Work on the Web

Assumption: Technically it seems obvious: The search engine performance, the possibility to collaboratively publish and the information architectural need to interlink articles suggests that you ope your archives and use something like wiki technology for your news publication. We got a lot of s*** from some specialists for that assumption beforehand. In order to keep things clean we decided to split the wiki access into two main groups with different access rights. Journalists can work together on an article, users can work together on their articles. So it is a full-on wiki for user contributed content and a closed wiki for articles written by journalists. Journalists can interfere with user contributions, but not the other way around.

Reality: It is still early to make a definite judgement. But a few things are crystal clear:

  1. Traffic skyrocketed. Das Magazin has five times the traffic it used to have. We will see what happens from here.
  2. The search engine results are stupefying. Google really loves Mediawiki. Das Magazin’s website has received a lot of attention and has been cheered by Swiss Media critics.
  3. The use of wiki-technology as a CMS works very well, especially since we were very strict with user accounts. However, getting there was hard – the software took a lot of manipulation, and we applied order to something that is by nature chaotic. So yes, it does work, but it was a long shot to get done, technically and design-wise.

Being Real

The openness with which we communicate here is not common. It has gotten some people suspicious and angry. We talk about clients that screwed us over (without mentioning their name, or even giving hints of course), contracts we didn’t get because we were not good enough, we shoot against people that are potential clients, we mess with one of the lungs of the blogosphere and one of the biggest marketing agency in the world started to get nervous after we opened fire against them and their unprofessional dubious practices.

This openness is to a certain degree an experiment, to a certain degree unavoidable, as it goes back to the character of iA’s peculiar owner. iA’s openness is based on the assumption: That being real works better that being virtual. In the so called virtual world as well as in the real world. Yes, in the business world as well: Because if you show your clients who you are, you are more likely to get the ones that understand you.

The definite reality check on that one is yet to come. But we are pretty optimistic.



iA is a strategic design agency with offices in Tokyo and Zurich. For questions regarding our apps, please visit If you are interested in our services, please use our contact form. If you are interested in joining iA, check out the job openings.

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Oliver Reichenstein Route Kamiya-cho Bld 5F 5-2 Kamiyama-cho Shibuya-ku Tokyo 150-0047 Japan