I don’t exactly remember how I discovered Hacker News. My account is 1295 days old, which means I subscribed on August 20, 2009. HN’s homepage on that particular date was filled with stories about _why’s disappearance which, in retrospect, is probably the event that led me to HN in the first place, considering I was learning Ruby at that time.
Anyway, I eventually created an account and stuck around. I first wondered why it was called Hacker News because at that time, the word still wrongly carried a negative connotation for me. Reading through pg’s articles, I understood what Hacker actually meant.
Visually, the site’s design felt slightly austere but it didn’t bother me. I loved its straightforward approach: only links and text. That’s hypertext at its core. No avatars, no background-image, no rich color palette, no custom font, no stylish elements. But most of all: a high density of information. I’ve always been more comfortable with having everything layed down before me, whether it’s a digital interface or objects on my desk.
A functional focus
As a designer, I can understand such a desire. But it misses the point: the web is about content, and HN is one of the few websites that has remained entirely focused on this notion.
A user browsing a news aggregator is here for 2 things: clicking links and reading/writing comments. Skimming through dozens of news on HN proves to be very efficient considering the links density and the lack of futile elements.
A community filter
Maintaining what most people consider an antique layout actually prevents newcomers who can’t see past the surface from deciding to join the community. The design also de-emphasizes the value of a user’s profile. I believe both features have indirectly helped HN’s community develop what it is often praised for: high quality discussions.
On a related note, the ability to collapse/expand comment threads is something some people wish for. But I fear it would give too much weight to top-level comments, and diminish the core of a thread: the discussion it generates, in which counterarguments and additional details prove to be equally or more important than the comment they’re replying to.
As a side effect, whenever I decide to contribute to an HN thread, I find myself wondering for a few minutes if what I’m about to write is adding any value to the discussion. If so, I mull over the idea I’m about to develop, carefully construct my sentences (looking through dictionaries and French/English translation sites) and avoid posting too radical statements.
The big picture
It may sound far-fetched to say that HN’s design directly impacts how users will contribute to the site but it’s actually all related. The orange header, the light yellow-grey background, the small font-size, the lack of graphics… They all amount to a bigger scheme that reflects both the mind of the site’s author and the profile of its community members.
A design is more than a visual signature: it carries the raison d’être of a website. And I’d be sceptical if HN’s design suddenly changed because it’d necessarily imply a deeper mutation.