Sugar Ma.gnolia, Blossoms Blooming

Ma.gnolia is a social bookmarking tool in the vein of It’s currently in private beta, in which I’ve been participating. I’m friends with a couple of the people behind Ma.gnolia, so I thought it’d be fun to have a Q & A about the tool. I tried to avoid the techie mumbo jumbo and focus on the design and marketing approach.

I exchanged emails with Todd Sieling, Project Manager for Ma.gnolia and Jeffrey Zeldman, whose firm Happy Cog handled the brand and UI design. In case you’re wondering, the title refers to an old Grateful Dead song. Hey, this is the sort of thing that Digg crowd eats up. Maybe somebody ought to digg this badboy–it seems a little selfish to do it myself.

My main interest in Ma.gnolia lies in the idea that it’s social bookmarking for the rest of us. That is, that you’re going after a broader consumer audience, instead of the hardcore geeks. Could you give some background to that decision? [more]

Todd: Something that we see with the web is that you have this small group of leading edge people who love to try new stuff, don’t mind things being a bit messy and get very excited about new technologies partly for their own sake, but more for their raw potential in helping us achieve whatever it is we dream of doing with the web.

And then there’s the rest of the world, where people don’t live on the web
so much as they use it to accomplish certain goals, distract themselves for
an hour or two, but overall don’t get that excited about the way things work.
They just want to get their stuff done and move on.

As members of that leading edge, you and I get to see a lot of interesting
things happen, and many of them we pick up and add them to our daily use toolkit.
But what’s the real breakout rate for these things? RSS on its own, despite
the best efforts to take it mainstream, wasn’t moving until it was paired up
up with something that non-geeks can get excited about.

If you look at podcasting, which has RSS as a cornerstone, there’s been a remarkable
move into the non-web savvy mind. We saw the same thing happening to social
bookmarking. Here was something that could be useful to all sorts of regular
web users, but despite the emergence of new services, each with something unique
to offer, was this idea really getting out to people in the mainstream?

No. Most of the people I talk to who use the web regularly but aren’t geeks
have no idea of what social bookmarking is. But they get it the moment I explain
it. They get it, and they want to use it. "I need this!" is something
I’ve heard more than once. Why are these people not hearing about it? Because
nobody is making it for them – we’ve all, as geeks, just been making it for
each other. Ma.gnolia’s main goal is to truly be social bookmarking for the
rest of us.

How does Ma.gnolia’s design reflect a more populist approach?

Todd: For this question I turn it over to comments from Jeffrey Zeldman of
Happy Cog, whom we contracted to design our
brand and UI.

Jeffrey: One, we sweated the information architectural details to make the
application not just usable but highly usable because transparent.
This is distinct from more narrowly focused (geek-oriented) software, where
a higher learning curve is not merely tolerated, it’s a badge of honor. To some
digerati, the fact that a particular application is cryptic and cumbersome to
use makes their mastery of it all the more admirable. Same way people like me
write code by hand, early adopters revel in their ability to understand and
use poorly designed software.

But "the rest of us" don’t. The rest of us muddle along for about
30 seconds, and if we still don’t get it and aren’t enjoying the experience,
we leave, never to return. To avoid that fate — to make the complex simple
— our lead IA Tanya Rabourn put in the hours and the iterations needed to make
Ma.gnolia comprehensible to the non- expert.

It was especially challenging because many of the behaviors, we knew, would
be programmed AJAX-style. This meant figuring out multiple possibilities and
finding a coherent way to wireframe them all. It also meant coming up with iconography
to cue users to the fact that actions and options were available to them. A
problem with much current AJAX work is that there’s no indication to the user
that he or she can take an action. I’m still discovering things about Flickr
I didn’t know (because I didn’t think to click in empty white space to see if
something would happen).

The second way we reflected the populist approach was in the look and feel,
which is friendly and comfortable without in any way being dumbed down. Google
and AOL, for instance, are for everyone, but they’re a bit cartoonish. We didn’t
want that and neither did Gnolia Systems. If we took cues from anywhere, it
would be from Apple, which has the knack of designing hardware, software, and
web pages that feel smart and sophisticated while also being extremely friendly
and welcoming. Tough balance, but I hope we pulled it off.

Our brand director Erin Kissane helped us identify the area we wanted to inhabit.
Lead art director Jason Santa Maria designed the brand identity, primarily the
logo and color scheme. Designer Greg Storey translated Tanya’s wireframes into
web page designs that to me feel alive and almost touchable. And Eric Meyer
of Complex Spiral Consulting solved
the tough challenges of translating those designs into accessible, flexible
web pages, to load fast and work better for more users.

Todd: I can add to that a bit, as well. One of the key ideas that we wanted
to have represented in Ma.gnolia’s design was a relief from information overload.
If you look at typical portal sites and current social bookmarking sites, they
offer up a great deal of information.

Though we want Ma.gnolia to be eminently useful to people, we also wanted the
experience to be more like working through a catalog rather than a directory.
A well-designed catalog can get you right to what you need and tell you what
you need to know, but it can also be a pleasant and even relaxing browsing experience.
Ma.gnolia offers that in its design, making the best of what we find on the
web available in a way that pleases rather than demands extra horsepower from
the mind.

I can see the advantages of social bookmarking for the Internet’s alpha
users–geek, IT professionals, bloggers and so forth. What are the advantages
for the casual user?

Todd: I don’t see the benefits as being all that different. The basics hold
true for all web users: being able to access your favourite websites
from any computer, the luxury of organizing without thinking with tags, and
finding new things that you’re interested in that have been
found by people and without needing to weed through search results.

And, when you work the social side of things more like we’re trying to do,
people can find each other by their common interests. Not to mention that having
a regularly backed up place to store those bookmarks in a time when most computer
owners still don’t make regular backups is a good thing, too.

Bloggers and other Internet alphas pull a little bit more out of current social
bookmarking services by publishing linkrolls on their blogs and other neat tricks.
But the concept behind doing just that – content selected on the fly from a
personal collection – can be useful to people not on the web’s cutting edge,
as well.

Today, social bookmarking seems to equal (crazy) Aside from targeting
a different market, how are you going to deal with going up against the Kleenex
of social bookmarking? has had some great success, being the first to bring the core ideas
behind social bookmarking to a strong number of people. And now with Yahoo!,
there are some exciting possibilities opening up to Josh’s team. Our approach
moves beyond just sharing bookmarks. We want to make bookmarking more about
collaboration and about bringing attention to what the community is looking
at through our Hot Bookmarks and Hot Tags sidebar items. Sharing across channels
and looking at interests as an aspect of both individuals and a community will
make for a different kind of experience than has done well with.

But you know, I don’t see the market as being dominated by anyone right now.
There are still lots of people out there who haven’t even hear of social bookmarking,
or didn’t know you could simply store your bookmarks online. We hope to reach
those people with a style and way of working that will appeal to them. And when
you look at all the cool ways that people are mashing up web services and remixing
data, I think there’s more to be had in thinking about the cooperative opportunities
than what competition will be like. Sure we want people to like what we offer,
but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of someone else’s service.


  1. I think the name (ma.gnolia) is pretty derivative, a blatent rip-off of Why not be original? It makes for a pretty poor first impression.

  2. I think the name (ma.gnolia) is pretty derivative, a blatent rip-off of Why not be original? It makes for a pretty poor first impression.

  3. > I think the name (ma.gnolia) is pretty derivative, a blatent rip-off of Why not be original? It makes for a pretty poor first impression

    Really? Well, hopefully you’ll check us out and judge us by what we’ve got to offer when we launch.

    Lisa, social bookmarking is where you store your internet favourites or bookmarks on a website instead of in your browser. You can then access them from any computer, and you can discover new stuff in other people’s bookmark collections. There’s lots more to it, but that’s the short version.

  4. I see you’ve already posted it to I gave it a ‘digg’. And bookmarked it on

    We really need services where the verb form is easy to say. Kind like how “to google” is now a fairly mainstream verb. “I ma.nolia’d this” or “she’d it”, however, do not roll of the tongue. At least with you can make a verb that is conjugated the same as “to dig”.

  5. Hi,

    I just read the interview and want to thank you for publishing it. I link back to it on my blog where I just posted a little something about ma.gnolia.

    I love the name of this new service and also its design. Indeed, for once somebody came up with a nice, non-geeky and colorful interface.

    I enjoy using ma.gnolia already and can’t wait to see all the future improvements.


  6. Thanks, Todd.

    That could be useful – especially since I’m always on different computers at work.

    But, I’m not sure I’d use it unless my bookmarks would still show up one way or another on my browser toolbar. Going to another website to go to the website I want feels like too much derailment.

    (and maybe already does that — I tried yesterday and haven’t figured it out)

    How’s that for a little focus group!

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