McMansion Problems - Don’t Design for the Extras

Darian O'Reilly / Monday, October 24, 2016

There is a blog that I love called McMansion Hell  –  you know those crazy monster houses built in bulk starting in the 1980’s? They are usually found in great clusters and sometimes on very small pieces of property relative to their immense size; 5000 sq ft and up is pretty standard with many exceeding 10,000 sq ft. Most notably though, these over-the-top dwellings attempt to check every box in the features option list, more often than not to the detriment of their overall appearance.

I enjoy reading this blog for several reasons. First of all, I have always loved looking at houses and even held a real estate license for a couple of years when my kids were really young. I firmly believe that a healthy dose of sarcasm makes everything better especially when paired with photos documenting the insanity. More than anything, it’s really entertaining to see the crazy lengths that builders (I just can’t call them architects) and their clients will go to in order to show off.


Now why people want these houses is a discussion for another time. What I’d like to talk about today is architecture. The normal process that you go through when creating one of these ‘custom masterpieces’ is to go to the builder’s office, pick a model, and then select the features you would like to include.

This is kind of like designing software right? Let’s say that we need an application that will track chicken nugget restaurant sales. Pretty basic right? Let’s have it do something else. How about in addition to tracking sales, we also make it track inventory levels and employee records? Wait, we need an employee portal so let’s add that to the list – and maybe a place where customers can post comments. Also, it would be cool to add a photo carousel of our featured locations so people who work there can feel special. One last thing, let’s have the weather forecast and a stock ticker. COOL. Now that our list of functions has been determined, we can just start building them.


The McMansion suffers from a similar problem. The buyers choose a bunch of difficult-to-coordinate features – the crazy roof shapes are like that for a reason you know, someone just HAD to have a vaulted ceiling in the closet, it juts out and interrupts the roofline – and the builder has to, somehow, make it all fit. Are the buyers ever told no? Of course not! 

Similarly, software cannot and should not try to be everything to everyone. As UX professionals, it is our responsibility to help our clients find clear direction. Determining the simplest solution to provide the functionality they need should always be our goal. Sometimes it makes sense to add related functionality so that the user can be more productive, but when you find yourself cramming another button into the UI just because there is room, it’s time to take a step back and remind yourself (and your client) of the original plan.


Circling back to our chicken nugget tracking software: If we had stuck with our initial business requirement of tracking sales only, we could have designed a streamlined process for the end user to get sales information quickly and easily. However, once you add in a bunch of extra (and unnecessary) processes and features, the primary purpose of the tool becomes obscured and it is no longer useful.

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Photos accredited to McMansion Hell.