Make it Ugly

by March 6, 2006

More than once, I’ve been presented with the following sentiment: “we don’t want our Web site to look too good.” From Internet executives to the leadership of Web 2.0 start-ups, the rationale is that when a site seems too “professional” it loses its appeal. It feels corporate and no longer genuine –as if authenticity can often be communicated by a lack of visual refinement. There are of course plenty of examples to point to. Think Craig’s List, MySpace, and

Robert Scoble recently touched on this topic after his conversation with a Canadian entrepreneur who “says that sites that have ugly designs are known to pull more revenue, be more sticky, build better brands, and generally be more fun to participate in, than sites with beautiful designs.”

Without getting into the typical form vs. function debate (of course usability and usefulness matters), I’ll explain things the way I do whenever a client of mine makes this assertion. First of all, dismissing visual design as just a matter of “making things pretty” cuts off your ability to communicate with your customers at the knees. Design is a solution to communication not mere styling. Each product (via its interface design) needs to “tell” users what features it offers (its utility), how to use those features (its usability), and why they should care (its desirability).

Second, even if you deliberately don’t think about your site’s personality (PDF) during the design process, you will end up with one anyway. The colors, content, and visual elements (or lack of all three) of your Web site all make an impression on your audience, intentional or not. Therefore, it is in your best interests to be aware of the personality you are creating for your site and make certain it is telling the story you want.

Many sites with a poor visual presentation remain popular on the merits of their content alone. But does their audience enjoy bumping through the site’s awkward graphics and hard to read labels? No, but the personality of the content (it could be high quality, funny, worthwhile, and more) makes the rest bearable. Would their audience be happier if the personality of the presentation matched the personality of the content? Of course. They like the content, don’t they? Such a site would be well served to improve their presentation. Not only would it enrich their current customers’ experience, but a presentation that reflects the site’s content would tell the site’s story to newcomers as well. Hey, we have quality content, come take a look.