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Pretty vs practical designLadies and gentlemen, boys and girls – steel yourselves for the following unpopular advice. It will go against your intuition, it will go against what society expects and it will fly in the face of everything you’ve ever believed to be true or real. But it may just be the most important thing you’ve ever heard in your LIFE. YOUR ENTIRE WORTHLESS LIFE. So it’s imperative you read on, and get past my incessant rambling in the paragraph below (you could just skip it) to the very point of this priceless article.

Granted, I could have included this little nugget of infinite wisdom in my last article on simple tips to optimize your website, but when I was writing it I was able to recognize (as any ridiculously talented writer should be able to do) the intense passion I felt on the subject. A simple paragraph was simply not going to suffice. I HAD TO WRITE AN ENTIRE ARTICLE. And hopefully you’ll read it and send me copious platitudal (NOT A WORD) emails down the track when your website conversion triples (or even quadruples) due to the fact you chose a design that focused on user experience rather than aesthetic quality.

 

So without further rambling adieu (it’s my writing calling card), here’s my advice.

 

Never design your site with the aesthetic design as your number one priority. Never get a designer to design the layout of your site, unless they have equally impressive qualifications/experience/understanding of user experience. Too often we are all-too-eager to unleash a new site design, and the easiest goal to satisfy is to make sure it looks spectacular. We understand beauty. We know what looks good. We’re comfortable making decisions based on aesthetics. We’ve grown up admiring things based on their beauty. You don’t comment on how easy a house is to get around, you comment on the interior decorating. You don’t compliment your partner on the practicality of their appearance, but on the colour of their eyes, the complexion of their skin, the size of their…. lips…and any number of other physical elements. We’ve been taught to admire things based on their aesthetic appeal, so it’s little wonder that this concept would naturally transfer to the online world.

 

But here’s the thing. IT SHOULDN’T. A house could look perfectly pretty if the front door led straight into a bathroom, which then led to a kitchen, then a bedroom, with the dining room up a set of lovely winding stairs. It could win all the interior decorating awards in the world, but who would want to live there? It wouldn’t be practical – the architectural design wouldn’t make any sense to an inhabitant of the house (aka user). The same holds true for a website. You can have the prettiest site in the world, the most modern, the most innovative – but if it doesn’t make sense to the user – if they can’t navigate easily and find what they are looking for – then what is the point? [see what I did there? I just analogized the shit out of you. Didn’t see that coming from me did you. DID YOU? BOOM. That’s what I’m all about baby.]

 

Of course there are two instances where this advice may be disregarded:

  1. You are a designer (and thus design of your site is essentially selling your service)
  2. You care nothing for your customer/visitor and you are not interested in selling anything or getting them to do anything other than marvel over how pretty your site is.

If these situations don’t apply to you, please read on.

 

Let’s illustrate this border-rant (almost a rant but not quite – coined Pring, 2013) with some examples here.

 

Is your text legible or have you reduced the font size right down so that you can fit entire paragraphs in one line? Do visitors know what they should be doing next? Does the call-to-action button stand out? Are the most important elements above the fold? Have you picked images to represent your products that help customer recognition and/or sell the key value props rather than the one that looks the nicest?

 

Are you taking up a huge amount of space above the fold with a nice pretty image that does nothing to sell your product? Is your site written in a pretty font that looks good and maybe speaks to your ‘brand personality’ but is too hard for people to actually read? Is there too much happening on the page so visitors don’t know where they should be moving next? Is your logo taking up too much space? Are you using pretty icons instead of text because it looks so much better and is way more funky… yet 54.86% of people don’t know what the icons actually mean? Are you too concerned with sticking within your brand style guide (which allows you the use of just two colours) that nothing on the page stands out?

 

Two more words: flash websites. Years ago they started popping up around the place and yeah, a lot of them were cool. Well, they were cool if you bothered to spend the 5 minutes for the page to load.  And if you weren’t trying to load them on an iPad.  And then they lost some of that cool when half the elements didn’t lead anywhere and you could never really find what it was you were looking for.

 

The problem that a lot of businesses have is that they elect for a designer to lead their site re-design. Which in principle makes sense, but in practice often leads to a site that may not actually convert well. It will look great, but that doesn’t mean it will drive results.

 

A personal example here – a friend of mine is a talented musician and recently launched his own website (completely designed by a designer). The site looks great – it is very funky and on-brand. The problem I have is when you visit the URL the first page you see is a static ‘entry’ page – it looks awesome but to find any information out (including contact details) you have to click on the static image to reach the actual website. Perfect example of choosing design over usability.

 

If you want people to visit your site and learn more about you, why would you force them to take an extra step to get to a place where they can do this? It doesn’t make any sense. Essentially that extra static entry page was a self-serving quest by designer (now enforced by musician) to get kudos for a nice design. Yet he’s a musician – he doesn’t want people to think ‘nice website’, he wants people to hear about him, listen to his songs, find out about his gigs and contact him.

 

Every single step you force people to take in order to get them to do what you want them to do on your site (buy, sign up to your newsletter, contact you, read your article etc) will cause drop-off. I would love to see the stats for this website to see how many people bounced from the entry page purely because they were required to perform an extra action (even if it’s just one click) to get to where they want to be. I can guarantee you it would be substantial enough to justify my suggestion to remove it (which was decidedly ignored).

 

Am I saying that your site should be hideously ugly and that only functionality matters? No.

 

Good aesthetic design is important. Just don’t make it your utmost focus when choosing your overall design. User experience is much more important. Understand what you want your visitors to accomplish on your site and make sure that flow/experience drives your overall site layout and design. Make life as easy as possible for the user and you’ll reap the rewards.

 

And that’s all I have to say about that.



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