You’ve thought it. I’ve thought it. Websites that capture the spirit of 1994. Hideous graphics. Hellish stock photos of women yelling at laptops. And yet…the customers don’t seem to care! They’re pouring in! What’s wrong with the world?
Indeed, I met someone the other day who was asking, well really, what’s the point of paying for nice design? What’s the ROI of design, when I can see plenty of basic, unlovely websites that seem to be doing just fine?
It’s true. Some horrible-looking websites do very well. Why?
Let us analyse.
1. They don’t actually depend on their online presence
Despite everything that Mashable might tell you, there are plenty of enterprises which carry on their merry way without their websites really making much difference to their bottom line. My vet’s website has had an Under Construction sign up for 6 months now, but the waiting room’s still packed.
Loads of businesses still rely heavily on personal contact, with the website merely playing the part of corporate brochure.
2. They offer something which people want very, very badly
This is really the heart of it, and it accounts for the success of Facebook, Megaupload and all of the major GetRichOnTheInternet sites.
Hopping dayglo graphics and the faint hint of Soviet viruses ready to empty your Paypal account if you click the wrong link? Hmm. I might balance that against a pre-DVD copy of The Iron Lady.*
3. They are in a position of power over their users
This applies to tax offices, concert ticket purchasing, Verified By Visa and all job recruitment sites anywhere.
Jump, my pretties! Jump higher!
4. It doesn’t look crap to the target market
This applies to Myspace (back in the day) and any popular site featuring animated penguins. It may not be your preferred aesthetic, but maybe it works fantastically well with the end users.
(Equally, the kind of pared-down minimalism that is popular with some graphic designers can look really thin and unwelcoming to non-designers who are not stroking their beards about the elegant use of slab-serif).
5. The voice and writing are outstanding
Plenty of successful blog-based sites fall into this category: personal voices, writing beautifully (like Belgian Waffle – wonderful content, unremarkable design), and business voices which aren’t afraid to be different.
(But oh my, different is damned difficult. ‘Renegade’ is very popular right now and it’s very hard to do it in a way that’s truly attractive and convincing.)
6. There’s a very strong connection with readers
This usually goes with outstanding writing. It applies particularly to some successful business coaching blogs, where the readers are hungry for connection, and the coach has absolutely nailed their customers’ interests and deep concerns.
7. It’s crap, but it’s a special kind of crap
Very popular horrible-looking sites tend to be aesthetically off-putting but actually very functional.
Bulletin board styles, for example, as seen on open-source help forums and fan sites, look pretty vile but work beautifully. The font is readable. You can search, you can comment, you can get emailed updates. They don’t break the basic rules of readability. Well, mostly. With some Doctor Who sites, all bets are off.
It’s the equivalent of having delicious coffee in a tacky sandwich bar.
But of course the real question is:
Can you or I be terribly successful with our ugly websites?
Got a unique writing voice, fantastic relationships, and a VERY highly desired product or service? Go to it. Spend most of your time and money on building your connections. (Just stay away from green and blue text).
Not very dependent on the internet? Then your online presence is one part of your overall brand identity, and it should reflect that. As we lose our phone books, a decent, functional, attractive online presence is going to matter more and more. Get a decent one.
Nice voice, okay relationships, and a modestly desired product or service? Design can make the difference between considered and not-considered. It’s not a magic bullet, but it will support and deepen your offer. And it can occasionally take you from good to amazing.
*I wouldn’t really.