Don’t Obsess About Design For Design’s Sake

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A short while back, a visual interface designer who’s done some work for Apple tweeted the following:

The next day, he tweeted this:



The guy seems seriously butthurt about simply designed sites that focus more on functionality and user experience than drop shadows and glossy buttons. Despite his insistence that Craigslist is “crap” in form and function, it’s one of the most well-known Internet success stories and a stellar example of Keeping It Simple, Stupid. Sure, Reddit struggles with keeping the site up but their problem is a lack of employees, not a too-simple design. We’ve seen what happens when a perfectly fine social news site undergoes a massive redesign and feature overhaul that ruins its community — it’s called Digg.

A chronic problem with so many websites nowadays is that they try so hard to be the cool hip Poochie the Dog of their industry or niche while largely overlooking functionality or whether the site even needs a face lift in the first place. If you’ve got midi songs and a blinking Under Construction gif, you probably do need a redesign…that is, unless you’re already getting massive amounts of traffic that converts well (there’s a reason why PlentyOfFish.com still looks like crap, folks). Design should strongly correlate with functionality — will this design improve usability? Does it clear up the registration process? Or are you just sticking up some stock photos of attractive people grinning because you think they look good?

Think about your industry and what you aim to focus on. Reddit and Craigslist are both information aggregators, so the need to be visually dazzling is low compared to the focus on the actual content the sites deliver. Something like Hulu.com is more visual by nature but still organized very cleanly and simply. This or That is very visual so we actually need a design that is both aesthetically pleasing and presents everything in a clear, logical way. We’ve struggled with hitting that sweet spot of design + function since we launched in June and have gone through a few subtle design tweaks as we better understand what our users expect and what trips them up. However, it’s not like we change the design up every month or so because we’re bored or because we want to seem like we’re cooler than cool.

The visual interface designer who tweeted the disparaging comments about Craigslist and Reddit is doing his job, sure, but his area of expertise has blinded him to the fact that prettier isn’t always better. Megan Fox is a real looker, but she’s not going to be winning an Academy Award any time soon. Some sites do their job well without being the most sophisticated-looking thing you’ll come across. Don’t get caught up on how pretty or cool you want your site to look if it’s not going to positively contribute to your goals, whether that’s more sign-ups, higher conversions, more money, etc. Test design tweaks little by little to see what works and what doesn’t. Consider A/B testing or focus groups, or show your site to people who aren’t working on it and looking at it 40 hours a day, 5 days a week, to see if what you’re tinkering with is truly working or if it’s just creating a bigger mess.

When it comes to the look and design of your site, don’t be afraid to be boring. There’s nothing wrong with being clean and simple — it’s classic and often underrated. The easier your site is to look at and navigate through, the better it is for your users. People grow tired of a dazzling visual masterpiece really quickly when it becomes clear how big a mess everything is underneath.

158 thoughts on “Don’t Obsess About Design For Design’s Sake

  1. AffiliateObsession

    Good point here. It’s sad to see sites like Craigslist ripped apart because they are not visually stunning. It’s all about the user getting what they want, if the users on Craigslist weren’t getting that, they would complain, but I hear nothing like that…

    1. Norman Nevelle

      At the end of the day, it’s all about what works. User-friendly interface and design should go hand-in-hand. I think the real challenge in design is how to keep it simple yet eye-catching enough for people to want to check the site.

    2. Jim Petersen

      The fact that they’re sticking to their design means it serves its purpose. Why change anything that’s working, right?

      1. Hollaback Will

        “Get a fucking designer already”

        Read: I’m good and your site looks crap so let me fix it.

  2. TrafficColeman

    Design is important but not so important that you have to out shine the competition..look at Matt Cutts site…do you think his site will win miss America..I think not.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

    1. Feeding Frenzy

      It’s a question of how much traffic are you willing to trade for complexity. Your site may have the most amazing design there is but if it’s not helping in generating traffic then it doesn’t add value at all.

      1. California Dreamin

        Simplicity does not mean lack of functionality, it suggests a consideration for the users’ need to understand and navigate the site more easily.

    2. Gabby Dell from SC

      Yes, it’s important as well. But design should complement content and not try to overshadow it. You risk losing your audience once you do that.

      1. Andrew Says So

        A site’s design shouldn’t hinder users from accomplishing whatever they’re trying to do.

      1. WhateverWorks

        It’s part of being a designer, I guess. You see things differently. It just so happens that design is not the end all and be all of successful sites although it’s important, too.

  3. Ed from Htmlpress.net

    In an informal study of succesful online entrepreneurs, when they were asked how their website first looked like, they would respond with a facial gesture as that of seeing something really disgusting.

    1. Guy Cleveland

      Design’s something you can build on. It’s much better to start simple so you have plenty to tweak and improve on.

  4. SuperbadIM

    This is sooooo true. I can’t tell you how much time I wasted on design in the beginning instead of focusing on what really mattered.

    In some cases, bad design can even help conversions, e.g., POF.

    1. Ethan

      POF sure is an excellent example of that. Goes to show that users are more concerned with what they get rather than what the see on a site.

  5. Marty Sullens

    Being a designer myself and having used craigslist quite often I can say it functionality does need some work.

    Even if they kept the design it could be easier to use IMO.

    1. Rylan Howie

      I think designers are wired that way. To see possibilities. Maybe the guy didn’t just articulate it well.

  6. Nikki Stewart

    The whole point of interface design should not be to intimidate but to connect. It doesn’t mean that it can be sacrificed but the focus should be the target market. Are they the type of people who would enjoy complicated designs and would be willing enough to navigate them? If yes, then they might be among the minority since most people who turn to the Internet when looking for something prefer to find what they need the easiest and quickest way possible.

        1. Fields of Clover

          True. It’s not entirely a bad thing unless it gets in the way of finding the balance between great design and usability.

    1. Sanjay

      The goal is to be unintimidating as possible. That’s why you can rarely go wrong in keeping it simple.

    1. Austin

      It’s better if users spend less amount of mental energy needed to get things done on the site. The fewer concepts they need to understand, the more time they can spend actually getting their work done. It’ll be hard to do that with a complicated designs.

      1. Richard Pascal

        The interactive process should be seamless. Otherwise you’d lose your audience to other sites that offer a more user-friendly UI.

    2. smstudent

      If your main goal is to sell products then focus on content that can help you get the conversions you need. Pointless to spend a lot of resources on developing a badass design if it can’t help with conversions.

  7. Tool

    “When it comes to the look and design of your site, don’t be afraid to be boring.” – Something worth keeping in mind. Kudos for the great read!

    1. PokeYerFace

      Most users remember the experience more than the features or complex designs you have at your site. Make it easy for them to find what they need and they’ll be coming back.

      1. SmallBiz Sue

        It can help you achieve a more professional look for your site though, which is an advantage if you want it to get noticed.

  8. New Bee

    This is so true. Most of the websites I follow have simple designs but I prefer it that way. It’s always much easier to find what I need when I don’t have to navigate through features that are of no use to me anyway.

    1. Will O.

      Stunning visuals have their uses but at the end of the day, it’s all about giving users what they want. If it’s simple design that gets the most traffic and conversions then it’s what users should find.

      1. Runs With Scissors

        People like getting what they need with minimum fuss. Why confuse them with features that aren’t exactly going to make finding what they’re looking for easier?

  9. PaperMoneyHustlar

    At the end of the day, if you’re in it for business, does your design = more profit, is the question you need to ask. Now, shifting out the ever changing variable of SEO, and focusing on something more stable, such as PPC or even frickin’ press from a blog post, does your design ultimately deliver the best conversion rate which delivers a better bottom line.

    Optimization of design can mean the difference between $100 a day, and $200 a day. However, in cases such as PoF where you’re already established with a large user base, it would be pretty counter-intuitive to take that kind of risk, especially where the website is so heavily reliant on user engagement as oppose to just a simple product sale.

    Testing, in my opinion, is always better done at the beginning where you have no great establishment, but doesn’t mean that it ends there, you should always attempt to A/B or multi-variate test stuff out.

    If you guys are looking for a good source for more information, there’s a blog called Unbounce that covers this topic really well!

  10. B.Logan

    Most, if not all, of successful websites have simple designs. That should be a good indicator as to what users want.

    1. Get That Ball

      It’s usually helps to do some testing soon after you launch a new site. That way you’ll get a fairly good idea of what works or not with your design.

  11. Dave

    I sort of disagree. I may be biased due to my profession, but my experience has taught me that an attractive design can always help. Sure, you shouldn’t put design over the importance of usability, but how many of us make snap judgments every day when we see someone on the street that looks different than what we feel is the ideal or norm. How more likely are we going to be to make a quick judgement based on how a website looks if it is our first experience with it?

    It is possible to have a successful website without a nice design, but I think it’s usually in spite of a lousy looking design, not because of it.

    1. Undercover Affiliate

      Start simple then introduce new features along the way if you think that your audience is ready for them.

    2. RedBlack88

      When in doubt, Ctrl + Alt + Delete! (Seriously, there is no other service available that has the type of potential reach that Craigslist has that will not affect your operating cost.)

  12. Pangeran

    I am one of the people who cares about design.
    But not too obsess about it.

    In my opinion, a clean design and easy to navigate is the most essential design.

    I like it to be light themed as well.

    1. nealcal

      As long as Craigslist keeps it really simple (by “simple,” I mean free of charge), then it still has an advantage over other online selling sites like eBay.

  13. christian

    Well said. I’ve learned this the hard way over the past couple of years. I had several sites that were doing just fine with a relatively minimal design, and when I decided to get all fancy pantsy with a new hip design, not only did my SERP’s suffer, as the site became a slow, resource hog, but my conversions suffered as well. After switching back to the original, not so pretty design, things got back to normal.

  14. thoushallpass

    Most people are willing to negotiate on price, so you can usually find really sweet deals. I’ve found especially good bargains on hard to find books and vinyls. There are personal ads, discussion forums, job listings, and a for sale/wanted section, too, so you can just browse for stuff you need and you won’t be disappointed.

  15. thoushallpass

    Simplicity is beauty and that’s why Craigslist is the best for me. Plus, it’s completely anonymous. Searching for things doesn’t require a user ID and your e-mail is never used, unless you contact a seller about a specific item. As the seller, your e-mail is never given unless you respond back to an inquiry.

    1. Bryan Jake T

      Sounds good to me. I haven’t explored Craiglist yet but I heard there’s a lot of amazing deals there. Will check it out soon.

    1. Husher50

      A web designer’s biggest paradox: People expect, sometimes demand, more features more features and they also demand that it be easy to use. Finding the balance between those two is a good start.

    1. F2Xsites

      Well, I wouldn’t want readers to get too busy figuring out how to navigate my site. I want them to find out more about the products I’m offering and not waste their time figuring out how to work the interface.

  16. nealcal

    Apart from goods and services, Craigslist has a separate section for jobs. That section is divided into subcategories, like accounting and finance, marketing, general labor, and more. The section is broken down into over 30 categories based on job type. What does this mean for you as a job seeker? It means lots of chances to find a good, well-paying job.

    1. ExclaimedIdeas

      Craigslist does go to great lengths to ensure that their users have adequate posting features and capabilities. However, as more and more websites come onto the market looking to compete with Craigslist, their downfalls become obvious. Some ad posters have stated their frustration with the lack of video capabilities, as well as being limited to a certain number of pictures.

      1. TomYoon

        I personally think that keeping it as simple as it is makes people want to use the site. No fancy glitters, no hassles, no problem. Remember what Biggie Smalls said?

  17. Tammyexperiments

    One negative thing about Craigslist is since everything is done anonymously, it is hard to know how much interest there is in an item you are looking at, so if you wait a day or two to comparison shop the item might be gone.

    1. H delacruz

      Also, because it is anonymous, you have no idea if you are dealing with a sweet old lady or a serial axe-murderer or a sweet old lady who turns out to be a serial axe-murderer. Meh. :P

      1. melg

        One of the few downsides. I like the fact that I don’t have to share my email address but not knowing who you’re dealing isn’t something I enjoy doing.

  18. Laney Pitt

    To me, Craigslist is an effective way to try and unload anything. It is basically free, so you can list whatever you want, and if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t a big deal. It just costs you the time it took to list the ad.

    1. Bputitout / Putitoutthere

      My only problem with Craigslist, especially in San Diego, where I live, is that the majority of the ads are poorly written with typo, punctuation, and grammatical errors and that they aren’t fully detailed enough.

  19. Lola Dee

    I’ve been using Craiglist for some time now. I haven’t thought much about its design. I just like that it’s fairly easy for me to find what I’m looking for there.

  20. Dandundun

    As a Craigslist seller, the most common issue is people are not showing or calling at the last minute and wanting me to hold an item for another day when I have 12 other contacts.

    1. medomoc

      Remember, kids, eBay has a wider audience, since it is not local service. This means that you’ll get more eyeballs on your items, and you can potentially sell for a bigger profit if things get bid up.

  21. internetFTW

    A lack of feedback rating on sites like Craigslist puts buyers and sellers at a potential risk. eBay uses a feedback system to help alert buyers of potential problems with sellers they are purchasing from, as well as sellers. When you are listing a product on sites like eBay, you are going to want to make sure that the person bidding on your items is going to follow through with their end of the deal, and are not simply pulling your strings. On Craigslist, this is simply not possible because the features have not been implemented.

    1. AL0101

      Perhaps if they could just attach a few buttons like the ones in Facebook (e.g. status and like functions), then their service would become even more impressive.

    2. FirenzeZ

      I believe it’s safer to approach businesses or individuals in person and hand them your business cards, depending on where you live, rather dealing with people online.

  22. AnnieLouJ12860

    Another major issue with sites like Craigslist is that there is a large volume of stolen property passing through their listings. Police departments across the country are devoting substantial amounts of time to tracking down criminals who are stealing property from their local area and attempting to resell it on Craigslist.

    1. WanderingMommy

      Like offline marketing, buying and selling via the Internet involves a bit of risk but the rewards can be monumental. It basically depends on you if you’re to it or not.

  23. KrisM77

    Nothing can replace the personal touch of meeting potential clients face to face. And, it is difficult to determine who, on Craigslist, is a potentially valid client or not. There are some definite disadvantages to the service but it sure is useful, too.

    1. georgeblanco

      I haven’t tried the service but my wife has. She says it’s easy to find what she needs at great value.

    1. Yes2Freebies

      And you can buy just about anything at great deals. Who cares if they don’t have a fancy design?

    1. EllaineR

      One of the negative aspects of Craigslist that I observe is that unlike eBay, people can come to your house or meet you somewhere close to get the item. So while this requires no shipping costs or fees and makes life a little more easier for both parties, you also run the risk of getting mugged.

  24. Charles Vincent

    A subject very close to my heart – the debate on form before function.

    If you ever want to see the results of putting form before function, take a look at our friend, the humble dog. Nowadays there are many dog breeds that are actually (not practically or nearly or almost, but ACTUALLY) disabled as a result of being bred for form over function. Dogs that can’t breathe, have heart problems and are basically wrecked all in the pursuit of achieving a physical ideal. I view a web property as something which should have a clearly defined function – if that function is to showcase to the world that you are an awesome design company, then fine – knock yourself out. But for most, that’s not the case – and function should be the priority. Show ponies can’t pull carts like a Shire Horse, even though they might look prettier.

    1. WilmaP

      I completely agree on having a clearly defined function. Everything should serve a purpose foremost of which is to enhance the user experience.

    2. Susan Armand

      While it’s apparent that you are partial to function over form, it is also not a bad thing to be a fan of form and function working together as partners.

  25. Aaron

    Coming up with the right balance between design and functionality can be challenging. I find I always get caught up tweaking a design when the changes I’m making will probably have very little impact on the end result.

    1. WhoisDoyle

      That’s probably because a good design would be an asset for your site. I think it’s worth working on as long as you have a plan.

      1. BigMoneyBrooklyn

        Visual design makes your site more interesting. Simple is okay as long as you don’t make it too simple that it would look crappy.

        1. Raul Lago

          I am partial to functionality when it comes to websites. If you’re just full of flashy things that I don’t really need, then I might never come back again as a visitor — or perhaps a potential customer.

    2. Creative Marketer

      It takes a lot of creativity to do that. But I know of some web designers who manage to create elegant and fascinating designs without sacrificing functionality and ease of use.

  26. TYCP Magazine

    I agree. A good design is a plus. It’s not the most important thing. I’ve come across a lot of well-designed sites that have crappy content. Then we have those that go overboard with the design to the point where it’s a distraction & you kind of forget the content is even there.

    I’m not going to hate on Craigslist. It does what I want & that’s the bottom line. Not every site needs all kinds of bells & whistles just because it’s “in”.

    1. WhoSaysWhat01

      Well said. You don’t have to let your content hide behind the site’s design. The most important thing is what you have to offer to users. They might enjoy looking at your amazing design for a few seconds but it has no real value to them.

    2. Fridtjof Salomon

      Great insight on the topic. I believe what makes Craigslist really popular among the populace is its way of letting users get to the good stuff without wallowing through unnecessary crap first.

  27. newmediaist12

    Google’s simple and pristine design is probably one of the factors why it enjoys a commanding lead. Notice how those Doodles they feature never fail to catch the attention of users. One of the perks of using a simple design is that it would be easy for anything that you wish to highlight to get noticed.

    1. TheSandMan5050

      Think about the marvels of simplicity throughout time or fast forward to present, you have Google and the iPod. Both enjoy considerable success not because of their complex designs.

      1. Roshaun Philips

        The iPod’s combination of a simple clickwheel and clear onscreen software makes it a snap to use out of the box. That is why it is so hot these days and has risen to become the industry’s standard in mp3 players, too.

      2. Go Harry Go

        Thoreau’s “as you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness” just makes this thread even more relevant. What’s your two cents’ worth on this, Jeremy?

  28. GQmeansGeek

    Ease of use is important in any technology. That’s something that developers and innovators should keep in mind.

    1. Heinrich Sture

      “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” ~Hans Hofmann, Introduction to the Bootstrap, 1993 (Enough said. Time for a beer.)

  29. Rod S. Lee

    I have only listed a handful of items on eBay, and although the items I sold there did sell for more than I had gotten for similar items on Craigslist, including the hassle of shipping and also having other items not sell, I didn’t make much more of a profit in the end using eBay than I did with Craigslist.

  30. Kevin A

    I am definitely not a purist but I think eBay should have at least have some kind of commendation for starting the whole concept. What do you think, Shoe?

  31. Patrick R

    You know, while there are countless features and strategies to sell stuff on eBay — and it has become one of the most progressive sites these days, too — I still don’t get the name they picked for their company.

  32. Blaine

    I can’t tell you how much time I have wasted on design while the content suffers. So many projects never got finished as I was never happy with the design while I watch other sites succeed I was perpetually stuck in the design stage ….. SAD SAD SAD

    1. Hans Anders

      As for me, I believe that a website should be just like my plate of Filet Mignon at Chez Paris. It should be so visually aesthetic that I’m drooling all over even before it hits my table. Nonetheless, I also suggest that spending equal time on design and content is the best thing to do.

  33. Baseer Hannan

    For someone running a business, this would be different, but if you are simply trying to sell a few items to get them out of your house, and you aren’t setting up your own resale empire, Craigslist may be the way to go.

  34. party bus

    Here is similar story http://www.betanews.com

    What should be Microsoft’s top priorities for 2011? I’ve got an answer for that, as I have for seven years now. Rather than make predictions about what the company will do in the coming year, I offer what it should do. The advice is unsolicited, but given nevertheless with the hope Microsoft will make 2011 better than 2010.

  35. Michael

    You raise a really good point here and I completely agree. Websites like Craigslist might not be eye candy but it certainly gets the job done. Simplicity and barebones design is all part of what makes craigslist great. I can’t speak for everyone else but craigslist’s easy to use informal interface is what makes it attractive and non intimidating for newb sellers compared to ebay. The bottom line is people can talk all the garbage they want but craigslist will continue to live by the Don’t fix what isn’t broken” rule and continue to prosper.

  36. Lucian

    The problem with redesigns is that first, you have a lot of people used to the old design, and they can also help new members to understand it. When you make a redesign, all actual members will find it hard to use because they are not used to it, and while it is best fittet for new comers, they won’t come because they hear from users that the design is bad and the service is not good.

  37. Patent Application

    Similar Story

    Design professor Steven McCarthy will give an illustrated presentation on works from the Goldstein Museum’s graphic design collection. Centered around the concept of design authorship—where designers’ roles are expanded from professional service providers to socially, culturally and politically engaged communication initiators—the collection spans 70 years of innovation. Among the notable publications are early 20th century journal PM (eventually A-D), the complete set of Émigré Magazine from the late 20th century, and issues of Push Pin Graphic, Octavo: A Journal of Typography, Portfolio, Fuse, News of the Whirled and others. Artifacts from the collection will be on display.

  38. Aoife

    This can’t be said enough. It’s definitely not the nicest sites that make the most money. An example that always comes to mind is Steve Pavlinas site. He makes a huge amount of money from that site and the design is old fashioned and a bit ugly.

  39. TheGoddessMaria

    I’m reading this as I’m procrastinating about designing a flyer…. maybe it’s a message?? I know folks hate Wikipedia’s look, but it really is effective. And Craigslist would take forever to load if it was all slick and “glossy” looking. Save bandwidth for when I want it – like movies and pictures.

  40. Mass Media Exposure

    Man now this is preaching truth. Saw this post in the rotator at the top of the home page and it hit home. I fell into this trap several times. It is hard to avoid/resist sometimes, the urge to keep tweaking, adding, over-designing. I decided to take an approach with some new content areas of craigslist-like minimalism, it will be quite different from competitors and I hope it helps traffic and conversions. I did a test with a single page and it seems to actually work, imagine that! I made a couple of really idiotic mistakes when launching this site, but its turning out to be a blessing in disguise and is pushing the site in a much more fruitful direction. I learned one big lesson apart from the over-designing sucking up all my time problem – if you think u have found the golden goose offer, better to throw up a basic page and test it first before you go nuts with it, cuz it could be a golden turkey laying no eggs for you. Basic basic basic. Everything always comes back to the basics.

  41. Rodney

    i mean design is important but not that damn important. that dude go some issues.. At the end of the day you go to a site with a purpose and most likely its not to check out the background images!

  42. Andreas Pazer

    The reputation of a business or company is adversely affected by the quality of its website’s design. A website could have the most impressive and informative content in the world, but if the design is not up to the expected mark, rest assured it will lose very many potential sales. There are some very common mistakes and web design errors that many people overlook, but which could have very potential effects on your business’ bottom line.

  43. rakesh

    but first impression comes from the design, and first impression is the last, if your site is well designed, more people would like to stay on your site.

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