Don’t Obsess About Design For Design’s Sake

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 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 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.