I recently asked this question of Chris at Newfangled as it would seem that there are still marketing managers more concerned about how a site looks than works. This is not to say that design isn’t fundamental in engaging or inspiring customers however beauty is only skin deep and no matter how pretty a site is, if you can’t buy or engage easily you will turn customers off. Likewise, all the functionality in the world won’t matter if users aren’t immediately engaged in your brand and offering.
So how do we decide what is more important and does it matter?
I can agree with arguments on both sides however there is nothing more irritating than trying to navigate around a poorly developed site which puts up barriers to finding what you need and ultimately making a purchase. How many times have you gone to a site only to find you have to re-enter details time and again to get to where you want or find navigation links broken? By looking again and again at the user experience it's easy to spot the issues and get a solution in place. If the design is bad of course I’m not happy but as long as it’s not offensive I won’t turn off.
I’m not going to name and shame as much as I would like to however even massive brands like Amazon can and do work on getting better at the user experience while the design is less than imaginative. As they have to feel safe and secure to such a large range of users, keeping it plain and simple means they don’t risk losing anyone based on the look of their site.
In niche markets, design becomes more important and it isn’t necessary to appeal to all, just those interested in your market. Some luxury brands go too far and let the design agency runaway with their ideas without taking a step back and seeing it from a consumer’s point of view. Couture design is all about not tying yourself to the norm however a website is a media channel not a creative installation.
Chris described how a site is in many respects just like a book or magazine and that there is a requirement for some conformity in terms of layout and usability. Would you find it pleasing to read a book where you had to search for the next page rather than the story just continuing on? The content can change, the book cover, paper, size, language can all be different but don’t mess with titles or page layouts. The same can be said of websites, so get the basic workings right and then let the design do it’s job.