Sometimes you read something and just have to shake your head. I’m not going to name names because this is a company that employs people I like, but on their site they have this statement:
Studies have shown that it doesn’t matter how pretty your site is or how many “bells and whistles” you have. While a high-quality site is important, the majority of people today value usability more than good looks or fanciness. What really matters is getting potential customers to your site and then leading them down an easy-to-follow path that ultimately results in more revenue for your company.
While I agree with some of what is being said, logic, experience, and studies that I can reference say something quite the opposite.
First, let’s isolate the part I take issue with. I agree that what really matters is generating more revenue for your company. No arguments there. I agree that getting potential customers to your site is important, as is leading them down a path towards a transaction. What I disagree with is the statement that “the majority of people today value usability more than good looks or fanciness”.
Actually, I don’t disagree entirely with this statement, although I think there’s evidence from scientific studies to show that it might be entirely false. But what’s more, good usability and good design are often the same thing.
But what I’m really honing in on is that when it comes to designing a website, especially a site that is trying to sell something, good design is not just something optional, it’s critical. Why? Because of something called credibility.
The best research I’ve seen on this is at http://credibility.stanford.edu The way this study works is that participants look at two websites and are asked to choose the one that looks more “credible” or trustworthy. Then they answer questions about why that site was more credible. Want to guess what the overwhelming majority of respondents said? 46% of respondents said that design was the most important factor in establishing credibility.
Selling online is competitive, and what this study shows is that people judge a book by its cover. If they don’t trust your site, they will move on to the next site before they ever find out how easy your site to navigate, and they might not trust your low prices because they might think from the poor quality of your site design that you can’t deliver a high-quality product/service.
In my opinion, there are two critical factors when it comes to selling online. One is getting people to your site, and the other is making sure they stay once they get there. While factors other than design are important to accomplishing the second objective, design is by far the most important. The Stanford study says this about design:
We find that people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like IBM.com. The visual design should match the site’s purpose.
This advice is contained along with nine other guidelines for building the credibility of your site at http://credibility.stanford.edu/guidelines/index.html
What I often find to be the cause of a rift between those who believe in usability and those who believe in design is a belief that they are mutually exclusive. Maybe I’m just biased, but I find this misunderstanding to be primarily on the part of those who are not designers. After five years of running a web design firm I’ve heard it many times, possibily hundreds of times. “I want it to look good, but I don’t want a lot of Flash.”
Macromedia’s software called “Flash” is one of the most misunderstood programs out there, and the perceptions those who are not web designers have of those who are web designers and their supposed love of Flash are way off base as well. Allow me to digress for one moment and give you the facts on Flash itself.
1. Rougly 99% of web users already have Flash installed on their computers. Worrying about the 1% who don’t already have it is pointless (unless it’s the CEO).
2. Flash websites are not necessarily “heavy” or slow to load. In some cases a Flash website might actually load faster than an HTML site that looks roughly the same.
3. Flash is not just a tool for creating animations that zip around and look cool. In the last few years Macromedia has turned it into more of an application development platform. If you use the Macromedia website to buy something you’ll see them using Flash as part of the shopping experience in a way that makes shopping quite convenient. Right now my firm is building a customization engine for a client so that their online customers can customize how a product looks and see what it will look like prior to purchasing it. You can check out the Nike iD site to get a taste of how this can work.
That aside, now let’s set the record straight on how web designers feel about Flash.
1. Web designers are not Flash addicts. The impression I get from my clients is that they think all web designers are just itching to use Flash on every single website they design. Quite the opposite is true. I find myself recommending against the use of Flash and trying to talk clients out of it much more than I end up trying to get someone to use it.
2. Web designers do not like Flash intros. Flash intros went out of style about four years ago, which in Internet time is the equivalent of 40 years. Any web designer recommending a full-screen Flash intro is hopelessly behind the times.
The good web designers these days are well educated in user interface design, usability, information architecture, CSS, XHTML, and will have at least some experience with search engine optimization.
The result of talented designers or design firms is work like what you see at the recently redesigned CNET. Who says that a user-friendly website that makes a lot of money and shows up well in search engines has to be ugly?
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that the design of your website is important if you want to keep the visitors who get to your site from checking out the next one, and that good design is not incompatible with your other website objectives.
But why would anyone say otherwise? I think it comes down to money. In the case of the unnamed company, they are a SEO/SEM company. For those of you who don’t like acronyms, that’s search engine optimization and search engine marketing. This company takes care of the first half of that important equation for selling online by helping drive traffic to their clients’ websites. However, they’ve decided they also want to offer web design services. But their web design skills are, to put it politely, sub-par. Hence, I believe they’ve minimalized the importance of good web design in order to be able to earn extra revenue without being held to high standards, because holding yourself to a higher standard when it comes to design means hiring the kind of designers who cost a lot more than the mediocre ones.
In closing, my advice is to never trust anyone but professional designers to design your site. Programmers are not designers. Search engine professionals are not designers. Internet strategists, marketing gurus, branding geniuses, advertising types, and HTML coders are not designers. And print designers are generally not web designers. How can you find a good web designers or a good web design firm then? If I have to tell you then you’ll never understand. No, I’m not joking. If you want to find one, just ask me. I’m sure I can recommend a few.