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The importance of good design

© May 2019 Anthony Lawrence

I see a lot of bloggers very worried about their blogs design. Most of them should be far more worried about content.

Before the web designers out there get crazy, let me say that sure, a good design adds to the value of a site and a bad design detracts. There's no argument there. The issue is how important design really is.

Before we go too far, let's agree that design is more than a pretty face. It also includes functionality, navigation, even features like comments and how easy it is to find things. "Design" covers a lot of ground and not all web site "designers" are really prepared to deal with all of that.

Maybe no one is really prepared to deal with it:

.. although the study found that the traditional "well-designed" sites were
difficult and confusing for the testers to use, the same testers often 
reported that they "liked" those very sites! The authors also note that 
there may be a conflict in that sites that attract attention while surfing 
seem to have elements that detract from usability, and that sites that do 
better for usability aren't "interesting" to surfers.

(Book review "Web Site Usability")

Uggh. That's not good. However, that study is a few years old, and it may very well be that it was too early: people were not used to using websites because it wasn't an ordinary part of their lives then. Today's surfers may be more accustomed to the way most websites work because certain attributes have become very standard: almost all sites have an easy to find "About" page, a "Contact" link and more and more are promoting RSS in a standard manner by using the orange RSS logo (such as you see in the upper right corner here).

Blogs and websites are mostly two and three column layouts now, with the side columns used for advertising and navigation links, and usually not more than 160 pixels wide. There are few sites that use top bar menus like you see here, but those aren't as common as sidebars - especially for blogs. The "standardization" of blogs and websites may make them easier to use and understand.

Design also includes things you do not or cannot see from just looking at a web page. Good design today separates content from presentation - if you change your mind about how your pages should look, you should be able to instantly apply that change to all your pages.

Finally, good design should include observation of HTML and CSS rules and standards: what looks good and works well in Internet Explorer might be horrible broken and ugly in Firefox or some far more obscure browser. We used to see "Best if viewed with" disclaimers on some sites, but those have become much more rare: readers don't like to be told what browser they should use and rightfully expect you to make the effort to accommodate their needs. That's not always easy, but it's a necessary part of good design today.

So, web site design covers a lot of ground: it's far more than choosing attractive colors and having a good looking logo. But as I asked at the beginning, how important is it?

Let's draw an analogy here. I'm a "consultant" - usually more of a troubleshooter than anything else. A customer calls me with a problem within my area of expertise and it's something where I have to go to them to fix.

How shall I dress?

The "designers" will say I need to wear a suit and tie and in fact many people in similar professions do. After all, I'm not coming with a screwdriver and I am going to be charging a lot of money. By the way, my wife says the same thing.. "Dress for success!"

Now no, I can't very well show up wearing a Spandex bathing suit with my hair died orange. That would probably be upsetting for most customers. In web site design terms, that would be having a site with flashing giant headlines, garish colors and probably an obnoxious sound clip playing too.

But I can show up in jeans and a clean shirt, because what's important is what I know, not what I'm wearing. For a website, "casual clothes" is something like this site or millions of other fairly plain, "vanilla" sites. They may not have "great" design, but they aren't obviously "awful" either.

And it does not matter.

A really garish blog can distract from good content, so you do need to avoid the Spandex bathing suit.. but you do NOT need a professional design to be non-distracting, and a plain jane look will not adversely affect your performance.

Content is one thousand times more important than presentation.

If you have junk content, doing everything right with your design is not going to attract readers. Conversely, if you have compelling content, readers will forgive or even completely ignore truly horrid design.

A classic example in the tech field is Ars Technica. They have a good looking, well designed site today, but it used to be truly awful: white text on a black background - it could literally give you a headache. And yet, because of their incredibly valuable content, they became an immensely popular site in spite of that.

I think ProBlogger is another example - not as bad as Ars Technica was, but a bit ugly, full of mechanical problems, css offenses and so on. In spite of that, it's immensely popular - because of the content.

Yes, Ars Technica did redo their site, and it wouldn't hurt if ProBlogger cleaned up a few things. It wouldn't hurt you or me or anyone else to spruce up our sites, put on a nice new suit and dot every "i" and cross every "t".. but our content, the stuff that good design surrounds and supports, is where we need to focus most of our attention.

So sure, if you have the time, the money and the desire to polish up every detail, go for it. It's not a bad thing to do. Just don't expect miracles or even any observable difference: there probably won't be any. And if you are going to hire someone to help you with that, make sure they cover all the bases: as noted above, good website design covers a lot of territory. An ideal designer is going to understand graphics and layout, typography, HTML and CSS standards, content management systems, search engine optimization and more.. frankly, it probably takes a team because one person is unlikely to have all the necessary skills.

So, are you ready to "buy a new suit"? Do you want to spiff up your blog, repaint the walls, redo the wiring, upgrade the plumbing, all that? What do you think is the most important thing you should look for in a designer?

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Sun Jan 13 00:25:35 2008: 3442   drag

There are lots of differents things that people want:
What they think they want
What they think they want after then try to express that they want.
What they want after a while of having what they thought they wanted.
etc etc.

As you know language is very limiting and also language affects how we think.

For example advertisers figured out a while ago that if you force people to express their opinions then it will change those opinions. It was a tough thing for smart advertisers to swallow since their industry depends so much on interviews and focus groups and such things. Often times if people are at a loss of words, like they like sophisticated painting but can't express why, they will tell you that they don't actually like it since they can't express themselves. They do this to avoid embarrasment or looking silly. And in addition they will actually beleive they don't like it, even though they do. At least for a while.

For example there was a study made at some college a long time ago. There was a guy that gave out posters to new students. They had two types of posters; One type was based on modern abstract artwork. The other type was 'cuty' posters of things like kittens or other 'safe' subjects.

So when he made students explain why they liked a paticular poster they would choose the 'cuty' images most of the time. If he just let them choose without any explaination they choose the abstract images most of the time.

Once they had the images for a long time he would then ask them if they still liked the image.. Most of the time people with the cuty images had gotten tired of them, while most of the time people who didn't have to explain why they liked something were still happy with the images they choose.

Also time changes things. Like the 'Pepsi Challenge' advertising scheme from years ago.. It freaked out Coke so much they released 'The New Coke' and it almost destroyed them. The deal was, of course, people were presented with a blind taste test. They were given a bit of Pepsi and a bit of Coke and more often then not they would tell everybody they prefered the taste of Pepsi. This wasn't a advertising lie.. people were actually swear-to-god prefering Pepsi in blind taste tests.

But there was a bit of a trick. Pepsi used a more sweet formula then Coke. When people are given a taste test of anything sweeter they would choose the sweeter item most of the time... but only if they are given a very small amount. If they forced the taste testers to drink two entire cans of pop they would almost all tell you that the Coke stuff tasted better, because by the time they finished with them they would be sick and tired of all the sweetness.

Then it's obvous why exit polls are almost always innaccurate, how polls in magazines and newspapers about any topic is going to be innaccurate, etc etc. None of it is dependable. People are virtually incapable of being honest about their own desires. Nobody realy knows what they realy wants most of the time.

Having a garish or fancy website is effectively 'eye candy'. It'll be sweet for a while, but everybody will get tired of it fairly quickly.When the colors and fancy javascript things it can do is pretty neat and people will tell you that they like it, but after a while of making their browser slow, making it difficult to find stuff, filling it up with webpages high on advertisements and low content will make them sick and tired of it.

Sun Jan 13 12:15:04 2008: 3445   TonyLawrence

There's also crowd mentality - people like what they think other people like.


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