The Reality of Lo-Fi Design
Scoble started a worldwide blog roundtable when he questioned whether design mattered for the web’s most successful sites. Well of course he was wrong. And of course he was right.
Robert Scoble struck the match that lit this bonfire discussion, and it’s time I weighed in on it. He argues that certain sites are successful because of their non-commercial, homemade, “lo-fi” design:
We trust things more when they look like they were done for the love of it rather than the sheer commercial value of it.
To an extent he is right, and to an extent he is wrong. He fails to mention the thousands of sites that are “pretty” and successful (like, Yahoo, the #1 most trafficked site), so his correlation between success and good design was a dead argument before he finished writing his post.
Why Scoble is Wrong
What Robert failed to mention are the good ideas behind these successful sites. Who cares if Google is ugly? They have the best search engine and everyone knows it. Craigslist? A brilliant system that effortlessly connects people. MySpace? It’s social networking done the way people want—just ask their 65 million subscribers. Pleantyoffish? It’s a free dating service. Of course it’s successful. It’s free.
Design has little to do with the success of these or other sites. Success on the web—like in the real world—is built on good ideas. There are millions of well-designed and horribly designed sites that wallow in the long tail of Alexa simply because the ideas driving them are sophomoric, poorly executed or simply not there.
But that’s not really what this discussion is about, is it? Designers around the blogodome are up in arms because someone with no design background has challenged their very role—their raison d’etre—in the web ecosystem.
Why Scoble is Right
We, as designers, expect good design. We cruise the web, visiting CSS galleries, commenting on each other’s glamorous and shiny blogs, talk about Ajax, read Zeldman and basically participate in a worldwide, self-congratulating circle jerk. We live in a warm cocoon of Photoshop and web standards. When we come across a poorly designed site, we cringe, like a European car collector driving a Kia or a food critic eating Wendy’s.
Here’s the reality. Web developers believe design is the alpha and omega of the Internet Experience. It’s not. Most of the world has no design training, and could give a shit about design. Those same people build “ugly” websites, and occasionally one strikes it rich with a massive audience.
Don’t get me wrong. Design does matter. Usability, readability, site architecture, accessibility and standards have their rightful place, and make a significant difference for the end-user experience. But without the good idea, all that work is just a pretty dress with no one to wear it.
What I Don’t Want to Admit
Scoble: “If itâ€™s ugly is authentic. Not corporate. It is good. No?”
Again, unpleasant reality. Over and over again I have seen this to be the case with sites that are selling something (not just providing content like a corporate brochure site). From my experience, sites that have an agenda to get the visitor’s money—an ebook, a new car, a piece of software—perform better when the design is “low fidelity.” I do not want to admit this, but I stand before you a humbled Photoshop and CSS expert.
This does not mean these lo-fi sites aren’t “designed.” They are. But they’re not over designed. They’re well structured, readable and fast-loading without screaming ”$900 PHOTSHOP FILTER” or “2-HOUR FRONTPAGE MARATHON CLUSTERFUCK.” The design is neutral. Visually amateur but functionally rock solid. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a carefully engineered, thoroughly tested and deceptively experienced salesperson who knows exactly what they’re doing.
I’ve learned this the hard way. I have built dozens of sites designed to sell something, or at least funnel the visitors into a free subscription or registration. I used to design the shit out of them, producing high-gloss, pixel-perfect, grid-aligned page designs using the latest in “bevel-gradient-stroke-whitespace” technology.
These sites failed. Miserably. Conversion rates plummeted from the old, “ugly” designs. The clients were usually as astonished as me. They thought they needed a flashy design.
Over the years I have learned to tame certain designs, reduce them like a good sauce until only the really tasty stuff remains. Remove a few colors. Use Times New Roman every now and then. Over-compress a jpeg just a little. Let a browser’s default rendering creep through the CSS and not stress when something doesn’t line up. Tiny touches that give the air of slightly homemade. It’s not a glamorous design path, but it sells the crap out of stuff.
So Scoble is unintentionally right, like a professional conspiracy theorist accidentally telling a story that is actually true, much to his surprise as anyone else’s.
But the core ingredient in truly successful sites remains the good idea—the Purple Cow—whether that be great content, a killer product or a free service people tell their friends about.