Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

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 it’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 ideathe Purple Cow—whether that be great content, a killer product or a free service people tell their friends about.

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commentary + criticism

Robert Paulson

wrote the following on Tuesday April 4, 2006

I'm usually not one to toot my horn, but this has been considered for awhile

I'm not sure that content wins to the exclusion of any design considerations -- if you've interviewed/hired people in an HR capacity, or have sold things for a living for awhile, you'll know that packaging has its tipping points in both directions.


wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

For me, the less-designed, more homemade a site looks, the less likely I am to give out my credit card number. But…

I am getting a membership, for a school project, to one of those websites where you buy background reports on people. Out of the few I looked at, I ended up picking the ugliest one . But I picked it because, one, it was a better deal, and two, the other sites were actually clones of each other. Different company addresses and styles, but the exact same layout and features.

In the grocery store, I was looking at two bags of peas, and I decided to buy one bag over the other because the picture had better contrast, knowing that the peas would taste exactly the same.


wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

Robert, that is a good discussion and I’ve made the link active.

Jacob, I too would have picked the peas with the better photo. I constantly find myself being swayed by clever graphics vs the better price of a generic brand. (Which brings up a similar discussion—are generic food brands “under-designed” so as to appear more budget-friendly? Food for thought, pun intended.)

We as designers/artists react to better design. I think the general populace reacts to design differently—if it’s over designed (“over designed” being completely subjective), it might be interpreted as a scam.

Tom M

wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

I think that “ugly” sites are successful because of their functionality and freebies, not their lack of design. If myspace charged a low fee like $10 a year I bet a lot of people on there wouldn’t sign up.

I’ll be the first to admit that when I search for a service online, their web presence influences my decision of which company to use. If a company has spent the time/money to develop a good website then I am more likely to trust their attention to detail. I’m not likely to trust a Frontpage built site for anything important or expensive.

The Co-Worker

wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

In my experience (albeit brief) with MySpace, what bothered me the most was that some of the people’s pages were downright ILLEGIBLE. I couldn’t read anything on a lot of them.

And I just couldn’t support that because ultimately, there has to be some sort of check to make sure that things are still legible. Otherwise the web is going to become a lot of noisy, ugly sites that are all connected in one way or another, but you won’t be able to figure out how because you can’t find the information that you desire.

Besides, all MySpace offers is just combining a blog, Flickr account, and email into one ugly site.


wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

Good article. Well said, you make some valid points. I personnaly think it just depends on what the goal of a website is. The website of a large, exclusive company should be ‘well-designed’, professional and slick looking. If that company had some ugly non-designed amateur frontpage design, it would give a very bad impression. On the other side, if some small shop or a charity organisation would have the slickiest-looking, black-and-white corparate design, people wouldn’t trust that! Here in the netherlands some big chain of shops for building material ( uses some very ugly colors for it’s branding. The colors make the brand look cheap. And that’s the purpose. So in a sense, it is well-designed…


wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

I disagree. I think graphic design has little to do with success of a website. I think information design has everything to do with the success of a website. It’s about how it works, it’s about ease of use. It is not about pretty graphics. It is not about ugly graphics.

Matthijs has a valid point. If a site is directly involved in taking payments from users, no one will trust a site that appears it has been hastily slapped together.

Yahoo is another example of simple site design. Notice that all of those sites you mentioned are driven by usability, not design. They design for usability. Personally, although minimal, I think flickr has a beautiful design. It works and it works well. Not to mention it probably saves a fortune on bandwidth.


wrote the following on Wednesday April 5, 2006

I 100% agree. Usability is key. And I also agree that the design of the site should follow the function of the site—corporate sites (think HR Block, Sprint, etc) should be professional and slick-looking because that is exactly the type of image they are trying to portray. Sales sites—and I’m really talking about the smaller shops selling things like ebooks, self-help videos, things like that—depend on that air of authenticity to come across as small, honest and trustworthy.

I’m trying to connect it with a real-world analogy. We expect big companies to be in big, shiny downtown buildings, just as we expect the one-man bait shop to be in a small shack down by the harbor. That same guy could probably set up shop in a strip mall, but he would immediately lose credibility. Maybe not a perfect comparison, but you get the idea.

The lack of professional design is the design.


wrote the following on Thursday April 6, 2006

Do you believe that I’ve seen people that don’t like (aka don’t use) usable sites?

It’s true. Some people have been so much addicted to bad design that cannot tell good from bad anymore.


wrote the following on Wednesday April 12, 2006

I don’t really think usability has anything to do with the success of myspace. I hate myspace.

I hate that when I google a myspace user I find other users that mention the user I am looking for on their page. Or when I search on myspace itself, I find people that are friends with them. But then if someone logs in and does a user search, then it works.

My girlfriend canceled her account recently. It was literally a process with at least three steps, including a form where you comment on why you are canceling.

I think the fact is that it’s popular because it’s popular. I use AOL Instant Messenger because when I got it, more of my friends used it than MSN or Yahoo or whatever else. If you’re in a band, you get a myspace because similar bands have myspaces and your would-be-fans have myspaces.

I think it will lose a little momentum when people find out that Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace.