Yes, when it comes to websites, design matters!

by John Furgurson on April 16, 2012

There was a group discussion on LinkedIn recently that started with this statement: “Web design is a waste of money.” It’s nonsense, of course, but that headline provoked quite a debate.

It’s interesting to see graphic designers on one end, and web programmers on the other, arguing their respective positions. One group believes web design should take a back seat to web marketing and functionality. After all, what good is a website if you’re not driving traffic to it. The other believes you should make sure the site is well polished before you drop a dime to drive traffic.

I’m pretty well stuck in the middle.

As a traditionally trained advertising copywriter, I tend to side with the designers.  As “creatives” we’re trained, from birth, to make sure every detail is perfect before we deliver the work to a client.  Because we know details affect conversion rates.  It’s been proven time and time again.

But I also understand the other side of the argument… In the entrepreneurial world, as in software development, “lean” is word of the week. Their mentality is, “just get something up, and we’ll fix it later.”

That’s a tough one for writers and graphic artists who always want to do great work. But as a CEO friend once said, “it’s not great work if it’s not done.”

So what we need is a high-bred approach that combines the craftsmanship of old-school advertising with the rapid “lean development” approach that entrepreneurs favor. We need to get web designs done quickly, AND do them really well. Quick and polished, not quick and dirty.

One comment in that discussion was, “I cannot think of a time when website design affected my decision to keep looking at a site.”That’s ridiculous crazy talk from someone who thinks we go through life making decisions line by line in an orderly, logical fashion.

I guarantee you, that person is affected by design EVERY time.  He just doesn’t know it.

Of course he “can’t think of a time,” because great web design works on subconscious level that computer programmers don’t understand, nor acknowledge. It’s an instantaneous, subconscious judgment that leads to spontaneous click of the mouse.  There’s absolutely nothing logical about.

Before you know you’ve made a decision, you just stay and linger, or you leave. You don’t know why. You just do.

The latest brain research shows that humans can initiate a response to stimuli before the neocortex can even interpret the stimuli. In other words, we act before we think.

So the first impression is critically important, and that hinges on design.

Poor design leads to confusion, and nothing drives people away faster than confusion. If the immediate, split-second impression is that you don’t know what the site’s about or what to do next, you’re outta there. There are plenty of pretty websites out there that don’t convert worth a hoot because of this.

Poor website design leads to all sorts of problems.

On the other hand, good design leads to clarity, and understanding at a glance, which is the litmus test for sticky websites. Instantaneous recognition of relevance.

I think part of the problem with this discussion is a limited definition of “design.” When it comes to websites, design is not just the aesthetic elements, as in traditional graphic design, but also the site planning, messaging, and usability.

It’s a holistic approach to web development that I like to call Conversion Branding.  It’s a well-coordinated team effort between a copywriter who knows conversion architecture, a talented graphic designer, a technically proficient programmer, and a trusting, intelligent client.

Remove any of those people from the equation and the website simply will not come together as you had hoped.

But back to that discussion… Much of the thread was about the importance of “web marketing” vs. “web design.”  In that case, balance is the key…

You don’t want to spend money to drive a lot of traffic to a website that isn’t enticingly relevant and professional.

There’s an old saying in the advertising business: “nothing kills a lousy product faster than great advertising.”  If your website is lousy, driving traffic to it will just increase your bounce rates, which indicate how many people abandon you in favor of some other, more appealing site.

On the other hand, you don’t want to spend too much on design only to be left with no money for “web marketing” that’ll push traffic.

I agree that having something up and online is better than nothing at all. But be careful… If you’re Microsoft, you can get away with it.  The brand allows something that’s far from perfect. But if you’re not very well known, people are pretty unforgiving. One lousy experience and it’s bye-bye. They won’t return for your website 2.0.

There are two things you need in order to get a good site up fast: a well crafted brand strategy which provides context and perspective, and a detailed website plan that spells out specific objectives, target audiences, paths to conversion and other critical elements of your site.

If you leave your web site production to the computer nerds, you won’t get the brand strategy, the site plan, or the great design.  HTML programmers simply follow directions and program the site as it’s presented to them, in the fewest keystrokes possible.

And guess what… designers aren’t very good at that strategy stuff either. I’ve seen designers obsess over the tiniest minutia and then miss the fact that the main headline of the home page is completely unrelated to the business at hand.

It’s a mess.

So we’re back to that idea of balance and a four-person team. Design absolutely matters. But so does Functionality. Messaging. Conversion. Authenticity. SEO. Photography. And copywriting, don’t forget that.

For some reason, most business owners seem to think they can write web copy, even though they’d never dream of writing their own print ads. Or video script. Or TV spot. But that’s a topic for another post.

Suffice it to say, most business owners don’t have the skills they need to produce a good website. Unfortunately, neither do programmers. Neither do designers. You need the whole team.

Together you might just find a great design that also produces results.

 

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex Fender April 17, 2012 at 12:49 am

I have come to the conclusion that any programmer or internet marketer that does not understand the importance of design is more likely than not, an amateur. Those that think design has little importance has never full understood their Google Analytics Reports, performed A/b testing, or generated a large volume of sales online.

The very first action that is taken by a website visitor is with their eyes. If they dont like it, they wont stick around to read it. Its really that simple. You dont need a 10k design budget, but your business is worth more than a $500 freelance student.

Samantha April 23, 2012 at 9:14 am

I need to agree with Alex here. Design and “user experience” go hand in hand. And anyone not seeing that is a newbie (or just closed up in a box!!)

A website needs to be designed in such a way that it captures a users eye, but it also needs to load fast, else the user will bounce.
Also, if you land on a site that has no hierarchy, is full of flamboyant colors and you have no idea where to look first – it makes stuff difficult to find etc – are you REALLY going to stay on that site and try figure out for 15 minutes where to do XYZ?? I doubt it!

That’s where design and user experience meet 🙂

Jeff Seibert July 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm

John, very interesting article and the very same “discussion” I had when trying to get my own site up and running. Being a brand guy, I tend to lean toward the side of the creatives – if you “just get something out there,” people are going to view – and evaluate – based on what’s there…not based on what’s left in your mind that you intend to add or fix.

Being completely overstimulated, they’ll take those couple of seconds and decide to stay or go. Obviously design and layout is one of the most critical elements that impact those first few seconds.

I suppose it ultimately comes down to the question “how close are you to 100%?” If 80, that’s probably good enough because it will never actually be 100 if you are honest with yourself. But if it’s 60 or 70? That may be just short enough that you lose your one shot to stick.

ishani November 9, 2012 at 5:56 am

Hi, Thank you for selecting this topic. its very interesting article .

Web Optime February 3, 2013 at 12:31 am

Hello and thank you for selecting this subject for debate. In my opinion, I think the web site design is very important but it must connect to a content also important. The two go train. The first impression that a site is its design and also the last impression is its design. If the design is beautiful, it will easily become familiar with the site and memorise them to return after.

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