The real reason why beautiful websites fail.

Let’s stop for a moment and rid our minds of everything we thought to be true about beautiful designs. A lot of web designers believe that a beautiful design is the key to having a great website. Well in one sentence, that, is why most startup’s have trouble lifting off online. The basis of this sometimes controversial discussion is going to be that people buy functionality as apposed to beauty. After all, beauty is subjective where as functionality is objective. So, do you really need to have a beautiful website?

Ferrari vs Ford

Here’s the philosophical question of the day: Is anything actually superfluous? Sure, we could say that having two gowns when you only need one might be unnecessary, but what if the person purposely acquired more than what was needed, simply to show that they could?

The Ferrari, one of the most popular luxury sports cars in the world. Wow! Impressive! Beautiful! Etc etc. Answer me this: If Ferrari lowered their price to $20k, would a lot of people buy one? The right answer is no. You see, for the vast majority of Ferrari owners, the car serves one purpose, to show that they can afford one, to show that they have money…to show off. So, by this logic, if everyone in the middle class could afford one, what would the ‘rich’ be showing off? Then there are those power junkies who will argue that the Ferrari is all about the horse power. Well, let’s be realistic. You can’t go over an average of 120km/h in most developed areas, so all that extra horse power, if taken advantage of is going to amount to a load of speeding tickets. Sure, you could go off the grid and put that horse power to the test, but as I said, “developed” implies a maintained roadway. A Ferrari sits pretty low to the ground, I’ll let you imagine what happens when you hit a few potholes at 200km/h. So you decide to stay on the safe roads. If you purchase a Ferrari because it’s affordable at $20k, you’re probably not the type of person who reacts indifferently to speeding tickets. By the way, you can only fit two people in this masterpiece of an automobile. Ok, I’ll stop. The point is that we’ve basically narrowed Ferrari’s functionality down to it’s ‘coolness’ factor, and though some might argue that the need to ‘look cool’ depends on the person, I would argue that it depends on the situation.

Ironically, ‘showing off’ and ‘fitting in’ cross roads in certain situations. If you go to a luxurious event, pulling up in a Ferrari suits the occasion better than a Ford. Then again, if you go to a rock concert, you probably feel more at ease wearing jeans than a Tuxedo.

What you like…

Before the many polarizing politicians around the world, there was Microsoft vs Apple. When I provocatively tell my colleagues,
No one has ever bought something just because it was beautiful.
Often enough someone replies,
Oh yeah? What about Apple?!

I never get a straight answer when I ask people to give me an example where Apple promoted a product solely based on its famous Apple design. If you look closely, you’ll notice that ‘beauty’ or any synonym of the word is never stated, maybe implied…but not stated. Focus on that sentence; benefits are never implied, they are stated, because you don’t want your unique selling points to be left to interpretation. Apple knows that there are more effective ways of convincing a customer to buy a product because it respects that we ourselves feel confident when judging beauty or what appeals to our senses, but don’t feel confident at all when judging computers.

Just for transparency, I’m a PC guy, but I do indeed use an iPhone, because, well, I don’t use my phone for anything productive. Haha! 😉 Come on we’re all friends here…

Anyway, you don’t have to look any farther than the web to find hundreds of benchmark tests and practical examples that demonstrate that when compared to equally built PC’s and displays, Apple performs just the same and in certain cases worse than PC. I’m simplifying this comparison so I don’t go off topic. Anyway, I still hail Apple as having one of the best marketing departments I’ve seen. For instance, Apple miraculously managed to convince millions of users that a Mac couldn’t get viruses, even when it shipped it’s software with McAfee Antivirus included! If it’s not prone to viruses, why the antivirus?

The lesson learned here is that even a company who is famous for its design, never uses that design in the pitch. Instead it works heavily on promoting the notion that the Apple name means ‘better’.

What you need…

Now that we have some designer names, let’s look at some companies who seem like they’ve never even heard of design. I present you: Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. These are some of the richest companies in the world and yet, Amazon is as bland as can be, half the time a user spends on Facebook is spent trying to figure out where to click and until a few years ago, Microsoft made common products that looked like they were inside out. So why the success? How did they get so far while being so unattractive? Well, these companies, along with many others, focused on functionality rather than appearance. You don’t have to convince anyone that you can buy all sorts of things at a cheap price on Amazon, it’s all there in front of your eyes. When Facebook came out, it was obvious that no one cared about the incomprehensible UI (user interface), users just wanted know other people’s business. Microsoft understood the value in versatility because no company was the same. No company was going to buy a thousand non-upgradable computers with proprietary software that had some arbitrary way of operating and cost a fortune.

Define beautiful…

This digital world, built for us…built by us, is very similar to the real world where beauty only gets you so far. I wouldn’t tell anyone to ignore design, however I would encourage companies or web designers to put 99% of their effort into making a website as functional as can be and spend the rest of the time judging the aesthetics. Basically, instead of trying to draw up a beautiful design, focus on an appropriate design. If you’re really into aesthetics, don’t worry, the secret to beauty isn’t what you produce but how you produce.

Nobody buys things just because they’re beautiful, people buy things because those things serve a purpose. Beauty is rarely the determining factor in a sale, beauty is fickle, it’s unreliable, it’s mostly a feature and rarely a benefit. Understand what the purpose of your product is and you be able to design an appropriate layout around it.

Consider that if you’re going crazy trying to design the most beautiful website there is, it’s probably because deep down, you’re the one who wants it to be beautiful and that’s fine. But who is the website really for, you or the customer? The customer just wants to pay less for a pair of Nike’s.

Let me ask you this: Do you think a stop sign should be appealing or effective?

In the end

In the end, beautiful design is great and all but remember to put yourself in the user’s shoes if you have doubts. If your online bank asked you how they could make the platform better…what would your suggestion be? Make it nicer?