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Ask HN: Do quality web graphics, design and layout actually help businesses?
48 points by piotr_krzyzek on May 26, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments
This is a question that has been plaguing me since I started web development and consulting. The more I reach out into the world, the more I see companies with absolutely horrid website designs and yet the companies are doing extremely well. Maybe I'm missing something? So: while I understand a company isn't it's website, but I believe a website helps define a companies image. So why do companies stick with, pardon my language, P.O.S. websites?

There are many roads to the cheese. Cold calling, for example, works. I've never done it and if I suggested it to my (very successful) clients they'd laugh in my face, but it is an enormous business.

A lot of businesses can get away with terrible websites for the same reason I can get away with terrible business cards: 99.8% of the business is elsewhere. If you're Nobu your website could be done by a 4th grader in Flash and you'd still sell sushi at $100 a plate.

That's the part of the answer you won't mind hearing. The other part is designers vastly overestimate the importance of design and that what designers like about designs is in many cases orthogonal to their effectiveness in convincing customers to enter business relationships. (I'd say a variant of that regarding programmers, too.)

what designers like about designs is in many cases orthogonal to their effectiveness in convincing customers to enter business relationships

You have there, in a nutshell, the difference between the outlook of good and bad designers.

Bad designers care about whether they like the design.

Good designers care about whether the end-user likes the design.

The best designers care about how the design helps you make more money or get more customers.

Should a site look good? Absolutely. It never hurts anything to look better. Can a site look ugly? Absolutely. If your business is strong enough, there's no amount of bad design that can hurt it.

The main thing though, is that more attractive designs don't necessarily convert better. People think they do, because you're turned off by ugly designs, and for sure, if you've got two sites up that share the same interface, and one is prettier than the other, the prettier one will likely win your business. But if you take those same sites, and have better copy on the ugly site, it may well convert better. If your pretty design is hard to use, it may well lose.

So yeah, if your web designer cares more about the end user or themselves than whether the design is effective, then you're paying for the wrong thing.

Speaking from a strictly results-based perspective, sometimes looking better can indeed hurt some user actions. See the recent study on slick, professional ads on Plenty of Fish vs MS Paint ads.

But I'm nitpicking. From what I've seen, in 99% of cases looking more pro helps.

I think, more often, the dichotomy is between idealistic designers and pragmatic designers.

Idealistic designers care about whether the end-users (meaning the people who will, say, visit the website) like the design.

Pragmatic designers care about whether the client likes the design.

It's quite a bit harder to make money as an idealistic designer, unless you can wield conversion rate data at the client. If you're just one designer on a team working for an agency, who's been given a "brand policy" document by the client? No chance.

I disagree with the your dichotomy. It isn't whether the end-user likes the design, it is whether the design is useful. So useful that they don't even realize "design" is taking place.

The good designer knows how to get the client to understand that the end-user is the one who needs to value the design :-)

[Top tip - never ask the client "What do you think of X?" instead ask "What would your customers think of X?". You'll be amazed at the different kind of responses you get.]

I waffle back and forth between agreeing with you and disagreeing with you as I've asked myself that same question time and time again. Right now I agree with the one caveat being that awful design can only pass when the information presented is well organized and easily found. I've seen designers changing tens of thousands for sites that look like they were built using a 90's style WYSIWYG editor measurably boost business because everything was easily found and understood despite how cheesy it looks. On the other end of the spectrum I've seen the same expensive design place so much emphasis on cool effects and be such an exercise in vanity for the designer the business got nothing from the site.

I disagree that designers place too much importance on what they do. Design is very important. The mistake designers make is not knowing when it's important. They just want to design everything whether it's necessary or not. I was going to put an analogy here but I lost my train of thought.

the one caveat being that awful design can only pass when the information presented is well organized and easily found

Nope. Awful design survives when the users incentives for using the site outweigh the pain caused by the bad design.

I was comparison shopping for marbles this afternoon (don't ask) - several sites just got closed because I couldn't trivially see what the P&P was.

I'm traveling to the US this year. Which means I have to get ESTA authentication from the lovely DHS. It doesn't matter how fking awful that site is. I will go through the process until it works since I have no other option.

Right now I agree with the one caveat being that awful design can only pass when the information presented is well organized and easily found.

That's not awful design.

If you were dying of thirst in a desert would the style of the canteen matter when you were offered water?

Businesses concentrate on providing water to thirsty people, i.e., find something that people want and provide it to them. If they want it enough, nothing much else matters. This is the goal.

Artists concentrate on providing visual joy and passion in the world. Make people enjoy things they normally might not.

For the vast majority of us, we'd do much better focusing on finding something people want. A lot. Society and culture will tell us otherwise. There are a lot of nice canteen builders in the world who will take you down a nice rosy path. You'll be building wonderfully decorated canteens that are empty. And you'll never ever figure out what you are missing (Which is kind of what your question sounds like)

That's not to say there's anything wrong with art and things of beauty and drama. It's just not directly applicable to your question. Perhaps your question would be better phrased: to what degree should I apply aesthetics to prevent losing potential customers. Much better question :)

Businesses concentrate on providing water to thirsty people, i.e., find something that people want and provide it to them. If they want it enough, nothing much else matters. This is the goal. Artists concentrate on providing visual joy and passion in the world. Make people enjoy things they normally might not.

You seem to think design is purely about art and aesthetics. This is a very narrow slice of a good design/ux practitioners skill set. Good design/ux folk are much more about the process of finding the thirsty people, understanding why they've missed the water fountain that's right in front of them, and fixing the problem.

"to what degree should I apply aesthetics to prevent losing potential customers." ... that is a very good question indeed to ask one-self.

Disclaimer: I am a web designer.

Design is more than just pretty pictures. Organization of information and communicating the right messages are more important than presentation. Craigslist looks like POS but it's organized to be useful.

"So why do companies stick with, pardon my language, P.O.S. websites?"

The answer to that question has a few different roots. The three most common that I've seen are:

a) As patio11 said, the website isn't a critical ingredient in the sales cycle.

b) The competition is doing a terrible job with info organization and communication. If competition communicates horribly but has pretty pictures and you have ugly site but it communicates in a way that connects with their pains, fears and desires, you're probably going to win the sale unless design is important to what they are going to deliver for you.

c) If a website is working well (even though it's hideous), making drastic changes may result in killing the formula that was working. This happens because a lot of times when designers redesign a site, they don't think/experiment through what is already working and what isn't. Business owner gets new design, launches, sees sales go down and reverts back to old hideous design. Eventually they get to a "if it ain't broken, why fix it" mentality.

Now we've done tests where we took terribly designed sites that were working well, revamped the design while keeping the same layout, content & flow, and it increased overall conversions.

The key with improving anything that is making one change at a time and letting the numbers guide you with the decision making.

With all that said, I have launched substantial redesigns of my own site countless times and reverted back to the current version. This is because incremental changes give you less and less increases over time. Sometimes a drastic redesign can give you a relatively gigantic boost. That's how we discovered our current design. But you want to be making singular changes to test impact most of time.

The competition is doing a terrible job with info organization and communication

This is an often overlooked one. I once talked my way out of some work after doing some usability testing on a bunch of recruiting sites. The client chose not to fix some of the issues that we discovered not because they didn't consider them important - but because the competition was so much worse (e.g. in one case only 1/5 people could register!).

I've worked with companies with terrible websites in the past, either to give them a new website or to fix existing components while keeping my eyes closed... I think there are a few reasons here. However, your actual question? No idea, I would love to see some stats, but I doubt it can be quantified that well (see point 3).

1. Someone in the executives actually likes the site the way it is. These are business people, not designers. I'm surprised time and again, how if you give a business person a logo drawn in crayon, they'll chose it, because it show synergy or whatever (slight exaggeration). Maybe a family member made the existing website for them. Even if they recognize there are other websites out there that look better, they cannot imagine that website with their logo and content. One company I worked with saw our wireframe and love it. It was so much better than what they had, even unfinished, and because it had their logo in the top corner, they were able to get it.

2. Costs are unknown. How much does it cost to make a new website for me? This guy says $500, this guy says $5000, what is the difference? These people are in the top of other fields. They know if their electrical contractor pushes them for 2 months and doubles the price whether its reasonable or not. They have no idea for web stuff.

3. Success cannot be easily quantified. Was the uptick in business as a result of a new design or the full marketing campaign you launched at the same time? (and I anticipate functionality far outweighs design, I mean, look at DrudgeReport, still extremely popular with a very basic design) And certainly depends industry to industry. A good design means far more to a web design company than it does to a electrical contractor.

(edit, added a little spacing)

"1. Someone in the executives actually likes the site the way it is."

That one is probably the main reason why companies stick with awful-looking websites. I'll never cease to be amazed at how many people have no design sense or eye whatsoever and genuinely cannot see the difference between an absolutely horrendous-looking logo or page and a well designed one.

In fact, not only can they not see the difference but I often see them preferring the godawful version over the well designed one. There's a reason why every home-made flyer uses Word's multi-colored 3D fonts and wordart - a lot of people genuinely think that they look absolutely amazing :)

if they also sell to people that think those flyers are amazing then is it really a problem for them?

100% agree with this statement, though my followup question to that is: do we have to stick with mediocrity? Or can/should better design/quality outpace and outperform the current drivel?

No, it's not a problem per se, why? It's just one of the reason why crappy design still abound, which was the OP's question.

There's another lesser factor here that can determine the success of business: are your employees proud to work on it?

If people are proud of the product - both functionally and visually - they're more likely to be happy and want to stay. As a potential employee joining your company, if your website looks crummy, it would definitely not cast you in good light, even if it's a financially justifiable ugly design.

This is one of those questions where human psychology is the predominant factor driving decisions.

Many managers look at the cost differential of hiring a high-end designer versus getting their back end dev to mock something up, and ask themselves "Will I get another $X,XXX amount of business in return for this investment?" Depending on their personality, they will then answer "yes" or "no", and act accordingly.

The reality is the manager is a very bad person to make that call - as they are intimately familiar with the business, and therefore generally very bad at judging how a person who is encountering the business for a first time will respond to a design.

Testing the new design is expensive though, as it requires an outlay of $X,XXX without any guarantee return of results; therefore the manager takes the conservative approach and hires the cheaper designer, as at least that way she/he won't have the issue of having spent money and not being able to show any results from the investment.

Sorry for being pedantic, but please don't use the word "differential" when what you mean is "difference".

This is the core of my question and puzzle. As a consultant, I can see the 'image' value for the company. Let's say Company X is currently making 1M in clean profit, and their overall image is low-end (business cards are cheap, website is cheap, their trucks are dirty and cheap); then I'm of the opinion that they are a cheap, low end company. I'm guessing most businesses do NOT want to be seen the low end type. My assumption is that many companies want to be see as equals or better than their competitors ... So wouldn't it stand to reason that a better brand image would equate to dollars in the bank further down the line?

I'm guessing most businesses do NOT want to be seen the low end type.

That totally depends on the market the business wants. If you're selling low-price office supplies then you want to look like you're selling low end office supplies. If you have a classy expensive brand to your site, then your customers will be more likely to think you're selling a classy and expensive product. If you're money is in supporting the low-end then this is a very bad move.

You brand yourself for your market. Burger King don't want to look like a four-star steak restaurant. And vice versa.

People make decisions based on whats in it for them.

Not oh this website looks great so I will buy from that company. Sames thing with logos, people think oh I need a great logo, no you don't you need a great product (offer).

Most businesses can just grab a $30 template from themeforest, that more than covers the design part of their website needs.

I used to custom design websites, I know it definitely was not adding any value to my customers businesses.

Of course for some audiences design is super important and of course usability for web apps etc. I think it can help build trust and get people to stay for a few more seconds to check out your site if they are browsing.

But your average small business, two people care about the design, the business owner and the web designer.

I think that an over-polished website for a small business can seem suspicious. E.g. when looking for small restaurants or family owned hotels, an average website with average photos is fine and they are obviously not trying to hide something, it shows the real thing. However, a super-professional website with high-quality, photoshop-retouched photos... I know it won't be as good as it looks in the photos.

Then again, a web / mobile startup with bad graphics or design will suffer a lot from it because that should be one of their core competencies.

The magnitude of the help of course depends on the type of business, but generally the answer is yes.

Usually, when people make decisions without full information, they fall back on simple heuristics. One of the most common one is to derive hidden features of the product or brand from the visible ones. As an example, I don't know if service X is reliable (as I don't have prior experience or other knowledge), but since the price is high, I assume that price and quality (reliability) are connected and the same goes for looks. If the business looks (as in graphic design) nice, then I assume that the business is also nice.

At least in the context of eCommerce, the perceived quality of the information is among the biggest factors affecting the perceived trust and risk. It has been researched, that both trust and risk affect consumers intention (in addition to the potential benefit) and thus when consumer trusts the service and perceives low risk, she's more likely to make a purchase.

This comment is more focused on the web graphics -point of the question and visual parts of the design. I'm aware that design is much more than just deciding the right shade of blue.

As a counterpoint to commenters who are going with their gut instinct, see the blog post by patio11 about redesigning Bingo Card Creator http://www.kalzumeus.com/2012/04/19/ab-testing-is-frustratin.... He found that a new design did increase trial sign ups but did not increase sales.

I remember this one. The problem is the statement and his design is that it also changed his sales funnel. There was too much of a change to tell exactly where things fell apart or why specifically sales did not increase. Was it the initial offer? The middle? The actual offering? ect ect ...

I agree with this assessment that new/better designs don't always increase sales, though I believe (should he ever choose to pursue it more, though I don't think he will) he'll need to do a lot of split testing on the new design to optimize it like he did on his old design.

Plus, with the new design comes an increased brand image/presence which will help him in the long run.

You think the "brand image" of a bingo card generator is going to make a difference in the long run? I challenge this because "brand image" is one of those indirect value propositions designers tend to tack on to every pitch.

I agreed completely, but am not aware of any studies that compare purely aesthetic changes. At the very least Patrick's post shows that design is less important than a tuned Sales channel.

Really good question. I have I asked this question to myself a lot of times when I actually buy things or when I'm looking for a service I could use.

From my experience I can definitely say that I never bought something because it looked good. But when I had two alternatives and one looked better than the other I catched myself tending to the better looking service which was not always the best service provider. A company which has what I need and has also a great design / UX gets a big plus point.

But what I also learned is that a good structured site with intuitive navigation is really good makes really solid impression. By intuitive I mean guessing where you could find informations you are looking for. For example documentation of the API they are providing.

How many times have you not done business with a company because of the quality of its website? If its an online transaction I will generally try (not very hard) to find another vendor, but in person, I doubt anyone has losty business for this reason.

Quite a few times!

Normally I'm looking for items which are pretty much the same cost among different sellers, with the same delivery costs.

I don't yet know the quality of customer service.

All I can go on at the moment is ease of use of the site. That's often tied to good design.

I've not bought items from retails with poor image online and offline. I'm very cautious around eCommerce sites that look horrid. I trust the better (looking) ones more.

In the 'real world', if I have to pick between Company A and Company B and assuming I've never been there before and both have the same levels of services/products at similar prices ... I'll check them out online. Who-ever seems more reputable wins my business. Part of that is their look/design/ect. The other part is online reviews.

It definitely does, but the magnitude of the affect varies based on the clientele. For example, the affect on a web-based business would probably be much greater.

For example - I ran a file hosting site a number of years ago using a pre-built php script, and the default template with a few modifications. I ran it with this template for a few years, until I was making enough profit to warrant hiring someone to make a new site template for me. I hired someone off of rent-a-coder for less than $100, and within a week of installing the new theme my pageviews increased about 20% overnight, and stayed there.

Were there any HTML changes that might have helped you with SEO ? Because that could be a big factor too.

It depends on what business you are in. If yours is primarily a B2B - design may or may not be that important. If you can solve a pain point - it doesn't matter what the solution looks like. You can see the result of that in any SMB software product - they look horrible.

However if you are trying to do a B2C people have wildly different expectations. They've seen better online products. Consumer internet products these days set a pretty high bar in design and user experience and if you don't have that, it will be difficult to get them to use your product.

As usual - depends.

I had few sites from era when I had very bad design taste... But surprisingly ads do very well on these sites.

I believe, that as long as users _needs_ (vs. _might_ need) what your business offers through this site, design does not matter as long as it is readable and usable.

But for new businesses design might be crucial. Usually you have only few seconds of visitor's attention and you have to fully utilize it. Design is one of the tool to get a bit more attention nad may be convert new user. But it do nothing for existing users IMHO.

Like everything : it depends ! If you are let's say a paper company, you can afford to have a shitty website. Your business depends on sales people and the website is just a note out there that you exist.

But if you are an Ecommerce company your website is your business.

Now people, me included, will most likely trust a well designed website over a crappy one. Why ? because it shows that you care about it.

Look at the scams we get by email. The more well designed they are, the more likely we are to trust them. Thank god they're mainly plain text.

Look at all these people debating this topic. In the time it took me to read the 20 comments, 9 more were added. Wow. That's user engagement! Now look at the design...

First define what you mean by "quality" and "design" :-)

For many people outside the design/ux field "design" is something that happens after the product is defined and created. It's just about the visuals - "making something pretty". For people inside the design/ux field design it's as much about understanding the users, figuring out the problem, defining the product, figuring out the behaviour, etc. Not that the visual design aspect is unimportant - but it's only a part of what "design" is all about.

For many people outside the design/ux field a "quality" design is something that looks like something Apple would produce. For people inside the design/UX field a quality design is one that works. You don't design the advertisements for a MacDonald's burger the same way you design the adverts for the latest iPhone. Their aimed at different audiences with different goals. One isn't "good" and the other "bad".

So - does quality design help business? It depends (the favourite designer answer :-)

If you have a rubbish product then getting in a visual designer at the last minute to make it pretty probably isn't going to help much. "Putting lipstick on a pig" is the phrase you'll often hear designers use about this sort of project.

If you have an okay product with a truly terrible visual design - you may find a purely visual revamp can help. I've seen a purely visual revamp of a terrible web app admin system cause users to praise all the wonderful new functionality - which was always there before they just couldn't find it :-)

On the other hand - unless the UI is awful - you may find that a purely visual revamp does relatively little beyond make the designer not want to vomit (in the same way that having a big-ball-of-mud codebase doesn't really effect the users experience either, just makes the developers feel ill).

You may find that a pure visual redesign can help you reposition your product so that it better attracts the right audience. I worked on a project once where we very deliberately moved to a "less pretty" visual look since the "nice" design was putting off the low-budget end of the market.

The real value from design, and folk in the design/UX profession, is when you get them in from the start. All that "get out of the building" stuff that Steve Blank goes on about, all the product/market fit stuff that Eric Reis emphasises. That's what good UX/design folk do - and the good ones are very, very good at it (and have a stack of tools and techniques to help).

It's just a part of the "will the company survive" question.

How they behave is another part, competition is another, product quality is yet another... is you're doing great on these 3 and have much more sales than you can manage, why bother with a new website?

Most of the bisnesmem out there dont have a clue about webdesign and if their company is not tech-related i think its quite natural for some very awful websites to exist!

When you buy something do you look at how it looks, presents and is put together? How much does that factor in for you when you're buying something for the first time?

Let's take the case of my soon to be car purchase. I'm picking a certain car company because of the cars looks. Since it's at a level where pretty much price, performance and features are equal throughout other companies ... I'm going with this one because to me it looks significantly better.

with good quality web Designing with good executive planning results <a href="http://tutorsin.blogspot.in/>in</a>; company development

Ask yourself, has Jon Ive (DESIGNER!!) helped Apple in business at all ? Of course it does !

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