Cheap Chinese Food and Web Design

by Jin, 03-22-10 // 9 comments

When I was in college, I ate at the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant a lot. For $3.99, I could get a huge portion of Mongolian beef heaped with fried rice. The place wasn’t much of a looker. It was crowded, the tables and seats weren’t always cleaned and wiped on time for the next waves of patrons. The decors were tacky. It was apparent the owners didn’t care. Why should they? Business was booming. Everyday the place was packed with poor college kids, all the time. It had gained critical mass, and “nicer” restaurants cost more to eat.

I often wished the place was nicer and airier so I didn’t come out smelling like soy sauce every time. But would it have affected their business if they did fix up the place? I don’t know. I’d still go there regardless because the food was cheap and service was reliable. Those are the only reasons why Golden Dragon was successful.

I don’t mean to bore you with my college trivia. I started out writing this post on the relevance of aesthetics and user experience in web design. But somehow the post got so convoluted with conflicted thoughts and I scratched it. Also I got hungry, it’s 2AM here.

For every fine dining experience out there, there are your Golden Dragons. For all the talks about the importance of design, polish and UI, there are sites like Craigslist or Amazon that seem to defy everything we web designers believe in. It’s hard to argue, because they’re successful. Would Craigslist see more revenue if it was re-designed? I doubt it.

I’m in no way endorsing bad designs. However I’m a realist. Once a site gains critical mass by offering a reliable service people need, the aesthetics no longer are as important. Not a lot of sites can pull this off though. At least not in today’s web world. Craiglist’s success isn’t because of its ugly design, but rather the service they provide. In fact, the “non-design” look has pretty much defined its branding.

Usability is not everything.

If usability engineers designed a nightclub, it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit, with lots of places to sit down, plenty of bartenders, menus written in 18-point sans-serif, and easy-to-find bathrooms.

But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other.

Joel Spolsky

Sometimes it’s not even about pretty vs ugly, usable vs confusing. There will be times when we break our own rules, for a good reason. What matters is we know how our design affects the human psyche.


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Alex Rozanski 03-22-10

You make a good point – but I think your final sentence sums it up: you have to be *aware* of what you’re doing and assess whether the rules you are breaking are for the right reasons, rather than going in blindly and breaking a load of rules without thinking about the consequences.

Jin 03-22-10

@Alex, Yes. For example, I’m not against Flash(although now, I hate all Flash sites because of lack of mobile support).

Visit The site loads slow and has confusing UI. But I think it’s superb for delivering an experience to its targeted audience that HTML cannot.

Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

Dalai Lama

Kim H 03-22-10

I wrote one of my college papers on design as a metacognitive process. I think one of the most important things for a designer to understand are the rules, and to be able to analyze when it is and isn’t okay to break them. Because while we have sites like Craigslist, some of the ads on there still choose to hire designers in order to make their advertisements more “aesthetic” (such as this one, which I found while apartment shopping:, which, well, admittedly I’m more likely to trust that ad than the all-text one advertising a room for half-price.

Here, though, it’s an example of how function goes beyond form. Maybe a night club would be better if well lit etc, but think about if you were making a site for a teenage rock band or something. You’d probably end up using a lot more images in order to give the “look” and “feel” of a teenage rock band site, rather than using plenty of text to make it look like a Mac Store – which one of our mantras is to use text more often than images where possible.

Design Informer 03-22-10

That was a short and refreshing read Mr. Jin. Great point that you bring up. I do like the disclaimer that you included, that not a lot of sites can pull this off, so really, aesthetics and usability still play an important role.

Design Informer 03-22-10

Oops, sorry for the additional comment. Just wanted to add that the google street view that you included is a great additional touch to the article. :)

Iwani 03-22-10

I feel like crying reading this post, it’s exactly how I feel about the issue. It’s not like we’re supporting bad design but sometimes, when the business model works, it works..

And I love how you relate it to Golden Dragon :)

teeth 03-22-10

From the way your post is framed, it makes me think about the issue of compromising character at the expense of design. You’re supposed to smell like soy sauce after eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant. Sure, it’d be better if I didn’t, but it almost wouldn’t feel right because it’s what I’ve come to associate with the character of a typical cheap Chinese joint.

It’s like redesigning Chinatown to be more aesthetically-pleasing and easier to navigate with English clearly labeled on each building on every block, the way it is in D.C. I find it off-putting and even dull. To me, Chinatown should be messy, noisy and dirty the way it is in New York. I love wandering aimlessly there precisely because I don’t know where the hell I’m going; I welcome the confusion along with the pleasant discoveries and surprises.

In the same way, I wouldn’t want Craig’s List to change for a more aesthetically-pleasing interface inasmuch as I’d want a cleaner Chinatown in New York. They both work fine the way they function and their “non-design” looks have rather defined them and maybe I’m just attached to the way they are now. You’re absolutely right when you said what matters is how design affects the human psyche.

Jin 03-22-10

@kim, it’s all about using the right style to appeal for the targeted audience. Sites like CL or Drudge Report are a special case because they simply are grandfathered in. I doubt any new sites can pull that off now.

@DesignInformer, thanks! In hindsight, I forgot that StreetView doesn’t show up on iPhone due to Flash…

@Iwani, don’t you just hate it when people use sites like CL as an excuse for bad design? In this case design has nothing to do with the success, it’s up to us to explain that to our clients.

@Teeth, you nailed it :) I’m glad you got my key message. I was afraid my post wasn’t too clear. Now you make me miss NYC, and I’m getting hungry, again.

KrazyCeltic 04-02-10

Aw, I know the place from years ago when I lived nearby. *tear*

It was need, convenience, and accessibility well-met.