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.