Why ugly websites are so successful

Accuracy, search and menu clarity trump a pretty design.


“Techmeme has redesigned,” Gabe Rivera founder of the popular technology news site wrote in January 2012. “Drudge Report is now indisputably the Web’s ugliest news site.”

I use Techmeme all the time. I find it to be an excellent news website. It’s a collection of well-selected links to important issues in the technology industry. In addition to the quality of its stories, it has black text on a white background and a fairly large size, legible font.

Gabe Rivera claims that the Drudge Report is “the Web’s ugliest news site.” That’s probably true, as well as the fact it’s one of the Web’s most influential and highly trafficked websites. Again, it’s a bunch of carefully selected links laid out in the most basic manner possible.

And that’s similar to Craig’s List, another website whose homepage is dominated by links and not a single image. A very ugly website, indeed. Ebay, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Google are not much better in the visual design area.

Did ugly visual design help these websites become more successful? The accepted wisdom in the Web design industry is, absolutely not. Most Web designers would say that Craig’s List and the Drudge Report would be more successful if they had a more pleasing visual design. There are studies from, for example, Stanford University, that state that the visual appeal of the website significantly influences people.

However, the research we’ve been doing over the years shows that visual appeal is rarely a major factor for the customer. The accuracy, up-to-datedness and completeness of the information are critical issues. The clarity of the menus and links is hugely important to people, as is the quality of the search.

But there is a deeper reason why people prefer “ugly” design.

I did a lot of research when I was buying a camera recently. I learned to avoid most content from the camera manufacturers, particularly videos. These manufacturer videos that claimed to explain how the camera worked were mainly re-purposed TV ads. They were beautifully produced, but were irritating and content-free. They were utterly useless. Much better were the badly produced YouTube videos by expert photographers who actually used these cameras.

When we watch people try to complete tasks on websites, we notice that often the more visually appealing something is, the more they ignore it. If it looks like marketing or an ad, it’s dismissed as having low value or credibility.

In the eyes of many customers, ugly equals authentic and credible. Ugly helps you get the task completed quickly without any fuss or distraction. Ugly is going to give you the details. Ugly is not hiding anything. Ugly does not waste your time on surface images and trivial jargon and hype.

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords and New Thinking e-mail newsletter. Contact Gerry at gerry@gerrymcgovern.com.

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