Why are ugly websites so successful?
“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 an excellent news website. It’s a collection of well-selected links to important issues in the technology industry. It doesn’t look pretty but it works fine for me. Asides from the quality of its stories it also has black text on white background and a fairly large size, legible font.
Gabe Rivera claims that Drudge Report is “the web’s ugliest news site.” That’s probably true, as well as the fact that Drudge Report is one of the web’s most influential and most highly trafficked websites. Again, it’s a bunch of carefully selected links laid out in the most basic manner possible.
Just like Craig’s List, another website whose homepage is dominated by links and not a single image. A very ugly website. 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 Drudge Report would be much 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, in the research we’ve been doing over the years we have found 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 I think there is a deeper reason why people prefer ‘ugly’ design. When I was buying a camera recently I did a lot of research. 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 and were really irritating and content-free. They were utterly useless. A hundred times better were the really badly produced YouTube videos by expert photographers who were actually using 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, then people dismiss it 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.
In about the last 100 talks I have given to web professionals I show them two alternative registration pages that were tested. One page was 40% more successful than the other at getting people to register. That is an absolutely enormous difference in effectiveness. I ask the audience of web professionals to choose which one was more successful and practically every time, 80% of them choose page B. Page A was 40% more successful. Page B was prettier, a nicer visual design. Page A was uglier. But time and time again, ugly gets the job done.