Craigslist has over 60 million users. Wikipedia houses over 5.6 million articles and generates upwards of 800 new pages per day. Amazon enjoys 183 million unique visitors per month. And Reddit receives more than 40 million search queries per day. So what do all these websites have in common (aside from some pretty staggering usage statistics)? They all have what you might call an “ugly” website design … and happen to be ranked within the top 10 most functional, frequently visited websites on the internet. On the flip side, if you were asked to cite the most eye-catching websites you can think of, brands like Apple, Four Seasons, or even GE’s viral “digital volcano” might better appeal to the design junkie in you. And to be clear … none of those made that top 10 list, but are industry leaders in their own right.
This seeming paradox captures the age-old tension of fashion versus function. This isn’t a new, or unique concept. Crocs, the quirky shoe brand, is the epitome of function over fashion, serving outdoor enthusiasts, medical professionals and anyone spending serious time on their feet with unbeatable comfort, breathability and support, with an almost defiant disregard for how these bulbous, colorful blocks of rubber might appear to onlookers. Christian Louboutin’s signature, six-inch platform stilettos fall on the other end of this spectrum, featuring sharp, gold-plated spikes on the heels and toes, and garnering prices upwards of $1,000 per pair in the name of high fashion and haute couture — with no love lost if blood is drawn tripping over your own two feet. The examples are endless, across all industries and price points, making an equivocal answer to which school of thought makes for better product design much more elusive.
In an effort to put this debate to rest, we set out to evaluate highly functional, but ugly website design against gorgeous, but less utilitarian pages. Spoiler alert: this wasn’t as straightforward as we thought. People bounce from a page when a website lacks critical information or looks outdated and “scammy,” when a page has unattractive side-navigation elements, or slow load times and hundreds of other fashion- and function-related issues that signal to users that things are not up to par. These reasons can be grouped into three major buckets, all informed by design: user interface (UI), user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX).
USER INTERFACE AKA THE FASHIONABLE BITS:
User interface, or UI, is a designer’s first line of defense to make a landing page or website “pretty.” UI refers to how a site looks and feels, inclusive of white space usage, typography styling, image placement, and other traditional design elements. These choices often contribute to the tone of a site and tip off the customer about what type of product they are looking at. As an example, Apple’s website carefully leverages white space to emphasize the streamlined, luxurious nature of their technology products, while a lack of text helps focus viewers’ attention on the sleek lines, shiny glass, brilliant screens and soft-buffed metal of their signature devices. Too much white space would rob visitors of the contextual information they need to understand these products’ performance standards and quality, while too much text would detract from the visual language that hints at price point, quality and lifestyle value drivers — all of which contribute to their ultimate choice to purchase (or not). At the heart of good user interface is a balancing act that presents the exact information potential customers need in a visually appealing way. Verdict: it’s not enough to simply look good, but it sure does help.
USER EXPERIENCE AKA THE FUNCTIONAL BITS:
If UI focuses on how information looks on a site, user experience (UX) tackles how a site feels, taking customers one layer deeper into the website, app or product experience. UX focus on how (often beautiful) visual and design elements — such as buttons, menus, billing flows and animations — function. The main goal of UX design is to reduce friction between what looks good and what a guest needs to do. Think: during the checkout process, or how customers learn about a product through information architecture. Amazon is a great example of highly functional UX. Predictive product placement, easy search cues, product reviews, one-click checkout, and seamless processing all make the Amazon shopping experience a breeze for newbie or veteran shoppers alike. Is the site especially beautiful? No. But it certainly does its job … and that functionality — not the site’s visual bells and whistles — makes it one of the biggest and most popular e-commerce platforms in the world. Interestingly, a highly functional site that isn’t beautiful can be wildly successful (remember that top 10 list); while a beautiful site that doesn’t provide enough information will almost never translate to its products’ bottom line. Verdict: function can win over fashion when the product or service is on point.
CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AKA THE HUMAN BITS:
Customer Experience (CX) closes the gaps whenever UX and UI fail. Outreach to call and email support centers don’t just address issues regarding the product or services themselves, they also support difficulties using or navigating the website, finding information or completing actions and transactions online. While CX design itself doesn’t fall on one side of fashion or function debate, you might ask yourself: how often does your customer support team receive calls regarding unattractive areas of your website? Or do they almost always reflect user experience and usability issues? That’s what we thought. Verdict: Another vote for function over fashion.
Despite the ability of great visual design to inspire customers and guide brand image, it can’t stand alone. In a perfect world, balance is key. We vote a bit of fashion and function … but if we could only pick one, we would have to choose the ugly design with the flawless user experience that meets and exceeds our customer needs (even if it did look a little 1990s) rather than the pretty, dysfunctional site that sent people running to our competitors, to Twitter to complain or to our support staff.