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The Merits of Bad Design

Ugly!
Robert Scoble wrote about the idea of bad design being better for business here, which got me thinking about the sites I visit frequently:

  • Bloglines – Definitely not a well designed site, but probably the best aggregator online.
  • tech.memeorandum – Recently re-designed, but still.. not a great looking site.
  • Google – Not poorly designed by any stretch, but minimalistic to say the least.
  • Tasktoy – Not as well known, but indispensable to me. This one won’t win any design awards anytime soon.
  • del.icio.us – Again, indispensable and not well designed at all.
  • Slashdot – Needs no introduction and I don’t think anyone’s going to try to defend the design.
  • Silverfish Longboarding – The most successful site I’ve personally created and let’s face it, it’s ugly! It’s always bothered me how ugly it is, yet it remains the most popular longboarding site online.
  • MacRumors – It’s a Mac site! The Mac site I visit the most is poorly designed! I also read ThinkSecret quite a bit, the design isn’t horrible, but it’s not slick either.

The only well designed sites I visit on a semi-regular basis are:

Other non-designed sites include almost every get rich website ever created (and there are a lot and people make money on them), eBay–it’s not exactly ugly, but it’s definitely not going to win any beauty contests any time soon, useit.com – the number one usability site, Craigslist (as Scoble mentioned) and many others.

Of course there are tons of well designed sites that are successful such as everything by 37Signals, Flickr, Technorati, YouTube (arguably) and a million other websites and blogs, but still, the point remans that the sites I visit most (and I’m a web designer) are almost all either under-designed or in some cases, flat out ugly.

What does it mean? I’m not completely sure, but I definitely think that a few conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Design isn’t the most important aspect of a site.
  2. Functionality beats design.
  3. There’s something to be said for the “homemade” look in terms of building trust.

I don’t, however, think that bad design makes a site good. I think that what keeps me coming back to all those poorly designed sites is the feeling that there are some extremely smart people behind them who maybe don’t have time to worry about the design. If they were better designed, I think that if anything, I’d be more likely to visit them.

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4 Comments

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  1. RJ
    March 7, 2006 at 12:24 am #

    You list Tasktoy as a site that you find indispensible. It is a simple well put together site and you are right, design awards will not come its way very soon.

    I cam across another online task management app site called Remember the Milk> which you may find interesting.

    I have used Tasktoy and Remember The Milk (RTM) and find RTM to be more functionally useful to me, now, then TaskToy.

  2. henry
    March 7, 2006 at 10:44 am #

    Interesting that you see functionality as seperate from design. Maybe this is why I can’t create an attractive webpage: I see the function as not just a part of the design, but as the focal point. So I create fairly good functional designs/layouts that are inherently ugly.
    Maybe I need to work towards a balance (buzzword concept of the century).

    It’s also why I think you’re crazy for having Google in a list of bad designs!

  3. toby
    March 8, 2006 at 5:44 pm #

    I’m the creator of tasktoy, and after reading Scoble’s article, I think I’ll leave the aesthetics as is :)

    I should point out that tasktoy that I did think very carefully about the interface to tasktoy so it would require very few mouseclicks and for everything to be extremely obvious. I like to think that the number of users telling me “it just works like my brain works” means that I was somewhat successful.

    I believe that L&F and usability are both aspects of design. Apple’s products may be beautiful, but they’re also intuitive. To which would you attribute their success?

  4. Marcus
    March 8, 2006 at 6:02 pm #

    Toby, tasktoy is utilitarian and that’s one of the reasons I use it. It just works. It’s not ugly, but it’s not beautiful either. It’s is definitely apparent that a lot of thought went into the interface though, just not into making it look “slick.” I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, I use it daily and think it’s great.

    Good point with Apple though–they seem to have found the perfect combination of functionality and design. Maybe that’s why they are so successful? Too many companies lean too heavily on one or the other (design or functionality) and aren’t able to find that balance.

    Henry, Just to reiterate, I don’t think Google is poorly designed, but it’s definitely not flashy or really well designed–just simple.