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The Hard Truth About Web Design

I’m going to give you the truth – as far as I’ve figured it out – about web design.

ben-badass-bwYou may not like it. I don’t care.

You may not use the information I’m about to give you. That’s up to you.

You may disagree. You’re wrong.

I’ve been campaigning on the side of common sense within the “web design” community for well over a decade.

I’ve argued for usability against those arguing for “web design”. I’ve argued for SEO, for accessibility, for conversion, for copywriting, for profit…

The pattern is always the same. I argue for what works: as in, what can be shown to work. My “web design” opponents argue that how websites look matters most. They say in fact it does actually work, actually, although it’s impossible to prove, because it’s such a fuzzy right-brain world.

They’re wrong. Always. Let’s lay the big questions out on the table and get the facts straight.

What Is Web Design?

Here are my definitions.

  • Design is the creation of something new to solve a problem.
  • Web Design is the creation of website and web pages to solve a communication problem.

The first rule of Web Design is: Web Design is not the graphic design of web pages.

The second rule of Web Design is: Web Design is NOT the graphic design of web pages!

Graphic design is part of it, but if a web page doesn’t get traffic, it gets no conversions, and it fails. That means the design fails.

If a page gets traffic, looks cute, but doesn’t have any real measurable impact on the visitor, it fails. The design fails.

Does Aesthetic Appeal Matter?

Yes, but only a bit.

Sorry, design wankers. In the real world of marketing… you know, selling stuff, persuading people, generating real change that actually fucking MATTERS… aesthetics is a minor factor.

Sometimes, ugly websites work better. Fact.

Most of the time, people don’t actually notice or care how good a web page looks. Fact.

You know who cares about how pretty web pages are? Web design wankers! And we are not representative. (I say “we” because there’s a bit of web design wanker in me too. Of course there is. I’ll lust over a sexy-looking design along with the rest of the crowd.)

Evidence Of What Matters

I’ve spent the past few years running actual tests on actual websites, to find out what really works. Hundreds of tests.

I’ve changed imagery. I’ve changed graphic design. I’ve changed typography. I’ve changed words. I’ve changed calls to action. I’ve changed navigation…

And every time, I’ve measured which variants had the most positive or negative impact. Using real-world goals that actually MATTER.

We’re talking about converting browsers to buyers, tyre-kickers to tribe members, followers to fans.

You need to understand, I know that marketing is a science more than an art. We’re concerned with the truth of what works, not what we feel will work. And we can progress using scientific method:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • How will we measure success?
  • What do we think will give a positive result?
  • Test it.
  • Analyse the results.
  • Review & repeat as necessary.

Recently, I analysed the results of 56 of my more recent split tests.

56 split tests

 

You don’t have to read the names of the tests. Just know that I’ve segmented them on whether the changes I had made were:

  • Style changes only
  • Content changes only
  • or Both style and content

The “Impact” score shows the greatest impact, whether positive or negative, of any variation.

Here’s what I saw when I grouped the results onto a graph.

conversion results graphed

  • The column “1” represents the impact of all the style-only tests.
  • Column “2” is content changes only.
  • Column “3” is the impact of tests where I made both content and style changes.

What these results show clearly is…

Style changes don’t make much difference!

  • The greatest positive impact I got from any style-only test was only +9%.
  • Content changes typically had between +10% and +40% impact.
  • My average impact from style-only changes is ZERO! (I’ve been a professional web designer for nearly 20 years.)

I’d also ask you to remember that graphic design is time-consuming and expensive. Instead of spending an hour in Photoshop and CSS, spend an hour coming up with a powerful headline and five compelling reasons why your proposition is great.

When Style Matters

In my experience, There is one scenario where changing style can have a significant difference. That’s when the graphic design is broken.

If your website is unusable or inaccessible, because of things like grey text on a grey background (seriously, it happens), or too much stuff happening on the page, fixing those graphic design issues can have a useful, measurable, positive impact.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things

You’re either acknowledging the vital importance of this truth in your own business, and realising this represents a significant opportunity.

Or you’re viewing it as a threat, and constructing your defence.

Does Originality Matter?

The “web design” crowd love talking about the importance of creativity.

Saying “We’re creatives” is like having a letter from your mum that means you don’t have to do gym. Guess what, it doesn’t change the reality.

What’s the reality? Does originality matter? Well, it depends on where you’re applying it.

Originality in graphic design is very risky, very expensive, and generally a bad idea. (Read my article from 2006 on why originality is bad for you.)

For a more light-hearted insight into the broken thinking behind so many websites, check out motherfuckingwebsite.com.

How To Be Original AND Powerful

If you want to be original, put that creative energy into what really matters:

  • Making the brand powerful, distinctive, something worth believing in, something people feel passionate about or be part of. (No, not the fucking logo!! Logos are just one small manifestation of a brand!)
  • Doing the same with the website’s propositions. Why should I take notice now? Why should I make a decision today? What’s going to compel me to take action?
  • Craft great copy that inspires, motivates, engages with my emotions.
  • Come up with amazing content that will burn round the web like wildfire, infecting people with passion.

I could go on all day, but let’s cut to the chase.

What’s The Bottom Line?

Web design is marketing. Marketing is business.

Everything we do can be measured. If you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t be doing it.

You have a choice.

You can acknowledge the truths that visual appeal and originality are expensive, and that they are as likely to fail as they are to succeed…

Or, you can commit to the path of practising what actually works. That will require training and education, and probably a radical change to the way you work.

The Acid Test

I guarantee my customers that I’ll double their investment within a few months. (If a project isn’t likely to be profitable, I’ll tell the prospect, and I won’t take them on as a customer, because unprofitable projects should not be done.)

Can your web designer say that?

If you’re a web designer, can you say that?

If not, here is one way I can help

I spent the first half of 2013 devising a step-by-step programme that will show you in detail what really works, and how you can create websites that succeed.

This is the exact method I use to double my clients’ money over and over again.

Ultimate Web Design
Ultimate Web Design” is the powerful culmination of several years of research and practice in usability, conversion optimization, and traffic generation that will show you exactly where to generate more profits online.

If you are serious about making websites make more money – whether your own sites or on behalf of clients – this is the guide you need!

About the author

Ben Hunt

Ben is the creator of Web Design From Scratch. He started writing articles about web design to kill time on a long train commute, and is now one of the most influential figures on the subject of effective web design. He has written three books and spoken at multiple conferences internationally.

Chris - 11 months ago

You are simply brilliant!! Web Design is icing. Without a cake to put it on, it will not taste the same.

Ian - 11 months ago

Oh man, I’m with you 100% and have been pushing the same wagon for nearly a decade. Presentation must be “adequate”, not “awesome”. It’s not the main course, it’s the sides that come before and after.

I use the IKEA analogy: do you want to spend $5k on a new lounge room that has your arrangement and colours (but the same furniture as anyone else), or $15k on a custom set of furniture that has ZERO additional benefit? There’s only about 8 different layouts that work on the web – it’s not rocket surgery and you CANNOT be different *and* successful – deal.

Everyone says they like pretty, but they pay for content, information, reassurance – things that come from text.

If I were to add to this:

1. Stop caring about pretty and focus on content. What do you have to SAY? It’s your SEO, trust and reinforcement all in one hit.

2. SEO structure and boring sitemaps come first. The best site in the world means zero if no one sees it. And if you need shitloads of marketing to get it out there, congratulations: you have invested money and created an “asset” that requires heaps of overhead. Nice job.

3. Forget your branding – either you’re big enough that it’s solid, or you’re small and no one cares. It’s only relevant to fairly large companies that HAVE a brand. And no, your logo doesn’t need to be bigger.

4. YOU are the *only* person that your website does nothing for. Your own site will never change your mind, or make you spend a cent. So get over yourself and make it about everyone EXCEPT you. And that means helpful, rich, informative content – that text stuff.

5. For goodness sake – think before you demand stuff. You’re paying some nerd a crapload of cash to build a site, then you want to overrule him and tell him how you want it done. We understand you’re the client, but do you REALLY think you are the ranking authority on ‘best for web’ here?

    Ben Hunt - 11 months ago

    Word, brother!

Patrick Whitson - 10 months ago

Hey Ben, great article on the “hard” truth about website design. There is still a dichotomy out in the business world, that the website has to be a fancy design in order to work.

Phooey!!! I also, come from a graphic design background, but most of the sites I’ve created focus on content and the target market to bring in a CTA. I continue to learn and grow in the area of marketing, so I can better apply that to my clients business.

And yes, sometimes ugly sites do work better. :-)

By the way, that photo looks like a prison shot. You must have really been angry when you took it. LOL!!!

Thanks again for a great article.

Patrick Whitson

    Ben Hunt - 10 months ago

    Thanks Patrick. It’s a deliberately badass photo :-)

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