Aesthetics are Vanity, Usability is Sanity

  in  Website Design
OK, the title is slightly provocative because when it comes to website design, it doesn't have to be one (aesthetics) or the other (usability) - it CAN be both. However, looking around the web in 2017, I get the feeling that website designers (due perhaps to the influence of their clients) focus too heavily on aesthetics to the detriment of usability.

Often when I talk to clients and their prospective new website, they tell me "make it look like such & such a site". When I visit said website in various devices (desktop, tablet, smartphone), the user experience is invariably poor. Sure, the site "looks great" (after 20 years" experience in web design, the quotations are necessary), but:-
  • it's hard to find the actual content (often key content is relegated to a menu in the footer area)
  • the responsive design creates a "fat header" so that the actual content of each page is either only poking its head above the fold, or is actually below the fold
  • the site's performance and loading experience is "jittery" due to excessive use of javascript (often called from 3rd party servers)
  • the emphasis on style-over-content means that the actual copy looks like it's merely an afterthought - filler brochure-speak to fill the gaps between the pretty pictures.
  • Overall, the site is slow due to a number of issues, least of all that's hosted on a shared server
All of the above completely disregards what the user wants from the website. Notwithstanding edge-case examples where an online brochure experience is actually the best result, MOST businesses have target markets that are information-seekers. They want information as fast as possible. After all, they're likely perusing multiple websites to find the best product/service provider for their need. If you frustrate them, they will bounce off your website before your 700-pixel-in-height beautiful stock art photo even finishes loading.

I often cite the most successful sites online to introduce the concept of usability to clients. Look at Amazon, Google, Facebook. Aesthetically, nothing to write home about, but they're the websites that have spent the most time and money on usability. They care what works, not what looks the best. Now, client sites are typically not in the same category as these highly-trafficked examples. Horses for courses. I merely cite these examples to show how important usability is. Not to the site owner, but to the site owner's customers. Luckily, client sites tend to have more wiggle-room in terms of aesthetics compared to the aforementioned examples. It's still important to create the right impression, and that's where aesthetics are vital. A site certainly can look beautiful and have optimal usability - it's not one or the other. Just remember though - most of your competitor's sites will struggle when it comes to usability. It's not obvious, but bounce rates are high for the average website. They're high because users can't find what they're looking for, and/or the site is just perfoming too slowly. That it "looks great" is of little to no importance to the user at that point. They're already back on Google to click on the next search result.

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