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Design Appropriateness – When is Ugly Okay?

Robert Scoble got some blogosphere buzz over his post on “the role of anti-marketing design.” He makes some excellent points about the ‘authenticity’ of ugliness. It resonates with commentary that my business partner Jesse James Garrett makes in his discussion of MySpace:

If the default presentation and the common areas of MySpace had cleaner, more professional designs, users might hesitate to customize their spaces, feeling intimidated by having their amateur design work side-by-side with the professional-looking defaults. Instead, the unpolished style invites users to try things out, telling them they don’t have to be professional designers to participate.

I think Scoble makes a mistake, though, calling out that we’re “sick of committee-driven marketing.” I don’t think we’re sick of it; we just know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

When we seek ideas for music to listen to, we don’t worry about too much about site appearance — the person’s voice and authenticity suffices.

But if I’m looking for medical advice, I’m wary of site’s that look like they were designed by a 10 year old. And I know this because there’s been a study. BJ Fogg, Sliced Bread Design, and Consumer Reports assessed the credibility of financial and health care web sites for expert and non-experts. What they found is, in retrospect, not all that surprising. Visual design cues are an important indicator of credibility for non-experts. Whereas for experts, it’s simply about the content.

This makes sense. A non-expert cannot judge the credibility of the content, so he relies on other elements that help him estimate a source’s credibility. It’s no different than the professional wearing the $2,000 suit.

Now, you don’t want folks in $2,000 suits serving your coffee at your favorite coffeehouse, or suggesting movies at the video store. You want the person who “looks like you.” The same thing goes with websites.

Websites that rely on content created by others (such as MySpace and eBay) have realized the benefits on “ugly” design — it’s more approachable for dealing with people on a one-on-one basis.

But if I’m buying enterprise software, if I’m about to throw down $500,000, you better believe that I’m looking for “committee-driven marketing,” and I’ll be happy when I see it.

  1. I don’t really subscribe to the idea that design can be separated into “ugly” and “pretty”. Either it works or it doesn’t. If it serves a certain purpose for the brand, by all means use times new roman at 20px, but that doesn’t necessarily work in all situations.

    At the end of the day it’s how much money you get out of it that counts.

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