There are a lot of cool things you can do with your website. After all, web technology is amazing, right? What's more, I’m personally a huge fan of visual content, interactive elements and killer design.
However, I’ve also seen the dangers such elements can create, so I'm here to issue this warning: Entrepreneurs and the web designers they employ simply must understand the fundamental law that says Website usefulness is more important than website beauty. Here’s why.
1. Form follows function.
In the field of architecture, there is a common saying that "Form follows function." The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase in 1896.
Here’s what he actually wrote in a journal article entitled "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered": Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
In the complete text of the article, Sullivan used the phrase “form ever follows function” three times, so it must have been important to him. Others have subsequently used it too; the phrase has popped up in the fields of biology, anatomy, the fitness regimen known as CrossFit, and, of course, web design.
Here’s the idea: The form/shape/appearance of a thing should serve the function/purpose/usefulness of a thing. Design for function should come first, then form -- and not the other way around.
Many web designers, though, have accidentally turned this paradigm on its head. They design for form/appearance, hoping that function will take care of itself. And that's wrong, because, sadly, function doesn’t take care of itself. If you're the designer here, before designing a single pixel, identify the website’s purpose, core function and nature of its use by customers.
Only then should you design something beautiful around that core functionality.
2. A beautiful website may distract users from the website's purpose and function.
Beauty can distract. It’s true in life, and it’s true in web design as well. So, if you are looking at a website and thinking wow!, then you might also be thinking, how? Often, designers are focused on the appearance of the site rather than how users are going to be using that site.
If a user comes to your site but doesn’t know what to do or how to do it, then your website is harming, not helping you. Thankfully, competent web designers, developers and UX designers know how to meld beauty and function. Not only will the website look great, but it will work great.
Blending aesthetics and function isn’t hard, but it does take some coordination among developers, designers and marketers.
3. Websites that lack obvious functionality have high bounce rates, which hurts SEO.
What might happen if users don’t know what to do on your website? They might bounce. And high bounce rates hurt your SEO. High bounce rates indicate that something is wrong, and you should probably find out why. Often, high bounce rates are due to the primacy of design over function.
I’ve seen businesses redesign a website to make it look more current or beautiful, only to experience far higher bounce rates and lower rankings after the launch. Don’t forget about mobile bounce rates; they are just as important as desktop bounce rates.
If your website is optimized for mobile, then it does more than just look good. It has to work well, too.
4. A beautiful website often loads slowly, but a fast website is more important than flashiness.
I’m tired of seeing this.
This is an actual screenshot of a website that I visited just now. Certainly, it was stunning. It had full-screen sliders, retina images and really cool designs. But, before I got to see all those flashy designs, I was turned off to the entire website, brand, and product. Why?
The reason: It took forever to load. (Don’t even try to blame this on slow wifi! I always go with the fastest service available.) And load time is enormously important for SEO, not to mention conversions.
The faster your site goes, the more Google will like it, too. So, if you can speed up your website, you can rank higher.
But where is all that slow-loading problem coming from? The answer: fancy designs. Many of those slow-loading features are simply eye-candy design. It looks good, yes, but it’s dragging the entire site down with it.
5. Visually outstanding websites lack simplicity, which leads to confusion and loss of function.
Millions of websites are needlessly complex. Scientific research has shown that complexity leads to confusion in the area of website design. If a user is confused seeing your website, he or she obviously cannot function effectively on that website.
As Tommy Walker aptly pointed out in his ConversionXL article: “Simple websites are scientifically better.”
6. Visual design is only one part of the complex nature of a website.
A website is a very complex thing. So far, I’ve been comparing two aspects of the site -- functionality and appearance. Within these two broad arenas lurk numerous other issues. “Visual design,” for instance, is but one component of the wide array of website features.
The centerpoint of the website’s features is the user. The person using the website is the single most important ingredient in this entire equation. For this reason, you should design for the user -- not just his or her eyes, but for the assurance that this user can do what he or she wants to do on the website.
7. Isn’t there a middle ground?
So far, I’ve been pitting two concepts against each other: beauty and function. And, obviously, the two can exist in perfect harmony. Thousands of websites are amazing examples of the nexus of visually appealing and eminently workable websites. So, in order to find this sweet spot, keep these things in mind:
- Form follows function. Plan the purpose of your website before you design the appearance.
- Simple is better, both visually and functionally.
- Load time matters. Eliminate unnecessary design features if they slow down the website.
- Make the purpose of the website obvious. Users should know exactly why the site exists.
- Make the next steps of the website apparent. Users should know exactly what to do next.
The message here is, make beautiful designs that work. If you want to make an eye-popping, webby-winning website, you can do that. Just don't sacrifice beauty for functionality.
Instead, emphasize functionality first, and beauty will follow. In fact, if you do this right, your website will probably even look better.