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The Best Websites are Useful and Ugly

Functionality and usefulness are far more important to the success of your website than how nice and elegant it looks.

The first time I saw the Grand Canyon was a truly memorable experience. The depth, distance and hazy rainbow of colors were like nothing I had ever seen before. The great Colorado River looked shoe-lace-wide down below.

We spent a day driving along the Grand Canyon and then up into the equally magnificent scenery of Utah. But along with the otherworldly beauty what also struck me was the poverty that surrounded the Canyon.

For all its stunning beauty, The Grand Canyon would not be a great place to live. Certainly, you would have a hard life if you lived in the middle of the Canyon itself. And, given the steepness and inaccessibility it would be hard to imagine how a city the size of New York could develop there.

The things we think are the most beautiful are often the least useful in a practical and functional sense. Mount Everest is beautiful. Gold, jewellery and diamond rings are beautiful. Do certain things increase in beauty as they lose practical function?

There is no question that certain designs can be made both beautiful and functional. But for other design challenges, the more beautiful the design is made, the less functional and easy to use it becomes. This is particularly true for websites.

Ryanair, eBay, Amazon, Google, Craig's List, My Space, and YouTube are ugly websites. They are also hugely successful websites. When I show audiences the Ryanair website, there are audible gasps. I see people recoil from its sheer ugliness. Yet last year, Ryanair flew 42 million passengers, and the vast majority of them booked their flights through Ryanair.com.

Have you noticed that the Web has started to grey? There is a severe outbreak of grey text syndrome, particularly in blogs. Web design is falling into the trap of caring more about how a page looks than how it reads.

Few would dispute that it is harder to read text on a screen than in print. Most would agree that black text on a slightly off-white background is easiest to read. It could also be argued that font size for webpages should be slightly larger than font sizes chosen for print.

So, why do an increasing number of websites today use small font sizes and grey text? The answer is simple: small fonts and grew text look better. They blend into the overall design of the page. They are more elegant and visually appealing.

The problem with larger font sizes and black text is that they stand out. They can dominate the page. This is exactly what makes them easier to read. Black text in a large font stands out from its background.

When I ask people to look at a website like Ryanair their instinctive reaction is often to say that it is ugly. If you ask most people to look at the most successful websites, they would also probably tell you that they look ugly.

The fact is we don't spend our time looking at websites. We spend our time reading and using them. There are three things a great web design must be: useful, useful and useful.

—-
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.

 
 
 
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