Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Form over Function on the Web

In a perfect world, all web sites (and web apps) would look great and be easy to use. But web developers tend to not have unlimited resources. Thus we must prioritize. If you take 3 metrics:

1. Functionality/Content: What does the site or app do (or allow the user to do)
2. Usability: how easy and intuitive is it to use (for the target audience) without reading a bunch of docs
3. Visually appealing: how good does it look

Here are my observations on this subject:

1. There are many web sites and web apps that are ugly but freakishly popular because they offer functionality or content that people really want (craigs list, e-bay). I don't know of any freakishly popular web sites where the reverse is true.

2. As a user, I have often put up with ugly, counter-intuitive web sites because I really wanted the functionality or content.

3. Many organizations that create web sites or web apps tend to lump metric #2 and #3 together. But they are really different skills. I don't think it is a valid assumption that someone who is good at making things look pretty is also good at making an application easy to use.

4. I have seen web sites that have spent extreme and disproportionate amounts of development effort on a feature that adds no functionality or usability gain. But it looks cool.

Thus my preference (both as a user and developer) for prioritizing these 3 metrics is:

1. Functionality/Content
2. Usability
3. Visually appealing

There are always exceptions. For example, a web site for a graphic art company or a web site trying to promote their product's image/brand may prioritize differently.