"The desire for symmetry, for balance, for rhythm is one of the most inveterate of human instincts."—Edith Wharton, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, writer, and designer
Here's some advice that might be hard to swallow: The colors, fonts, spacing and imagery on your website could be the difference between a user purchasing from you or choosing a competitor. This means that even the most strategic SEO or marketing campaign could be jeopardized by a visually neglected site.
According to a 2002 study by Consumer WebWatch, nearly half of Web users assess a website's credibility based solely on visual design elements. Not privacy policies, customer service numbers, evidence of a physical location or depth of content. Design alone trumps all of those rational indicators.
Like it or not, aesthetics are closely tied to our emotions. It's evolutionary. And the way humans make decisions is far more emotionally-driven than we would like to admit. Therefore, you stand a better chance at gaining a visitor's business by creating a compelling, trustworthy aesthetic.
There is no reason to use the terms "functional" and "ugly" interchangeably. The idea that one must sacrifice either form or function when creating a Web design is absurd. True design thrives upon constraint; it forces innovation. Anything less would be merely misdirected decoration.
Good design is subliminal
While beauty is important to initial impressions, no one (except perhaps you and industry web designers) should be staring at your homepage for too long thinking about how gorgeous it is. Good design is transparent and should not be consciously considered by a visitor. It is subliminal when it's right, and blatantly obnoxious when it's wrong. Most importantly, good design works. When evaluating your website (or individual pages on your website), ask yourself these questions:
- Are the most important tasks a user would want to perform apparent? (You have conducted audience research to define these tasks, haven't you?) Also note that this does not mean cluttering your home page with every single task that a user might want to accomplish.
- Are there multiple logical paths to the resources users want to find? Instead of placing all of the tiny tasks on the homepage, create logical paths to them through the main navigation (which goes from general to specific).
- Are your calls to action relevant? Don't put the same sidebar graphic call to action on every page; it will be overlooked if it is repeated too often.
- Are your forms forgiving? The forms on your website should provide human-friendly feedback, they should allow a user to correct mistakes easily, and they should be generous about what kind of information is accepted (does the phone number really need to have dashes in it?). If you get this wrong, you make yourself look like a sadistic, impatient robot, and no one wants to do business with one of those, right?
These are but a few considerations to make. A Web designer who truly understands the Web medium will be able to design not only the page's initial look, but for the interactive states as well.
Well-designed, Usable Sites Have a Higher Return
Even if you think your website is performing well, there is still room for improvement: according to research conducted by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, the average website redesigned for usability increases core business metrics such as conversions, page views, and target feature usage by 83%. And in the case of an e-commerce website one button could cost you $300 million over a year.
Now, to most Web developers and designers, touting that a website is "usable" would be akin to a chef bragging about his "edible" food. While Web usability has increased dramatically on the whole over the years, there are still many sites that get it wrong (or, more commonly, are just plain oblivious to it) and are losing customers or spending a lot on customer service support because of a poorly designed, difficult website.
Discordance between what a website or application appears to do and what it actually does can damage trust. Consider success messages that are red instead of green, buttons that don't "push" in when you click on them, and text that is blue and underlined that isn't really a link. These things may seem like minor annoyances, but they create the perception of an unstable, disoriented environment.
Bottom line: Yes, your site should be pretty (and functional).
I'm not suggesting that your website should be senselessly embellished and decorated like a scrapbook (unless your market research indicates that this is what your target audience will respond to). But your online presence should have a degree of emotion, and an aesthetically-appealing quality that fits with your brand and the strategic functionality you plan to build into your site.
Don't fight human nature–use it to your advantage by building a site that fosters trust through elegant, thoughtful design, and you'll be headed in the right direction.