Is Design Overrated?

For ages, students drowning in a sea of high school banality opted to stand out by making their appearance more memorable and elaborate.  Web design, the visceral layer of the internet, is much like your high school classmate.  New startups and old companies alike are revamping their online look.  The design of their products and sites are a high priority.  In the highly saturated web landscape, design is believed to be THE differentiating factor (IMO).  I am not in this majority.  I believe that web design has become overrated.

Name some of the most popular websites on the web right now?  Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Craigslist, Yelp, and Foursquare to name a few.  Do anything of these sites have beautifully designed sites?  No.  In fact, my guess is that a vast majority of people who consider these sites to be ugly.    But they are the cream of the crop.  They have high valuations, profitable business models, and a large, engaged user base.  They have what many of these startups wish they had.  What they think their pretty design will generate for them…success.

Why are these ugly websites so successful?  They were built for a specific function and their sites facilitate that function.  Using these sites bring real value to the user.  The most extreme example of these sites is Craigslist.  Craigslist looks like a high school student in the ’90s made it.  Yet, it generates millions of dollars of revenue a year.  Why?  Because it’s so valuable to it’s users.  When the value is high enough, the design doesn’t matter.

So why does everyone obsess over design?  If companies valued at billions of dollars are operating at the highest level, why does every company feel that they need a perfectly designed website to compete?  Simple.  Their product idea isn’t better than everyone else’s.  Their idea is a very close iteration of something that already exists.  Why would someone change from one site to another if the ideas are separated by one degree?  These companies argue, the reason is their design is more “user friendly”.  In my opinion, if that’s their only argument, they have a steep road ahead of them.

Let’s be clear.  I am a fan of consumer behavior and user design is a part of that.  I blogged on the Demeter blog that I enjoy Gowalla more than Foursquare because of the design.  I appreciate design (We could have an entirely different conversation about Apple product design, but that’s not web design).  But, I in no way believe that design can cover up run of the mill ideas.  A minority might convert to your platform because of design, but you’ll never create that product or platform that the masses gravitate to.

My advice is not to get too concerned with design.  Yes, there are basic elements you need to incorporate in your design, but don’t obsess over it.  You’re not going out-design your competition to success.  If design and experience are your products’s competitive edge, you will not succeed.  Focus on product and the need that it is filling.  That will determine your success more than your design.