Late last year, I wrote a pretty harsh critique of beer and alcohol websites in an article on Smashing Magazine, instigating quite a bit of discussion in the comments.
An interesting point was made by someone named Storm, which I thought would make a great topic for discussion. Basically, the commenter was saying that since most sites in that particular genre are designed in that same manner, then the usability expectations shouldn’t be too high, because that’s what users expect. This was an excellent point, and it may have a lot of validity.
As designers on the modern web, we’re trying to promote good practices like progressive enhancement, avoiding unnecessary use of Flash or unwanted auto-playing sounds, simplifying cluttered layouts, and so on. We do this because we design for the web design industry — then we try to encourage those same practices in our client projects, regardless of the industry.
I don’t think I would ever agree that Flash and sound should be overused on web pages for the sake of designing for my industry. But what about less-intrusive or less-aesthetically-pleasing styles and trends that we tend to avoid?
Consider the following:
- Should a classified-style website be designed with little imagery and a large amount of blue text links, because of the hugely popular Craigslist, which users of classified sites are quite familiar with?
- Should a search- or portal-style website be designed in a manner similar to Google or Yahoo, because of people’s familiarity with those sites?
- Should a user-based video website always include “related videos” on the right-hand side, because of how well-known that method is?
- Should a website that’s ugly be kept that way because it’s successful and because other sites in that niche don’t fare much better in terms of looks?
- Should all musician’s websites have auto-playing songs embedded on the home page, even though that’s not considered “best practice” in web design in general?
- Should all blogs put comments below the article? Or can that trend be changed?
- Should web designer portfolios always use the “I design websites” tagline (or something similar), displayed in big typography?
- Should BuySellAds blocks of 125×125 ads always be displayed in the right sidebar?
I have a friend who runs a small business here in Toronto. His website is butt-ugly and even uses frames (for the splash page, not the rest of the site). A few years back, he considered having it professionally redesigned. I told him not to change anything. Why? Because it ranked #1 in Google for the top search terms in his locale and niche. He was, and probably still is, getting multiple calls each week from clients. At that time, he even told me that many people said they loved his website.
The people that visited his website were probably occasional internet users that didn’t expect a whole lot visually or with respects to usability, so there really was no reason to change anything, especially since the site was contributing nicely to his bottom line. Of course, it’s been a few years now, and his site hasn’t changed. Maybe now would be a more appropriate time for a redesign. Maybe the expectations of his users are starting to change.
What do you think?
Should a site be designed or redesigned with strong influence from its own niche, or in line with the expectations of its potential audience? Or is this type of design too inside-the-box? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.