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Should A Website Be Designed According to the Standards of its Niche?

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.

34 Responses

  1. Jen Walter says:

    I absolutely agree with you. A website’s design, as with any other design must take who the user is into account when considering it’s design. That means if the user is a sophisticated user who knows all the ins and outs of the internet and expects high performance, uber friendly navigation and intense graphics or you could your basic user, one who doesn’t need bells and whistles and probably wouldn’t understand how to utilize them even if they had them who wants to get in, get out and be done.

  2. Rupert Burr says:

    Yes. No. It doesn’t really matter, as a designer you’re subjected to a creation being put towards a committee and ultimately watered down to look like competitors anyway, of course it would be nice to push the boundaries but we can’t, because the people paying us, want to look and feel like Google, not like a home made Geocities site

    We all need money – money comes from goods, goods need a trusting face. Managers don’t trawl the web for exciting artistic sites, they’re influenced by what they’ve recently bought and go “I bought shoes from there, it must work, make my site like shoe shop”

    And also, business sense, why be something completely different and risk get the whole pie, when you can follow suit and be guaranteed a slice of it instead.

    Personally, presenting something ‘different’ is met with, give them both a go – that’s twice the work I have to do, when I could get the job done, leave early and enjoy the sunshine and be creative elsewhere (like adding another 10% to my h1 tags to really make people sure I’m a web designer)

    • Dave Wright says:

      Ha, maybe a change of career Rupert!
      I think users expectation has to come into the design process, the kind of sites your target audience uses and understands will help us as designers decide what our demographic defines as conventional. This, however, should only be part of the process imo, each site is unique and innovating is what keeps designing, using and discussing the web worth doing.

      • Andrew says:

        Agreed on the career change. If your design philosophy boils down to “Why try, just copy” than you’re not doing yourself or your clients any favors. A truly skilled designer can pull off something exceptional for any industry, regardless of the niche standards.

        Bucking the trends of a particular industry doesn’t require a radical deviation, either. It could simply be a better use of web technologies–JQuery in lieu of Flash, Webfont or Cufon, CSS3, etc.

        • Rupert Burr says:

          I won’t be changing career, though being a stuntman does appeal.

          I was being emotional on my current project – ecommerce tour travel for the grey market. Where going down the tried and tested path is more beneficial for the business and it’s users to sell more tours then trying something new and different for artistic credit, where I run the risk of people getting frustrated in trying to decipher how to use the site and going elsewhere.

          For me, I have other freelance projects for me to flex my creative muscle, and I feel more confident placing more form into brochure sites and placing more function into commerce sites.

          You are right, subtle changes is all it takes to be unique and I do that wherever possible, I would like to see three sites selling the same product one site with a big photo, a big how much this will cost me text, and a big buy now button and (under client request) a massive logo, another one following trend and the other breaking trend and see which is more effective.

  3. Regarding your friend in torronto, you say he was getting multiple calls from people each week from his website, how do you know he was missing multiples more because they were more web-travelled and looked on his site and thought it looked a bit out of date? I see lots of sites and it’s instinctive not to trust sites that looked like they were made in the 90’s.

    P.s. loved your article on smashingmagazine and love your footer, that’s already breaking away from the trend of repeating everything from your online presence in your footer!


    • Hey Patrick,

      Thanks for the kind words. And yes, I agree with you to some extent: It’s very possible that with a better looking website, he would have had more business. It’s just hard to make drastic changes to a website that’s ranked #1 for a major search phrase.

  4. Dimitris says:

    I think that in most cases you can design a site that is functional and decent or even pleasing in looks and still maintain the style and conventions of the market. The Craiglist example is good. You can design a classifieds site without images, with white background and blue links and still make it a nice site. A simple and elegant layout with good typography will do the job.

    Practices like “related videos” or ads to the right, have practical reasons behind them and we can use them until we invent something better and we have a project where we can allow ourselves to test it. (the idea about comments is very good and it could be very appropriate in many sites).

    The portfolio tagline is a silly convention that web designers have imposed on themselves. I don’t think that anyone will be sad if we stop using it. (I still use it though…)

  5. Frank says:

    Good question! First I thougt, it is easy to answer: No! But the more I think about it, the more uncertain I become.

    Remember how ebay started. They changed it slightly over the years but did not change it completely. Users expect this page always the same style because they are familar with it. They made their own standard. It is hard to imagine a website on this subject, which is very stylish. But why not? An online auction platform that offers cool slide shows of a product, clean text windows for additional product information (not a freely editable HTML like ebay)…

    If you need a professional photographer for a special event you would choose that person, that has a nice clean and stylish web site with an easy to use portfolio or a slide show (assuming that the pictures are good). I think you would choose any photographer who has a website that looks like ebay. Even if the page meets the standard.

    Someone who offers his created fonts for sale, would make his website with a lot of white space and focus on the fonts. Ordinary users do not typically buy fonts. People that buy the fonts are probably even designers and they are more “at home” at a stylish site than at a page that offers all the fonts in blue underlined links.

    I think your question must be answered yes, but it could be more varied. According to your examples: The ads for example could stay on the left side right under a left vertical menu. None of your examples must be enforced shall continue. But I think no one dares to do something different…

    Sorry, long text. And then I still have no right answer or idea. But generally, I would answer the question in the affirmative.

  6. Rachell says:

    I design websites for wineries and feel it’s definitely possible to design sites that meet visitor expectations while still being usable!

    For example, some of the elements visitors usually expect on a winery website are LARGE images and the ‘same old, same old’ navigation links such as ‘About Us’, ‘Wine Shop’, ‘Wine Club’, etc (studies have shown that if you try to use ‘clever’ names for these items, visitors get frustrated and move on).

    So, I include those elements while also doing my best to:
    – Not use intro pages (I’ve had a few clients dig their heels in on this point and had to give in)

    – Use no more then one Flash element per page

    – Make sure the code is clean, the site well organized, the design is consistent from one page to the next and all the links work.

    – Not use the Age Verification (using them as a way to protect yourself legally is dubious at best)

    The bottom line is if a website isn’t usable, then its not going to be a success no matter how much it meets its visitors expectations.

  7. Very interesting article. I’ve been lead designer at an internet marketing firm for 2 years, we have about 150+ individual websites we run. Before I started working for this company the websites were in my design view, horrible. We’re talking image map navigation, a lot of madness in my opinion. However, these sites are built for the general public looking for something as common as dentistry. The older sites do just as well as their more modern counterparts I’ve implemented. These websites are meant to generate phone calls. We have all the statistics and the truth is the old ugly messed up code sites perform just as well as the new ones. Depends on the industry weather good design practices effect the actual functionality of the website for it’s user base.

    • Good input, Michael. That was exactly my point: That there are some websites that are specifically designed in such a way as to target a certain audience. So they’re basically ugly sites — but the end result is that they work. So in some cases it may be wrong to impose what we, as designers, assume is “best practice”.

  8. I always expect a certain “look” from different website genre.

    I’ll use an example I’m familiar with: fan-made anime websites tend to be heavy on graphics (often with several background graphics positioned together to form a larger image,) vertical sidebar navigation, and optional groups of little 50×50 graphics linking to fanlistings the site is a member of (i.e., fans of cute pictures, fan of x character, fans of y series.) I feel a sort of disorientation when I visit an anime fansite using WordPress’s default “Kubrick” theme. It just doesn’t fit- it seems more like a “serious” business-themed blog instead of a fun site about cartoon characters or a place to download livejournal avatars.

    Regarding the “best site in the genre uses frames:” unfortunately, the webmaster later removed it, but the long-running BEST fansite for the anime Yuu Yuu Hakusho (Flower of Blood) used frames. It was an awesome website, and everyone’s favorite for that subgenre. I was so impressed with it (and the webmaster) that I began to study HTML and CSS to make my own. That beautiful but frame-using website is what began my interest in web design. (I personally like frames, even though the make bookmarking a hassle- but the main function of frames for me was to import a sidebar I could easily edit into a site with many pages- something now made obsolete by PHP imports and WordPress.)

    I still consider myself to be the lowest of beginners in web design, but at least I have an interest in it and want to get better- and that was inspired by the now-defunct “Flowers of Blood.”

  9. Ken Paulsen says:

    I believe it is always a good thing to attempt to think outside the proverbial box. Convincing the client that your ideas are good and should be considered can be a difficult task. In some ways it can be harder to convince companies that have been around for a while to try breaking conventions when redesigning an existing site. But on the other hand it can be just as hard to convince someone who for some reason has never had a website.

    In the long run conventions will change, and the best way this change can come to pass is to not stop suggesting new ways to do things. The client might even give you the chance to explain your ideas, and perhaps that explanation hits the one client that would love to try something new. And in that case, go for it!

  10. Scrivs says:

    This is the completely wrong line of thinking for a number of reasons:

    1) To think that all your customers even know how your competitors look and feel is silly. The reason alcohol websites work the same is because the companies themselves are copying each other without realizing that they can step outside their own niche to create a unique website.

    2) Who would get turned away from a site because it looks different from the niche that it is in?

    Any website should be designed according to the vision of the company and not the niche…ever. In that regards, Bing would’ve never used background images for it’s search. Lo and behold now Google is adding background images.

    Be a leader in your niche. When you become nothing but a design follower then you deserve to be behind your competition.

    • For the most part, I would agree with you, Scrivs. I definitely wasn’t saying in this article that I favored this view. Only that it was an interesting point to consider.

      The one thing I disagree with you on is when you say “Any website should be designed according to the vision of the company and not the niche.” Considering the audience is a big part of design. When you consider the audience, you inevitably consider the niche.

      Maybe you’re thinking more along the lines of the looks of the different sites within the niche, but I was gearing more towards the overall niche (or industry) which would include audience intelligence, design trends, usability conventions, marketing strategies, and much more — all of which would have some effect on the resulting design/layout/structure of the website.

  11. Jay says:

    Interesting article. I think creating something that is expected and catered to fit within the ranks of the competition is almost pointless for your client. Albeit 99% of clients are not willing to take the risk and “be different”, I have a hard time going down without a fight. I’m a big believer in the theory that today’s marketing has evolved from the traditional idea of “intercepting” attention, to “creating” attention. Following suit with the rest of the competition in your niche doesn’t separate you at all from your competition. At best, you’re on par, and where is the sense in that when you have the opportunity to be a trend setter and leader in your niche.

    In a lot of cases we end up satisfying the client’s comfort level with creating a site that looks just like their top competitor, but on the odd occasion where I’ve had the chance and freedom to push the limits and create something unique for my client’s niche, they’ve reported tremendous success and endless compliments to me.

    One of the most irritating questions I receive from new clients is “do you have any experience designing websites for the __________ industry.” After a deep breath, I calmly find a way of asking “what does it matter?”. If a designer can’t adapt and design for all niches or industries, I don’t think they’re trying hard enough.

    My two cents…

    • Good point, Jay. It’s funny, because as web designers, we have the ability to affect the bottom lines of companies and individuals from such a wide variety of industries — yet we don’t really know a lot about any of the industries we design for, other than what the clients tell us, and some superficial research we might do.

      It certainly puts us in a unique position, compared to other professions.

  12. This has given me much food for thought. As a beginning UX designer in the midst of a website redesign project, this has come to mind recently. I’ve been looking at the competition of the website’s niche, and some sites are better than others in terms of usability. I’m on the fence as to whether to mold the site to be on par with the good ones or give it a “special snowflake” treatment so that it significantly stands out (in a good way.)

  13. Curt Brown says:

    Dumbing down to the level of others isn’t a good idea. If all of my competitors have terrible and/or unusable websites, then I should too because my customers are used to that?

    What if Apple thought that way about portable devices, or Google took that approach with email?

    This is why there are so many mediocre companies. Instead making improvements that are incredibly easy to implement we just settle for good enough.

  14. As with all aspects of publishing, you have to consider the audience. Not necessarily the standards that are currently in place, or even what the user is used to. Every business has some idea of their target audience and the message they want to send. For example, an insurance agent probably wants to be seen as professional and approachable, and having great customer service, so the web site must be easy to use, with content that conveys the message.

    Content, I think, is more important than design in making a successful web site. Even your friend in Toronto may have a successful site because of its great content — in spite of its poor design. Great content will almost always win over a site that looks fabulous but has absolutely nothing to offer its audience.

  15. josh says:

    Designing a site (or product) around the target market limits you to just that, the target market — bottom line.

    ***** Design for expansion and not retention *****

    Forget the norm and shoot from the hip.

  16. Mike says:

    I personally believe in setting trends rather than following them. Not 100% new stuff keep some of the same things throughout regardless of industry. All people have inherant values that are the same, it is our uniqueness that demands different website designs.

    Yes styles & trends are all well and good but going from 1site to the next you should easily spot the difference. If you cant tell the difference between your site & others in the industry then it needs rebuilt.

  17. You could go with the old cliche, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
    Allthough, it could still leave the question in the air,
    “If the site is doing this well with a crappy design, How much better could it be doing with a great revised design?”
    Now, if the site isn’t doing well then I think it would be worth giving a revision and making a pitch.
    It can be a shaky decision to even take on a client that has had a site up and running that works well. If the site visitors reject your redesign, then it is kind of “your ass” on the line. Of course, this goes with any design that you do, but even more so for sites that already has visitors and turning conversions for the business owner.

  18. its very good blog. I agree that anyone can do it, but it’s if you have the patience to deal with people and the skill set to do good work.

  19. hwany says:

    Well if sites are going well, leave them like it. But I think new sites MUST be designed with modern standards, if they’re still being done with tables and the like W3C standards simply won’t be pushed onto Internet Explorer.

  20. PPC Dallas says:

    Most people say W3C compliance doesn’t matter that much anymore, but I beg to differ. Even if you get a slight boost in SEO, that is still another factor that is added into the whole. The more boosts you can get in SEO, how ever large or small, the better.

  21. Thanks for sharing this! I wish there would be more info about that:)

  22. Tim Kiv says:

    It just depends on what you are trying to accomplish. I would do what best fits the situation at the time.

  23. Maverick says:

    In a lot of cases we end up satisfying the client’s comfort level with creating a site that looks just like their top competitor, but on the odd occasion where I’ve had the chance and freedom to push the limits and create something unique for my client’s niche, they’ve reported tremendous success and endless compliments to me.

  24. Matt says:

    Great article !

  25. AHKhani says:

    The comment by Storm raises a great question: Should design cater to established norms within an industry, even if those norms aren’t ideal?

    There’s definitely a balance to be struck. While familiarity can be comforting for users, it shouldn’t prevent progress.

    I especially liked your example of your friend’s website. While success is great, user needs and expectations can evolve. Maybe a redesign considering both industry norms and best practices could be even more effective now?

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