Sometimes Ugly is Better

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Sometimes ugly design works.  Like nails on the proverbial chalkboard for any graphic designer, but it is true!  I have heard it repeated numerous times over the years but it wasn’t until I saw a couple first-hand examples, that I finally understand this quirky nuance of user experience.

A number of years ago there was an ugly little online dating site that took the industry by storm. The site, called Plenty of Fish, was run by one man out of his apartment (reportedly) and offered free online dating to the masses.  The site was ugly unsophisticated for users, in that it lacked any of the major features of the majors. Today, the site is one of the top 5 dating sites around the World, which is quite an accomplishment in a $700 million per year industry.

At the time, I was building a site of my own and I was just baffled by his success.  On one level there was an obvious mechanical advantage he had, since his site was highly SEO’d and the ugly design actually facilitated his SEO goals much better than the major sites.  In this regard it was straight-forward small business agility.  But there was something more.  I could not understand why a user would want to engage in a site that looked so amateur.

Several months later I finally had an experience that helped me to understand.  I friend’s parents owned a clothing store in a relatively bad part of town.  When I visited, I immediately noticed that the store was not particularly organized, and there was no apparently theme in the curation of clothes.  I suggested that her parents could do more to improve the stores success, but then she explained something important to me.  Her parents had made the store a lot nicer initially, but over time they realized that they did better as they stopped trying so hard, and ‘let it go’ a bit.  Their eventual conclusion was that due to the lower-income neighborhood where the store was located, it better matched the comfort level of their patrons, and attracted more people willing to see what they had for sale, if they did not attempt to position their store as too nice or too high quality.  Aha, authenticity!

The thing about the successful dating site is that the founder staged a fantastic PR campaign about how the site was run by one man an was taking over the World.  Everyone loves a good David and Gollaith story, and wants to support the underdog and be part of their movement.

Perhaps it is because his site was 100% free.  At the time, it was very common for dating sites to say they were free, only to hit you with a payment screen as soon as you want to contact someone.  It was the beginning of the Freemium model in those days and they probably got a little carried away with it, but it seemed to work well for conversion rates.  Anyway, perhaps it was this context, in which his was the first *truly* free dating site, that the unpolished design carried a message of authenticity and infused trust, thus getting more signups than others. You could argue that the sincerity of a single man operation, not trying to trick patrons with dubious claims of free service was a welcome change, and the ugly design lent a certain authenticity to the claims, since it appeared likely it really was created by one man, not a large company.

Since that time, I have heard numerous accounts of ‘ugly’ working.  Someone else pointed out to me that their ugly banners performed way better than their well design banners on Facebook.  Their conclusion after studying the phenomenon, was that their ugly ads simply stood out and caught the eye of readers, more than well designed ads that tended to blend in or be ignored due to ‘ad blindness’.  We have after all been trained to ignore ads as we scan sites. This is a big part of why Google AdSense ads are so successful, since they look like the content of the page and aren’t as easily ignored.

So there you have it, three examples of when ugly worked!  And like any good sound byte (“ugly works”), the real art is deciding when and how to use it.  I believe it really comes down to authenticity and matching the message for your customers and clients.  If you’re a purveyor of deals or frugality, then ugly design is probably a good way to go, but not if you’re trying to engender high quality. When you look at it through the lens of authenticity, its not really that surprising.  It is simply about consistency in the communication of your brand isn’t that what authenticity is?   Likewise, high end luxury brands should stay with very rich elegant textures and photographs, and insurance and financial institutions should use conservative layout and imagine … and a lot of the color blue.

There is a usability paradox here.  Would you consider an intentionally ugly website to be an effective user experience?  What if that the ugliness actually contributed to attracting attention and user engagement, the very key metrics by which the success of the project is judged?  This is what I meant when I claimed in another post, that usability should not be considered a function of graphic design, since there can sometimes be a conflict of interest.