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Strategic insights
Ugly Websites Stink

Written by on July 23, 2007

Gerry McGovern recently wrote that the best websites are the ugly ones - he is wrong. Only cheap companies can have ugly websites.

I have a deep respect for Gerry McGovern, I own every book he has ever written, I have been a subscriber to "New Thinking" since he started publishing them, but in his latest article he wrote:

"Ryanair, eBay, Amazon, Google, Craig's List, My Space, and YouTube are ugly websites. They are also hugely successful websites. When I show audiences the Ryanair website, there are audible gasps. I see people recoil from its sheer ugliness. Yet last year, Ryanair flew 42 million passengers, and the vast majority of them booked their flights through"

- Gerry McGovern

And, he is right - all those websites are ugly, and all of them are a huge success... but, they are not successful because their websites is ugly - it is because an ugly website fits the concept of those companies.

Ryanair is a no-thrill company. You do not use Ryanair to get a good experience, you do not use them to fly "first class", and you do not use them to feel good. You use Ryanair to get as cheaply as possible from A to B - and in doing so you trade-off the good experience.

Ryanair is a no-thrill company, and so it also needs a no-thrill website. Ugly is perfect for Ryanair, because it makes them look cheap - and that, for them, is how they make money.

Not everyone is no-thrill

But what about the companies that sells expensive product? Companies like Audi, Aston Martin, Apple, Nike, Bang&Olufsen, Concorde (when it was still flying), Gucci, Wally Yachts, Rolex, Armani etc.

None of these companies would benefit from having ugly looking websites - because they are not selling ugly products, they do not even sell products, they sell good experiences. Ugly websites would ruin that experience - it would be a disaster.

You do not buy a good experience based on how the product is made, or what it can do technically. You buy it to show-off to your friends. You buy an iPhone to be able to say "look I got an iPhone", you buy a Jaguar to make people look at you, and you buy Gucci to make your friends jealous.

Luxury companies need a website that is about that experience. They need cool design, amazing look-and-feel, perfect finish and extreme attention to exquisite colors and visual details. You even need the right kind of sound.

The world in-between

Not all companies sell luxury products or good experiences. The vast majority sells products that are neither insanely cheap (like Ryanair's), nor anywhere close to being like Gucci.

If you are working for one of those companies you need to take a really hard look at what people want. Cheap companies can get away with being cheap - you cannot. Luxury brands can get away with not displaying factual information - you cannot.

You need to do both at the same time. You need give people the factual information they need, and you need to do in a way that fits the experience of your product. Kellogg's All-Brand is a good example.

Kellogg's All-Brand

People do not buy Kellogg's All-Brand because they want something to eat. Why would they? There are much better tasting products on the market. Instead people buy All-Brand to feel healthy.

But Kellogg's All-Brand is not a luxury product. It is sold to everyone, and it is relatively cheap. It is also one those products where product information is very important. People want to know why it is healthy, why is this good for me?

This is a dilemma - Kellogg' needs to sell an experience, "feeling healthy", in a factual way. They need to create a website that is about the experience of healthy living - while giving people the nutritional information they are looking for.

And so they did:

The Kellogg's All-Brand website is almost exclusively about the healthy experience. It tells you the benefits of fibers, how much of it there is in each product, why you shouldn't eat pills, and what your nutritional needs are. As an added extra, they also offer a bunch of healthy recipes.

Also notice the site menu. It doesn't say "product information", "Nutritional chart", or "Ingredients" like it is supposed to. Instead they have created unusual menu labels like "The Scoop on fiber" and "Daily fiber tabulator" which is actually much more usable and a lot more suitable for that experience.

The result is a good mix of all the elements people need:

  • A "healthy experience"
  • Factual information
  • A usable menu
  • Easy to use, easy to understand
  • Useful content

It doesn't look cheap and ugly as Ryanair. It looks good (but not over designed), has a suitable and usable experience and most importantly - it fits the concept of the brand.

Ugly websites rarely work to your advantage. Base your design on the content and the experience. But, just as important, never base your design on "making a design" either.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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