Web Design is Product Design

May 26


Daniel Gibbins

Daniel Gibbins

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Websites should be considered in the same light as products, using the same approach to product design: functionality, useability and look. Too many web designers focus on just the look of a website, however there is much more to it than just that. Why do ugly websites like MySpace, Yahoo or Amazon make money? They are, afterall, no the most attractive sites on the web!


Many people think of web design as being closely related to graphic design,Web Design is Product Design Articles or even just another branch of the profession. Look in your local Yellow Pages and you'll find dozens of graphic designers offering websites as one of their long list of services, along with logo design, business cards and brochures.

Websites Have to Work

Brochures, magazines ads, signs, logos and posters all differ from websites in one crucial aspect: people don't have to use them. All designers have to make sure their work is attractive, but product designers need to ensure their products are also easy to use and have features that people want.

A mobile phone, for example, needs to be attractive, or consumers wouldn't buy it. However, people also need to be able to use it. There would be little point in having an attractive phone if you weren't able to call people because the speaker wasn't loud enough for you to hear, or the buttons were too small for you to press.

People also choose mobile phones based on the features they offer. Most phones these days come with a colour screen, but-in camera and several games. Like mobile phones, websites need to be easy to use and offer people features they want. Being attractive is important too, but in most cases it's not the most important thing.

Of course, graphic design isn't just about making things pretty - there's a lot more to it than that. The difference between graphic design and product design (or web design) is that the objects designed by graphic designers don't have to be used (at least in any complicated way); they are simply looked at and read.

Graphic designers already have lots of the skills and knowledge to become good web designers. However, don't make the mistake of thinking websites are just online brochures. They're not. Just as there's more to print design than creating pretty layouts in Quark, there's more to web design than creating attractive designs in Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

Features, Function and Form:

Websites, like products, can be looked at from three angles: features, function and form.

  1. Features: The features of a product are often the most important aspect. When the cordless kettle was invented, people bought it because it did something other kettles couldn't. A good website needs to do something that people want. The BBC website gives people up-to-the-minute news, while Google helps them find web pages they would be interested in. Even a 3-page, small business website lets people do something, i.e. find out about the company.
  2. Function: The next aspect of any product (or website) is how well it works and how easy it is to use. Dyson vacuum cleaners do the same as any of their competitors: they suck up dust. However, they've sold well because they suck up dust much more efficiently than most other vacuum cleaners. Likewise, Google wasn't the first search engine, but it has been pheonomenally successful because it was easier to use and produced better search results than its competitors.
  3. Form: The final aspect of any product is how it looks. Whether the aesthetics of a product are important depends on how similar its features and function are to its competitors. iPods do a very similar job to every other MP3 player, but they've been successful because they look stunning, despite costing more. By contrast, the first Xerox wasn't particularly attractive, but it sold in huge numbers because, in 1959, it was the only automatic copier on the market. People often use ugly websites that offer something their competitor's don't. eBay isn't the best-looking site, but because so many people use it, it's a very effective way of buying and selling things. Of course, you should try to create attractive sites, but looks aren't always everything.

Ugly Websites Make Money!

If you were to ask designers (or anyone else for that matter) to list the most attractive sites on the Web, few would mention Google, eBay, MySpace, Yahoo or Amazon. Yet these companies are worth billions. Why? The answer's really simple - substance is much, much more important than style on the Web.

Many of the companies that collapsed during the .com bubble had beautiful websites. However, if you don't have a good concept, a workable business model, an easy-to-use website, interesting content, marketable products, reliable delivery, a genuine potential market and effective marketing, then it doesn't matter how pretty your site looks, it will unquestionably fail.

So, Should I Design an Ugly Website?

Of course not! The fact that ugly sites make money doesn't mean you website must look ugly in order to be successful, far from it. It simply means that looks are a minor factor in determining the success of most websites.

If you focus on aesthetics at the expense of more important factors, like usability, content and customer service, then your site is unlikely to meet the goals you set. However, if you create an easy to use site with interesting content and effective marketing, as well as good design, then you're well on your way to creating a successful website.

The trick is to try to design a site that would succeed even if it was ugly - and then make it look attractive. The look and feel should be the icing on the cake.