A lot of time and effort goes into choosing a design (or theme) for websites. Some people obsess over it and spend weeks – even months or years – deciding precisely what their site should look like.
Maybe that’s because we’re emulating what we see big brands doing. They redesign something and make a big song and dance about it.
But does website design really matter?
At one level, yes, absolutely.
That level is the practicality of using the site.
If people arrive and can’t figure out how to easily get from one page to the next or if it involves hovering your mouse in precisely the right way to be able to get the menu system to stay on screen long enough for you to be able to click the link, that’s bad and visitors will likely click away to a friendlier site.
If the design is clean and simple to use, even it’s obvious it wasn’t designed this century, your visitors will find a familiarity that means they can explore, even if there are less bells and whistles than they might like.
Craigslist is maybe one of the most famous examples of an old school, simple. functional site design. It’s definitely not going to win any design awards. Nor is Wikipedia.
So there’s definitely a case for websites looking basically ugly.
That’s one of the reasons I don’t do much about the design of this site – at the time of writing, it’s using the WordPress Twenty-Twelve theme (so that name tells you the year it was designed) and prior to that I used the Twenty-Ten theme. The only reason I changed was that the earlier theme wasn’t responsive and people are increasingly using their mobile phones and tablets to view sites.
Incidentally, the quickest and easiest way to check whether your site looks OK on a phone is just to adjust your browser size. If the layout responds and adjusts, you’re probably OK. If it doesn’t, it’s time to think about a new design that works how lots of your potential visitors expect it to work. Google are even saying that they’ll be creating a separate index that takes accounts of how well sites adjust to being shown on mobile devices.
If you outsource your site design or get an off the shelf theme where you’re not sure if it is designed with mobile users in mind, run it through Responsinator, a free online checker that shows you how your site looks on various devices. I’ve used that for some site designs I’ve been involved with and it is a lot quicker than testing the site on a phone, even assuming I had all the different models they display.
Incidentally, mobile versions of sites tend to look better if the design is relatively simple. There’s a lot less screen real estate available, bells and whistles like animations get in the way and take longer to download and since the mouse movement is your finger or thumb there’s less precision available for tapping on awkwardly designed menus.
Of course, you can do a few things so your site looks elegant – type faces can help there (use ones that are designed to be read on screen rather than on paper) and the position of the different on-page elements helps as well.
But don’t spend forever choosing a site design.
If you’re about to change the design of your site, spend the next day or two taking note of the different sites you visit.
And adjust the size of your browser to quickly see how they respond to smaller screen sizes. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty close.
Then set aside a specific amount of time to come up with a site design.
Adjust the amount of time according to the number of visitors you’re getting.
So if your site barely registers a visitor most days, unless it’s impossible to navigate then the design isn’t really the critical factor at this stage of its life. Go with one of the WordPress defaults – they’re more than adequate, have been tested on different browsers and at different screen sizes and they’re updated quite often.
If your site has more visitors, you can consider whether it would improve their experience if you tweaked or changed the site design. Not so much that it would be a culture shock to your regulars but it’s certainly worth thinking about.
Most of all…
Don’t get sucked into the design process too deeply.
It’s way too easy to focus on it to the exclusion of what really matters which is the content on your site.
Because – mobile considerations apart – the search engines don’t actually care what your site looks like visually.
Their robots don’t actually see how your site looks, they just “know” (because they’ve been programmed to know) whether it will show OK on a mobile without a microscope.
But beyond that they definitely don’t care whether or not it’s ugly or pretty, just whether it provides useful content and doesn’t get users instantly clicking back to the search results to find something better.