This is a conversation that I have had many times over the years, both with colleagues and customers. I've learned that there is no definitive answer because most people like a bit of both, and that each person places a different amount of importance on how their website looks, and how it works.
For me, everything I buy has to be pleasing to my eye to some degree. If something looks good then I know that it has been thought about, cared about, and that whoever produced it is in some way on the same wavelength as me. For most products or services, you don't really know how it functions until you've used it.
There's no accounting for taste
Have you ever thought to yourself - "Why would someone buy that, it's ugly!". Well, it may be ugly to you, but it looks fantastic to some people.
Taste can be something that is peculiar to you as an individual, and it can also be dictated by other factors such as nationality, gender, age, and current trends. When it comes to viewing a website, individual taste isn't as important a factor as when you're buying a car for example, but it can still influence your experience and ultimately your buying decision.
This is where good design comes into play - thinking about your target audience and then designing your website to suit their tastes can make a huge difference when it comes to converting visitors into customers. Here are a couple of simple examples:
- A business that sells conservatories should not be interested in what the younger generation thinks of their website, nor should they be worrying too much about foreigners. They should be thinking about those aged 40-70 who live locally. They should be appealing to both male and female visitors, as buying a conservatory is often a joint decision between husband and wife. The website should have easy access to large, detailed images because people want a good view of what they're buying. It should be modern but reliable - it should say "Relax and enjoy, we will provide quality and service".
- A B2B website should be designed primarily for aged 20-50 decision makers. It should look professional (not too flashy), and it should say "We're here, we're current, and we aspire to do business with you". For a B2B website, the very best thing you can try to achieve from a design perspective is to offend as few people as possible. Individual tastes should be ignored in favour of a classic and corporate feel. Business buying decisions are rarely influenced by how fancy a website looks, but they are often influenced by how badly a website works.
Some people react to good design, and some don't
"Good design is about how something works, not how it looks or feels" - Steve Jobs
...and who would argue with a man who built the world's richest company on good design. However, Apple is a great example of how you can't please all of the people all of the time, and this is where we come to the crux of our argument - Aesthetics or Function?
Apple products look great, but it's how they function that sets them apart from other products. If they didn't work as well as they do, they would never have been so successful over such a long period of time.
For your website to be successful, you also have to place the priority on function before look and feel. You have to consider your audience and then design the website functionality and messaging with them in mind. Once that has been taken care of, look and feel can be considered to some degree, but never at the expense of function.
You can spend a lot of time and money trying to get your website to suit your tastes, but never forget that your tastes aren't necessarily going to appeal to the majority of people.