Functionality vs. Style

In my previous job working for a non-profit (I’ve talked about it before) we used a few different CMS over the years to manage our online fundraising website. One in particular was absolutely awful and caused us major customer-service headaches! Horrible user-interface, bad data management, non-existent reporting capabilities… It was a nightmare.

The following year, we switched to a different CMS and our lives got much easier. 90% of the functionality of this new system was leaps-and-bounds better than the previous year’s. However, one of my coworkers hated the new site. She thought it was ugly, she thought it was primitive. She would see cool flash animations and interactive content on other websites and she wanted to do things like that on ours. But we couldn’t do those things on our site, the new CMS wasn’t configured to handle the type of coding that generates that kind of decorative bling, and so to her it meant that our site didn’t work well enough. She was hung up on looks and blind to essential functionality. She decided that the whole site was deficient just because we couldn’t pretty it up to her standards.

My coworker hadn’t been with us the year before, so she never knew how bad the earlier version of our site was for our users. She had no experience with website construction and didn’t know anything at all about how sites work on the back end. To me, what she complained about – the look of the site – was at most only 10% of its total functionality… and it was far and away the least consequential. 90% of the rest of the site – the back-end data storage, the efficacy of the user interface and options, the reporting – worked incredibly well and that was what truly counted. I felt that she was nit-picking things that didn’t matter, and I got quite frustrated with her inability to see that.

As is my wont when thinking about website design, I fell back on architectural metaphors to try and explain it…

When a prospective homebuyer sees a house, they look at the walls and envision how they want to decorate: paint colors, artwork, fixtures. But decorations aren’t really what the wall is for. Inside the wall is essential structure; electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems; insulation; fireproofing – 90% of the functionality of the wall are all these things that you never see. If these essential systems don’t function properly, you can’t live in the house no matter how beautiful it is. In that sense, this core 90% is far more important than the measly 10% that you can decorate.

But then it hit me – there’s a converse to this. You could have the best built house in the world, but if you don’t like the look of it, if you can’t decorate it the way you want, it will never be home for you. You’ll never be comfortable there.

The 90% of a house that you can’t see is what makes it livable. But it’s the 10% that you can see that transforms a house into a home.

My coworker never saw the back end of our website. She only ever interacted with the front end. Which means that the 10% of it that she always complained about was, for her, a whole lot more than just 10%. For her, it was the entire site.

When it comes to websites, people conflate style with functionality. The way your site looks is what sells a visitor on it before they even start using it. If your site looks bad, people will assume that it’s badly built. You could have the most functional website of all time – but if it looks like crap, then most people will never discover how well it works because they’ve already clicked away.

Considered from this perspective, the inconsequential 10% is suddenly much more important, isn’t it? I deal with the essential structure and content management of websites. Functionality is always my main concern. So it sticks in my craw just a bit to say this but…

Style matters.

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