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Ever since I've got down to redesigning LiteraryForums.org (progress report on this coming up in the next community newsletter!) I've been thinking very hard about a certain issue that has eluded a straightforward answer in my own mind. It's a very simple question. When one gets down to design a dynamic website (in other words, server-side scripted, not static), does style (look, feel and design) come first or is the utility more important? In other words, should the web designer's focus be on style or should the focus be on features and utility? Mind you, I haven't mentioned the word "content" here at all...
Actually one might think that utility comes first. After all, who's bothered about the style of a website? Features should come first, right? For a long time I used to think so too, but these days, I'm not really sure. There are a couple of reasons for my dilemma.
First of all, a unique design certainly helps a website develop a certain sense of identity among your visitors. This is especially true of websites which need a reason to develop a faithful base of users, like a web forum, for its growth. A unique design also gives a sense of pride to you, the owner of the website. Last but not least, it is fairly easy to switch between different styles these days. Most present-generation server-side scripts for CMS, blogs and forums have some kind of a templating system that separates the functionality from the style, thus making it fairly easy to experiment with different styles before coming up with one that you like and can stick with. Almost nobody would use the default templates for most of these pre-built scripts because they end up looking pretty common as thousands of users download and use them (especially with the Open Source scripts).
On the other hand, is functionality as important as is made out to be? I've already mentioned in a previous blog entry (see phpBB: to BB or not to BB) about the disadvantages of "modding" scripts - customizing code and adding extra features and such - because maintaining and upgrading becomes a nightmare. Not only this, but I would add that some of the customizations and feature additions can actually end up adding very little value to a website while at the same time conflicting with a very real yearning for simplicity and elegance in design. A very good example of such a "useless feature" is avatars. Who can think of a more worthless, band-width sucking waste of disk and screen space than avatars: those annoying little images that members choose to place below their nicknames? And yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people consider them as an essential part of an online forum!
My take is that, while I always consider features to be of some importance, the design is equally important. In fact, most of your visitors may not care too much for all those features you might have, but will actually end up with a photographic image of your website design in their minds stored up for future reference. Since the design is the most visible aspect of your website and first impressions count a lot, it is so important to make a visible impression. And if you have to sacrifice a few "features" for the sake of a clean, elegant and (in most cases) professional design, then so be it.
But where does one find this right balance between style and functionality? At what point does a simple, elegant design conflict with "desired features"? I'm afraid I can offer no easy answers to that one.
Posted on Mon, May 16, 2005 at 17:14 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:30 IST)