Design is Not the Same as UX

Webmasters today have two main objectives:

  1. Keeping the users happy (UX)
  2. Keeping the search engines happy (SEO)

Fortunately, as Rand Fiskin explains, these two goals go hand in hand. Less explored is the challenge of doing all this with great design.

  1. Great design?

To clarify: by great design, I mean from a purely visual point of view. Don’t care how it works. Don’t care how it performs. How does it look?

In this post I make the case for thinking about design in addition to SEO and UX when building a site.

Poor UX, poor SEO, great design

Let’s begin with the current trend for one-page sites that scroll indefinitely rather than separating their content across several pages. These sites look and feel very contemporary; from a purely visual point of view they tick the ‘great design’ box. When browsing these WordPress themes recently on Themeforest (itself a great site), I was amazed by the number of one-pagers, and I must admit, some of them do look very professional. If I knew nothing about SEO, I’d have gladly jumped on the one-page bandwagon.

But imagine you run a one-page e-commerce site selling homemade cupcakes (how trendy of you). When it comes to engaging with your content, are users really prepared to scroll through reams of text and images to find your latest recipe? How will they convert if they can’t find the checkout? How does your mobile phone feel about loading all your site content at once (probably not best pleased)?

As you can tell, these things range from mildly irritating to bounce-inducing for the user.

But what about the search engines? Well, in the same way that a Flash site is difficult to rank because of its single URL, a one-pager puts all your SEO eggs in one basket. Unlike on Flash sites, however, text on single-page sites can be crawled; Google will read your site like one long essay. This is no bad thing if you just want this one page to rank. But if you sell both cupcakes and birthday cakes, chances are you would want to distil your rankings accordingly.

Trendy they may be, but one-page sites fail my triple test. Next!

Great UX, poor SEO, great design

Advertising agency sites are notoriously stylish. In this industry, appearances are everything, and top agencies redesign their sites every couple of years to stay ahead of the curve. Take M&C Saatchi:

In line with their brand philosophy, ‘brutal simplicity of thought’, their new site features big square graphics (very popular right now), no-nonsense caps, a bold black and white colour scheme and minimal blurb. Visually, it’s a great design.

Likewise, the navigation is clear and leaves the user in no doubt as to how to get around.

But look at what happens to the URL when you navigate between tabs (except ‘news’, bizarrely): nothing! Not that it matters for a giant like M&C Saatchi, which already receives more traffic than it knows what to do with, but for you or I this would be SEO suicide.

Once again, it seems difficult to align the three website fundamentals: UX, SEO and great design – even if you’re a multi-million pound organisation. Maurice and Charles should take a leaf out of their rival’s book: AMV BBDO.

Okay, so how about a site with great UX and SEO potential, but yawn-worthy design?

I’m about to be say something very controversial…

Great UX, great SEO, poor design

Assuming engagement stats are a good indication of user experience, the 400 minutes each user spends on site represent a massive tick in that column. Facebook’s SEO performance is obvious; just the letter ‘F’ is good enough for Google’s live search. But design?

Every time Facebook adjust their design, users revolt for about a week – then get used to it. Most of Timeline’s original naysayers would never go back to their old profile. Yet throughout even its biggest overhauls, Facebook has stuck fast to its blue and white banner layout, a design that seems too cold and formal for the vibrant social hub it has become.

Some would argue (me included) that the lack of custom design on Facebook came as a welcome relief after MySpace. But while the sensible blue and white sans serif may have suited its humble beginnings, shouldn’t today’s biggest social network feel as exciting to look at as it is to use (like Pinterest)?

Why don’t Facebook consider something like this?

Finally, to prove that it is possible to get it right across the board:

Great UX, great SEO, great design

Fresh, fun and intuitive, Teapigs prove that you can have your well-designed cupcake and eat it, too.

Often considered the poor cousin of user experience, I have argued that great design should be a consideration in its own right. When you build your next site, think about design in addition to, or at least as a separate facet of, UX and SEO. Have I convinced you? Let me know in the comments.