Design or function: which is more important?

Design or function: which is more important?

It’s like the old question: which came first – the chicken or the egg?

Well, actually it’s nothing like that as that’s an easy one. The egg came first. The chicken has evolved over the aeons from whatever came before it, and it has been an egg-laying creature long before it was a chicken. So the answer is the egg came first.

That was easy.

No, this question is much harder, and is one I discussed with my 13-year-old just this week. My youngest lad, Casey, has taken an interest in website design (something I’m particularly happy about) and he’s been dabbling with various builders over the past few months, including Wix.

I recently gave him a stack of HTML, CSS and JavaScript books to wade through and he’s been making quite light work of them – so much so that he’s already begun work on his latest web project, built entirely from scratch and coded by hand.

I’m so proud.

At 13 he’s much further along than I was at that age, but then I didn’t get a PC until I was 17, and the internet was a little less developed back then. Most websites had scrolling text, flashing images and music playing when they loaded. Ah, those were the days.

Anyhow, the point is he’s been coding his own website by hand – something that many people who call themselves ‘web designers’ these days wouldn’t know the first thing about how to do.

But this isn’t a rant post. I’m not about to start going on about the ‘plug and play’ web designers. No, this is about design and function.

To digress slightly – but this is relevant, so bear with me – I remember being at a SAScon event a few years ago when I was a member of a panel discussing retail websites. I used to be the web designer for GAME, so I have experience of ecommerce both from the side of the agency and in-house.

Someone in the audience brought up Amazon as an example of poor website design, claiming it wasn’t a very good-looking website when compared to some other retail sites, such as those of John Lewis or M&S. Before I could jump down his throat, another member of the panel grabbed the microphone from me and figuratively (because I’m not going to misuse the word ‘literally’) took the words right out of my mouth.

He corrected the audience member on Amazon’s design, explaining how it was designed to function as a retail website. Its purpose was to sell, and to make it as easy as possible for people to buy from it. With that purpose in mind, Amazon’s design is flawless.

Yes, sites like M&S and John Lewis are beautiful to look at, and no, I’m not about to criticise their functionality, usability or anything else about them, but Amazon is a different entity. It has one purpose, and one purpose alone: to make money.

I was reminded of this as I discussed the placement of a sign-up form Casey had added to his website. Yes, he’s coding forms already. It was large, near the top and to the right of the page. He said he didn’t like it, as it was too big and would look better if it could collapse somehow and open with a button press. He’s right, of course, it would look better. As I said to him, though, would it work as well?

It all boils down to the point of a website. What is the site’s primary purpose? Only when you know what the website is supposed to do, what you need from it and why you’re having one in the first place, can you begin to make design decisions. If having a website that looks pretty is your end goal, and you’re not bothered by sales, enquiries or sign-ups, then you don’t need to worry about having a visible call-to-action. You can keep things minimal and concentrate on the aesthetics.

That isn’t the goal for most business owners, however. For most people, the website needs to do something. It will have a specific purpose it needs to achieve. The website should be designed around this purpose and function.

Technical Director at Engage Web
Darren is Technical Director at Engage Web, as well as being a co-founder of the company. He takes a hands-on approach to SEO and web design, helped by more than 20 years’ experience in these fields.

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