Read the professional web design online magazines like A List Apart and Digital Web Magazine and you might think that the absolute best site is the simplest one possible. For usability, that may be true. But that thinking ignores some elements of marketing psychology. Vital as that concept is there are other factors that come into play when considering how simple and clean to make a site.
Stop for a second and consider the king of low cost merchandising, WalMart. How simple is their store layout? Did that get a laugh? A WalMart store offers an almost overwhelming display of so many products that I wouldn’t even dare guess at the number. WalMart stores are not simple, yet they are outstandingly successful.
Let’s go even further down the cost ladder and look at swap meets, flea markets and jumbles. Simple? Organized? Lovely? Not hardly. They make WalMart look like a paragon of organization in comparison. Are they successful? There sure are a lot of them.
Where do we find simplicity in retail marketing? Jewelers come immediately to mind as do boutiques and specialty stores. I think you might begin to see where I’m going with this. Compare an Apple Store with Best Buy. Both are successful enterprises but the general perception created by each is quite different. Best Buy isn’t nearly as overwhelming as WalMart but in comparison with the stark and uncluttered Apple Store it seems so. Which has the more upscale image?
In our culture there is a direct correlation in most people’s minds between simplicity and price/quality. Simply put, if you are selling discount merchandise or appealing to a market that would typically shop for discount merchandise, a simple and elegant website would be a mismatch. A Cartier look would not sell Crayolas or Cupid frescos. Nor would a site that could effectively market off brand boom boxes appeal to someone looking for an audiophile stereo.
It isn’t just about the brands you advertise but the very design elements used in the layout. As a simple rule of thumb the more down market you go the less white space your design should incorporate and the more cluttered, colorful and busy your layout should be. The more upscale, the simpler, cleaner, and monochrome you should make your design. To use loaded terms, you might consider this the snob or reverse-snob appeal of your site.
My personal bias is toward the simplest and cleanest design possible. Making a simple site that is visually appealing is a greater challenge than making one with more visual elements. Color, widgets, off site advertisements, quotes, photos, and special features and offers are actually easier to combine into a usable layout than fewer simple elements. Visitors to a busier site have lower design expectations. Those who gravitate to the beauty of simplicity don’t just want plain. They want the difficult elegance of the Zen garden. That’s not saying that busy sites can’t be beautiful but it is more the busy beauty of a Victorian parlor than the severe beauty of a Danish modern living room.
This takes us out of the realm of upscale/downscale into other psychological aspects of design. Are you promoting, elegance, romance, ideas, utility, and so on? If you are selling lavender scented soaps and candles, you are selling romance, not soap and cand.es. WalMart will sell perfectly adequate soap and table candles for a fraction of the price you can afford to charge. What makes your product different? A good part of the difference is that hand crafted products made from locally grown lavender evokes Monet paintings, vast swaths of purple in some romantic locale and a sense of treating yourself to a little luxury. And hand crafted products may not be better in any objective sense but they also evoke emotional responses.
Your market will probably cross economic lines, but it appeals to the romantic impulse, so that’s the look and feel that your site needs to convey. Romance can be busy or simple in execution but it needs to provide a sense of lushness and warmth. Vivid photographs or graphics, ornamentations, script-like text treatments, colored backgrounds all help, as does a middle ground between simple and cluttered. In this case staying in the middle ground of simplicity helps appeal to both ends of the market. You are just as likely to appeal to a teen spending her baby sitting money as the executive longing for a touch of romance and ease in an otherwise hard edged world.
So the simple concept that simple is best is not so simple. Simple as opposed to confusing is good. Simple as opposed to busy is not so straight forward a call.