Pretty doesn't sell

I was fed up.

After suffering with my low-cost web host for years, I decided to switch. I was fed up with poor up-time, slow load times, and bad customer support. The price was cheap ($5/month), but I needed something better. So I started evaluating other providers. Anyone who's tried to compare managed hosting providers knows what a pain it is: spammy review sites, 100 item feature lists, and cheap looking marketing pages.

Finally I found a provider that stood out from the crowd: they had a beautifully designed website and promised speed, reliability and support.

Did I mention they were pretty?

There was a time when most web apps looked bad. They were cluttered, noisy, littered with icons, and had little in terms of cohesive design (here's a good example).

But then companies like 37signals came on the scene. Their products were beautifully designed; they believed that software should look good. Soon new SaaS apps emerged with a similar design aesthetic.

For those of us buying this software, an unspoken rule emerged: software with a nice design = better software.

And for a long time, the rule held true. Software that looked good often was better than it's uglier counterparts.

Back to my story

I chose the web host that had the prettiest design. They were 4x the cost of my low-cost provider, but I was confident that any company that cared about design also cared about building a great product.

I was wrong.

As I started to use their service, the pretty veneer faded away and revealed an ugly truth: they weren't reliable. This meant frequent downtime, slow customer support, and an interface that "looked nice" but was cumbersome to use.

After a few years of using this new provider, I finally bit the bullet and switched again. This time, I chose a web host recommended by a friend. They were a bit more expensive ($9 more per month) but they delivered on the things that really mattered:

  • they were blazing fast

  • they had almost perfect uptime

  • they could handle a lot of traffic

  • they had great customer support

Notice that "beautiful design" isn't on that list. The design of their website and their back-end is basic, utilitarian, and (dare I say it) a little ugly.

We're in the post-pretty era

Let's get one thing out of the way: I'm not saying that the principles of design don't matter. They do, especially when applied to structure, flow, readability and navigation. Good interface design helps users get things done, and creates great experiences.

What I'm focusing on is the "look". It's the philosophy that we need to create gorgeous looking screens. It's the desire to emulate the pretty designs we see on Path, Mailbox, and Pinterest. It's wanting to have an app that is the most "stylish", "sexy" and conforms to current design trends.

The era of stylish design being a competitive advantage, or a marketable feature, is over.

Pretty doesn't sell (anymore)

Like I mentioned, there was a time where I'd pay for a new app just because it looked great. Not anymore. Here's why:

  1. It's easier to fake a nice veneer - using frameworks like Foundation, Bootstrap, and other UI libraries, it's easier and easier to make an app "look nice". For marketing pages, there are dozens of cheap templates available that look good. 

  2. I care more about outcomes - I'm use software to achieve tasks. What's the use of a pretty design if it doesn't help me get my work done? Apps should focus less on making it "look good", and more on making it "work good". Help the user get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.

  3. What's under the hood matters - speed and reliability matter. I want the software I use to be fast, whether it's on the web, on my phone, or on my desktop. I also want uptime: anytime an app crashes, is down, or unavailable it's a disruption to my day.

Essentially, a good looking app is no longer a good measure of quality. These days, most apps look pretty good. Customers aren't as easily wowed by a stylish design.

What impresses B2B buyers now? Apps that solve a pain, are efficient and reliable, and have support when you need it. Focus on those things first; don't worry about flair.

Want to hear more?

Thank you for reading this post! If you'd like to hear more of my musings on products, business and marketing you can:

Published on April 18th, 2013
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