WEB DESIGN -- Esthetics vs. Functionality

Taking a look at basic philosophies of design.


First to define two key terms to be used in this topic.


Let's use "CEO" (Chief Executive Officer) as being symbolic of those who need to be impressed by the design of the website, especially in regard to it having a flashy "state-of-the-art" esthetic appearance and use of "cutting edge" website technology. In our discussion, "CEO" can represent the trustees and officers of a ministry, or perhaps a ministry's sponsors, or denomination administrators, or the pastor of a church, or the members of a church board. The "CEO" is perhaps the entity who is paying for the construction and hosting of the website. For a website published by an individual who is both the owner of the site and its webmaster, the "CEO" is you—the person reading this—in the sense that you want to impress your friends and site visitors with a "flashy" website design.


"Site Visitor" (or "User")

The "user" of a website is the person who is using the site, also known as the "site visitor". For commercial websites that are endeavoring to promote or sell a product, the site visitor is thought of as a "customer", a person who needs to be treated well so that they will feel good about your product or service, and will feel good about you as a vendor. That way they will be motivated to purchase your product or service. A customer-oriented website is one that will be designed for the benefit of the customer, and as such it should be successful at selling a product and making a good income for the website's owner.


Church and ministry websites generally do not regard visitors to their websites as being "customers", so lets use the term "Visitor" instead of customer.


Taken to Extremes

Let's take a look at the two extremes of a CEO-oriented website verses a Visitor-oriented website. Describing two extremes often makes the case clearer, and the alternatives in-between much easier to understand. The objective here is not to punish one extreme in order to drive you hard over to the other extreme. Ultimately, we all want to seek out a good balance in regard to the issue of esthetics verses functionality.


A "CEO-Oriented" Website

At one extreme are the stunning and beautiful award-winning websites, or at least the home pages of such websites. They have awesome graphics, with every graphical element precisely in it's place. Flash video clips or changing slides captivate the attention of the site visitor, or least when they are visiting the site for the first time or two. GIF graphics are often used to ensure that text is rendered exactly as the designer intended. Navigation is done with graphical elements and Javascript instead of hyperlinked text. These sites, at the extreme end of the spectrum, are basically fabulous works of art. But do they actually function well in terms of being useful to the site visitor?  Are they the best type of website to have for those who are serious visitors to your site and are looking for specific information related to your church or ministry?  And is the cost of producing and maintaining such a stunning website worth the amount of money that needs to be invested in them?

One of the drawbacks of a flashy CEO-oriented website is that they often take far too long to load, and they break most of the rules and guidelines on site accessibility. For example those with poor eyesight will try to increase the size of the text, but to no avail because everything is precisely locked down in graphics files. These sites are typically designed for the benefit of the CEO who is in charge of the ministry and needs to be impressed, so that the sponsors will also be impressed and willing to pay a premium for a stunning site appearance that uses the latest web technology. Razzle-dazzle is often the priority in this type of website design approach.


A "Visitor-Oriented" Website

Moving in the opposite direction is what we'll call the "Visitor-oriented" website. These sites are based on the studies which document how site visitors like to surf the Web. Functionality and simplicity of use is given top priority. On these sites, visually challenged visitors can readily increase the font size of all the text. Graphics are smaller and use compressed files to load quickly. Navigation is optimized for the ease of use for the site visitor, rather than being cool works of art designed to impress the CEO. Some of these Visitor-oriented websites have very few graphics. All the navigation is done with text, to load faster and to especially work well with search engine indexing and optimization (SEO). In fact the search engine robots are considered to be one of the most important "visitors" to the website, because they are of vital importance in the task of bringing other "real" visitors to the site.


The Example of Google.com

Perhaps the best example of a "User-oriented" site is the Google.com website. It has an extremely simple design with a minimal amount of graphics. The graphics that are used tend to be simple, interesting, and tasteful. In terms of functionality, it is specifically designed for ease of use with the primary goal of delivering search results as fast as possible and as useful as possible. The simplicity of Google's design and the effectiveness of its functionality has enabled the Google site to become the top search engine by far. But of course the Google website is typically not going to win any artistic design awards either!  While esthetic appearance is of importance, which is of more importance, flashy graphics or functionality? 


Designs Optimized for Success

In the commercial website design field, there are lots of website design firms that state in their marketing materials that they specialize in redesigning "flashy and extravagant" websites, to make them simpler, faster and function much more effctively. The original flashy sites looked impressive when the home page was loaded, but they were not user-friendly, nor were they successful as a means of promoting the company's products or services. When a redesigned website has been put in place, businesses will often send out a notice: "Please come and visit our new and improved website". They basically want their customers to know that they have abandoned their flashy "CEO-oriented" website for a more "User-friendly" website that is designed specifically for the site visitor, their cherished customer.


Spreading the Gospel via the Web

For a ministry website, the objective is off course to spread the Gospel rather than generate sales. But still, let's be aware that a flashy "CEO-oriented" website design will likely drive away a lot of your potential visitors, people that we do not want to loose. We need to pay attention to the studies that tell us how to design "User-oriented" websites that are appreciated by site visitors and will be a successful website from the perspectives of ministry and mission objectives. Such a site certainly needs to be esthetically pleasing, but without being flashy and extravagant. This type of website will have the most success in promoting your ministry and delivering your message. Incidentally, this type of site may also be easier and cheaper to produce!


Primary Author: David Buxton


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