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4 ugly websites from companies that should know better

November 13, 2010

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

Good website design is about more than looks. It’s about practical page layout, logical navigation, clear messaging, and of course, relevant content. Still, first impressions are powerful, in the real world and online. If a site’s homepage doesn’t make the grade visually, users might not want to stick around. These big-name companies should know better.

1. American Airlines

The website design expert’s opinion on the major airline’s homepage is blunt:

“It looks like a government form. Believe it or not, American Airlines’ site stresses me out just by looking at it,” says Gabriel Shaoolian, CEO of Blue Fountain Media, a website design company with clients such as Nike, United Nations, and Harper Collins Publishers. “It looks like it was created 15 years ago.”

The airline’s static homepage comes off even worse once compared to those of its competitors, JetBlue.com or United.com for example. Both have more relaxed designs – less clutter and easier on the eyes color schemes.

Planning a flight can already be a harrowing experience. Add to that an unappealing interface and users may subconsciously avoid purchasing from American Airlines.

It goes without saying that websites aren’t just a fun side project for companies anymore.

“They’re visibility, packaging,” says Shaoolian. “It’s a very key component to a user’s engagement and their brand loyalty.”

Frequent international travelers may be aware that American Airlines isn’t the worst of all. Low-cost, no-frills European air carrier RyanAir.com takes the prize for ugliest airline website. Buyers might be willing to spend a few more euro to avoid its baffling homepage, with quick flashing bold text boxes on the left, right, and center of the screen.

2. Microsoft

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, and by no means does plain equal unappealing (just look at Google). But coming from a multibillion-dollar technology corporation, Microsoft’s surprisingly vanilla website is borderline hypocritical, says Shaoolian.

Its homepage lacks the interactive “Web 2.0” feel, he says.

“Microsoft looks like it was made by developers, for developers,” he explains. “There’s no attention to aesthetic detail.”

The company’s site looks especially backward when compared to their chief competitor, Apple.com. The two sites share a black-and-gray color scheme, but that’s about it.

“Apple’s site is user-friendly. It’s not overcrowded,” says Shaoolian. “It talks to you as a user. It answers your questions and has big text.”

The lackluster visual effects on Microsoft’s homepage don’t inspire thoughts of cutting edge innovation. Shaoolian warns that it could deter those potential customers grappling over the Mac versus PC debate. So why doesn’t Microsoft redesign their website?

“Part of the problem is that these huge companies are slow to move on things,” says Shaoolian. “There’s a long bureaucratic line to get things done. But it does hurt their bottom line.”

Microsoft’s new phones get it. Why doesn’t its homepage?

3. Berkshire Hathaway

Warren Buffet’s mega successful conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway trades the most expensive NYSE stock in the world. Its subsidiaries include Business Wire, GEICO, Helzberg Diamonds, and dozens of other companies. But money doesn’t necessarily breed beautiful, or even passable, websites.

Berkshire Hathaway’s website is oddly simplistic with a title, a few bullets points, and a couple of plain text advertisements for their subsidiaries. There are no graphics or videos, no pull down toolbar, no call to action.

“There’s no personal branding. There’s no way for me to send information to my friends who are investors,” says Shaoolian. “A simple little thing like a social marketing feature would help tremendously.”

Is the Fortune 500 company trying to make a statement, that they don’t need a well designed website to be successful in the market?

“They’re saying, ‘We’re Berkshire Hathaway, you know us. We don’t have to prove anything to you. You’re going to make the extra effort to move forward,’ ” Shaoolian says. “That kind of ego fails them, just like it does Microsoft.”

Sure, the company has proved itself wildly profitable already. But what CEO would turn down more?

4. US Government

Politics aside, a visit to WhiteHouse.gov is a pleasurable visual experience: tasteful colors and layout, American flags and encouragement to learn more. President Obama’s personal website (barackobama.com) succeeds as well.

“[President Obama and his web designers] knew exactly what to do to get results,” Shaoolian recalls. “What kind of personal touch to give the site.”

Type “US Government” into any search engine however, and USA.gov pops up on top. The self-proclaimed “Government Made Easy” web portal is anything but that. It’s impersonal and hard to follow – not what citizens usually want from their representatives, virtual or in-person.

“It’s so uninviting that it’s not functional,” says Shaoolian.

Other government websites, such as the US Census Bureau – census.gov – appear no better.

What is more important on a website, looks or functionality?

“They go hand in hand,” the expert explains. “Again, take Apple. Everything Apple does is groundbreaking, not necessarily because of their technology, but because of the interface, the ease of use, finding what you want in as few clicks as possible.”

As for the government’s web portal, a few images of smiling Americans could go a long way in reducing its stark, corporate current look.

5. The anomalies: Craigslist, Reddit, and Drudge

Some websites have made a name for themselves despite faulty aesthetics.

Craigslist, for example, has the same basic, image-less design it began with in 1996. And yet, they boast 20 billion page views and 50 million new classified advertisements a month.

“It’s still easy to use. You can find what you want,” says Shaoolian. “It’s a message board, so the design works for them.”

The same goes for news compiler Reddit. The purpose of Reddit is straightforward, and so is its look. Users post questions, news, or general musings, and browse, comment or vote on posts of others.

Though it looks like a clunky message board from the mid 90s, Reddit was founded in 2005, and picked up my media honcho Condé Nast a year later. The site’s users have demonstrated their power in the past by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Haiti earthquake victims in 2010.

Ugly design doesn’t stop a site from being influential. Take right-leaning, news aggregator the “Drudge Report.” A never evolving, messy layout hasn’t stopped the site from making headlines.

 

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