Jim Dee

@jimdee

Low Production Values As a Counter-Intuitive Marketing Strategy: Observations on “Web Brutalism”

For all of the stunning examples of design and production values amid the constellations of well-loved brands, a handful beg further consideration for what seems an anomaly. I’m speaking of sites like CraigsList and the Drudge Report — sites that seem like design was the furthest thing from the creators’ minds.

For designers examining such a site, the question arises: Was this UX design the result of absolute naivete, or a purposely applied (so-called “brutalist”) aesthetic? For marketers, the question may well be: Does it matter?

For various (often complex) reasons, some site like these have achieved great success — much greater than competing sites to which more traditionally accepted (current, timely, responsive, Bootstrap, etc.) design principles have been applied. Obviously, this frustrates some industry insiders, as designers, marketers, and site owners must grapple with the question: To what extent did this aesthetic play a role in the web site’s success?

Some critics step back and identify such an approach a hot new thing. The Washington Post ran an article declaring “[t]he hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult sites.” Huffington ran a similar piece: Drudge Report Shows How Ugly Design Can Be Good Design. Similarly, many smaller-audience pieces (like this one) continue to opine on the matter.

But, What Would Psychology Say?

Of course, everything that follows is just my opinion (and I’m not a psychologist). But, I think consumers tend to run various inter-related questions through their minds as they interact with products and services (including web sites and publications). For example, they may think:

  • What is the price of the thing?
  • What is the quality of the thing?
  • What is the value of the thing?
  • Am I being sold this thing?
  • Do I trust the producers of this thing?

Obviously, that’s a simplification. But, if one were to map out ALL possible such questions, and then map out ways in which various strategies play out via those things, the “ugly design” approach might play out something like below. Let’s use Drudge as an example. (When I say “I” and “me” below, I’m intending to mean the typical Drudge reader — not necessarily myself.)

  • Question: What is the price of the thing?
    Possible consumer thoughts: This web site is free. But, so are so many other resources online, so this item, in this instance, doesn’t play into my thinking here. Other sites (e.g., where there is a paywall) might cause me to consider this item further. That said, the “free” aspect does sort of get doubly reinforced here, and possibly means more here than elsewhere. Other sites are free, sure, but those other sites are flashy looking. Surely, those other sites cost more to produce than this one. This one must be more of a grassroots effort, which appeals to me.
  • Question: What is the quality of the thing?
    Possible consumer thoughts: The links seem to reflect well-researched news and cultural stories related to the type of content I expect here. They are offered in a straightforward, no-frills manner. This site knows I don’t care one iota about aesthetics. I’m a business professional; I just want substance and utility. I respect them for allowing me to judge for myself what’s good and/or bad, without any hype. There’s a certain urgency to information presented in this way, as they’re not forced to wait for such info to be presented or designed. These stories therefore have a heightened sense of breaking news, which is therefore newer and more valuable. And, hey, is it just me, or do these old-school pages — that are just links and few pictures — seem to load faster than so many other sites I visit?
  • Question: What is the value of the thing?
    Possible consumer thoughts: Later, I will discuss current events like these links with colleagues. So, I will always seem informed. I will probably also share some of these stories on social media to help me stay engaged there, so this is a good site to get share-worthy stories. My belief, as stated above, that thee are breaking stories, reinforces my confidence in being viewed as timely and up-to-date on the issues of the day.
  • Question: Am I being sold this thing?
    Possible consumer thoughts: The no-frills approach reinforces my comfort level about not being actively sold anything. Being sold is a big turn off, and the flashier the site, the more they’re probably trying to “convert” me. This site is just pure information, which makes me want to return again and again. I know they probably make money from my web traffic, but that doesn’t cost me anything because I don’t have to click on those items that are clearly ads. Of course, I’m savvier than most people, so part of me realizes that the links I’m looking at got there in ways I do not understand — via simply their being interesting, or going viral, or maybe the site got paid to put them there. Either way, I’m not being asked to pay for anything, so I’m cool with what I get here. In fact, in a bizarre way, my actively *not* being sold here actually makes me *want* to support this web site in some way. Perhaps I’ll actually look at the ads sometime and maybe click on one, if I’m ever moved to — just as a way to show gratitude for their existence.
  • Question: Do I trust the producers of this thing?
    Possible consumer thoughts: This site is 20+ years old. Everyone knows this site, and millions read it. I’ve known the look of this site now for literally decades, and seeing it change would be awful. Some may call this “bad” design, but it’s dependable for me; I know where everything is, and I know how to scan around and navigate this thing.

Well, you get the idea. One could go on and on with that exercise, and would likely learn a few things via doing it.

Can It Be Replicated Successfully?

For designers, the answer is : Sure! Heck, anyone in the web design world would welcome this as a creative challenge.

For marketers and business owners, the key questions are: Can the phenomenon be replicated successfully? Could such a thing make money? In the examples discussed here (Drudge and Craiglist), one should take a look at how they rose to fame in the first place.

Drudge launched in 1995 — nearly prehistorical in Internet time. And, as far as I know, it was a fairly minor player by any account until it broke the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Although, in fairness, one would need to be at least of some critical mass to be able to break any national news story successfully. After all, if a renegade, lone journalist decided to start up a news blog today, and came out with something even more incredible than the Lewinski scandal, how many people would take that person seriously? Even if 100 or 1,000 did, would that be enough to push such a thing viral in today’s considerably more vast online world (compared with 20 years ago)?

Craigslist also started in 1995, and seems to have grown quickly and organically, mostly because it was simply damn useful at the time (and remains so today). It filled a need.

Indeed, 1995 was arguably more ripe for that sort of growth than it is today. Big-need services tended to form around that time. eBay, for example, also was founded in 1995. I believe Internet Explorer came out that year as well, as part of Windows 95.

So, at least via these two examples, one found the spotlight from breaking a major national news story; the other by filling a gap that was present back then. But we’re talking about two dinosaur sites that started simply (design-wise) and never changed much upon growth.

At the time of their launch, those sites looked fairly typical for sites of that era. Ergo, they both get the benefit of the “we’re old and always looked this way” excuse. That’s miles from the “we just launched in 2017 and are purposely adopting this aesthetic” approach.

Still… could a brutalist site be successful? I think it could, especially if it filled some functional need — or if you’re purposely trying to be ironic. Obviously, you’re now limited by some factors, though. These would include:

  • Some consumers probably won’t like it, as they’re used to flashier sites with modern color palettes, rounded corners, pleasing graphic design, better mobile renderings, etc.
  • Consumers may view the design as gimmicky.

And other factors. But, in most cases, these limitations are at least partially mitigated by the sheer vastness and traffic of the online world. Sure, there are hugely popular design aesthetics out there (e.g., Bootstrap), but the world is large enough to accommodate everyone.

Revenue Is Based On…

In the end, if comes down to the same numbers for everyone — web traffic. Really, that’s the only thing that matters from a purely business case — at least in terms of revenue generation. If you have a modern-designed site that pulls in 100,000 visitors per month vs. a Brutalist-designed site that gets 3 million visitors per month, which one makes more dough?

I think most business owners believe that design matters and ultimately informs success a good bit. I’m not disagreeing with that. I think it would take a good degree of bravery and vision to launch a serious business site with such a design today. But, going low-tech on purpose *could* definitely work.

In fact, it *does* work in some areas quite regularly. When you think about video marketing, for example, it’s easier to find examples where vids with low production values have mega views. Vloggers, for example (some of whom are quite successful), often have little more gear than a smart phone.

I’ve had many clients where we purposely took a low-key approach to video marketing — and not just for budget reasons. Oddly, the same clients who want state of the art web sites often want more informal approaches to video marketing, believing that there’s more honesty in such an approach. Perhaps with video, that whole sales psychology discussed above comes into play more readily. (That’s not to bash well-produced videos, of course. It’s just an alternate strategy.)

Have we beaten this topic to death yet? Ha, I’m sorry for that. But, hey, get out there. Do some A/B tests on your UX, and see if Brutalism is right for YOU!

🕵️ Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “20120216_Barbican_gallery” by mjcd (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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