God dammit, I bought a WordPress theme

I caved. I bought a WordPress theme. $45 I swore I would never spend, and what’s more, against the advice of my girlfriend (and she always gives good advice). I don’t know what overtook me, perhaps it was that ad that I have to look at everytime I log into WordPress, perhaps I was bored with the old theme. Whatever it was, it beat my resolve. I feel like the guy who buys the Snuggie because “if you call now, we’ll give you another for free!”.

While purchasing the WordPress theme was probably an impulse buy, it does bring up an interesting question. Does the look of your site make that much difference? Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of hard-core techie programmers, the wrapper often matters almost as much (if not more) than the content itself. People learn best by example right? So let’s look at one.

Hipmunk vs. Expedia

In case you’re not familiar with Expedia or Hipmunk, they’re basically services that allow you search for the lowest airfare. Both sites give roughly the same results back. Here’s a picture of the two homepages side-by-side:

Clutter

This is immediately obvious when you look at the two sites. When visiting Expedia my eyes seem to glaze over, darting from box to box trying to sift through the ads to find the actual product. I guess Expedia is hoping that by the time I actually find it, I’ll be convinced that if I buy a flight from Expedia I’ll have more money in my bank account (who wouldn’t after reading the word ‘save’ 17 times). In contrast, Hipmunk does away with all the useless ads (do people actually click those things?). The only thing that seems to distract me from finding a flight is the little chipmunk holding a slingshot. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy looking at the chipmunk? You can lose your audience in the few seconds it takes them to find your product, so although it’s tempting to rack in all  that money from ads, refrain from having more space devoted to ads than content. I understand ads can be an important revenue source for websites, but do it in more inconspicuous ways.

Simplicity

If your site is easy and simple to use, people will come back. Think of Chipotle, they make burritos, but so does every other Mexican restaurant. Chipotle beats them on simplicity, there’s no easier way to pick out a burrito than to simply walk down a line of ingredients and point at an intriguing looking salsa. Other restaurants will often bombard you with menu choices where you’re forced to read the fine print of every item, only to be foiled when mushrooms somehow slip into your burrito. The same idea applies to products. Sometimes choices overwhelm the user rather than aid in the decision process. Expedia presents you with a sea of radio buttons. To be exact there are 12 radio buttons and 1 check box – not to mention that the form changes every time you select a different radio button. Comparatively, Hipmunk has the 4 essentials for planning a flight. They offer more complicated features but don’t force them on you unless you need them. If most of your users only need a subset of your available features, then by all means, only present them with such.

Pizzazz

That extra somethin’ somethin’. Every site can more or less do away with clutter and make their site simple, but to really stand out you need something extra. Hipmunk accomplishes this with its friendly and inviting chipmunk. Apple accomplishes this with their sleek and slender products. Expedia doesn’t accomplish this. There’s no intangible force guiding me back to Expedia. Apple can captivate crowds of people in their stores, produce unwavering fanboys and sell ridiculously priced products all because they have pizzazz. Despite all the banter about Mac vs PC, for the lay user, Mac and PC provide very similar products. They both edit text, browse the internet and save photos. But they are sold for dramatically different prices. Having pizzazz is difficult to obtain, but creating a product that has it will elevate you above your competitors. This post talks all about how to give your product pizzazz.

So what can you do?

Cover your bases

Take care of the easy ones first. Make sure your site is simple, direct and to the point. Often this is difficult when you’re the one making the site. Feedback is critical during this stage.

Discover your inner product

Finding that pizzazz in your website or product is often the hardest thing to do. Obviously it takes a little creativity, but there are good methodical ways to help you through.

  • Create a word cloud – One good tactic that works for me is to create a word cloud. Mapping out a nice web of all the words that are related to your website can help you understand what your website it really about. Sometimes staring at your web long enough will reveal a common theme. Use that theme to make design choices in your product.
  • Take a shower – It’s no surprise that some of the best ideas are discovered during a nice hot shower. There are no facebook notifications or text messages to disrupt your shower time – use the time to brainstorm how you want your product to feel (will it be clean and crisp? friendly?)
  • Don’t stop until you get enough – It’s not enough to simply brainstorm one idea for your product. Maybe your first idea will be your best idea, but many times it is not. Keep thinking of how you want your product to feel. After you come up with 2 or 3 ideas, you’ll have more perspective and be able to choose the best.
  • Be bold – Some crazy ideas work well, some don’t, but either way you’ll get yourself noticed. Play with something bold and new. The Hipmunk chipmunk is a perfect example. A chipmunk as a logo isn’t usually one’s first idea for a airfare finder website, but it was bold, and it succeeded in creating a new feel for the product.
These tips will by no means guarantee success, but it can help you get on the right path.

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As hard as it is to swallow, design is important. So do what it takes to make an awesome website – grab those CSS stylesheets by the throat and wrestle them into submission and curse Internet Explorer all the while. You have one shot at impressing the user, so use it wisely.

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