The Hypothesis

I believe with every fiber of my being that good design is good business. But among many business people, especially small business owners and entrepreneurs just getting their start, there’s a competing view about design: “A good design would be nice, but it doesn’t really matter.”

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that “doesn’t matter” reflects two separate, but not mutually exclusive, beliefs:

  1. The belief that design doesn’t affect people’s choices very strongly, and/or
  2. The belief that no one ever visits the company’s website anyway, so it doesn’t matter what it looks like.

I have always felt that both of those statements are disastrously false, but I hear them expressed so often that I started to wonder. Is it true? Am I just particularly sensitive to design because I am myself a designer?

So I concocted a simple experiment to discover whether or not design has a role to play in business.

The Experiment

I spent a day visiting coffee shops in Portland, Oregon. In each location, I set up a sign that read “I’m working on a research project. If you help by answering some questions, I will buy you your coffee.”

Each test subject was shown one of five websites that had been designed by a business owner looking to save a buck by not investing in professional web design. To protect the innocent, I won’t include names, but these were web addresses gathered from business cards of currently operating, local Portland businesses that I had collected at networking events in the past three months.

After the test subject had had a chance to look at the site, I asked the following questions:

  1. What do you think this business does?
  2. Who do they do it for?
  3. Do you think they are good at what they do?
  4. If you had a need for this service, would you want to work with this business, or would you keep looking?
  5. Why or why not?

The Result

The result was overwhelming.

86% responded that they thought the business was unprofessional or unskilled and they would NEVER want to do business with the company after seeing its website.

When asked why they thought that a business whose services had nothing to do with design was unskilled based on a website, the participants said that the business owner being willing to put his or her name on an amateur site reflected a lack of judgment, a lack of professionalism, or a lack of experience.

14% said that they were uncertain whether the business whose site they were exposed to was good at what it did or not.

0% had a positive impression of ANY of the businesses with amateur sites. Not a single respondent in an entire day of testing.

The Next Question

How much money are Portland businesses losing because their website is literally scaring customers away?

This simple experiment forcefully drove home for me the importance of good design. I’ve seen it in my own work many times, that after an amateur site is relaunched with a more professional look, suddenly business starts arriving through the site that had never even been imagined before by the business owner. People who previously thought that no one was even seeing their site suddenly realize that it was being seen; that every time someone recommended the business to a friend, they looked it up online, and then many times disregarded the recommendation based on their impression of the business they got online. Even small changes can have a big impact on whether people feel comfortable working with you.

Have you ever done a similar experiment to find out what was working for you in your business? Let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear about your learning experiences and Aha moments!

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