I have been bothered with the question “does community site have to be ugly to succeed” for a long time. You see, most of the successful long running community sites are ‘ugly’. Think reddit, hacker news, slashdot or metafilter. On the other side, you have the digg redesign fiasco, although one can argue that whether the strong correlation here equals to cause-and-effect. But it is a fact that Matt, the owner of Metafilter, once redesigned the site to be more ‘web 2.0’ and noticed a significant traffic drop when he A/B tested the new design using live traffic.
Why? Isn’t this against the human nature of appreciating order and beauty? Does it mean that all of our knowledge in fonts, colors or layouts are useless? Or maybe there are something unique about community sites?
The father of wiki, Ward Cunningham, gave a talk about his new wiki idea a couple of months ago. Something he said about the design of wiki finally answered that question for me. Here is what he said:
Someone came up to me and said “the idea of wiki is neat but do they have to be ugly? ”. My answer was “yeah, basically they do. Because when you make it beautiful, then anybody that can not match your beauty has been closed out of the conversation. So I say clean and simple. ”
It is my belief that each service/product needs to be optimised to serve its core need. The fundamental role a community site performs is a platform to get “fresh and unique thoughts” from its members. Anything else is merely a tool to the end. Counter intuitively, inhibiting the urge to make things visually appealing actually helps to achieve this goal. Because the more attention people devote to tweak their look-and-feel of content, the less time they would spend to make it more intellectually interesting. So accidentally, the ‘ugliness’ of the community site turned out to be a killer feature that helps to keep people focus on talking about their thoughts, even though I bet most sites didn’t start realizing that.