Whilst working as a Web Developer on many sites I’ve often had clients far more focused on aesthetics than function.
This obsession has included things as specific as being asked to move text one pixel to the left, to the more vague “bold, bolder, bolder…less bold”.
This has even lead to me developing a sixth sense for the right time to spot and save a 'finished' version of the website. Client's often have several options they want testing which I know they will go on to reject. However, just like the Matrix, they have to see it for themselves. I then just restore back to the point the project was really done .
However this myth that pretty websites do well just isn't true. Whilst a certain level of professionalism typically begets a nice clean design that looks attractive, this is not the end goal.
Take for example lingscars.com. With £50m value of cars leased in 2012 you can't argue the site works.
Have a journey on the WayBack Machine to Amazon of just a year ago and you'll find a pretty boring, dare I say it, ugly site. eBay has similarly recently tried to upgrade its aesthetic. Both these sites have become giants before they addressed their appearance.
Also take a moment to look at Craigslist - here's the London UK page. No one is going to this site for looks.
So why do they work?
In almost every case above the answer is content and usability.
Hidden beneath clever psychological marketing it may be for LingsCars, but if you scratch away the GeoCities styleé veneer you'll find everything you could possibly want to know about leasing cars.
And whilst LingsCars sacrifices some degree of usability for this clever marketing, the others don't. Plentiful navigation to get to the exact department abounds and a large search box finishes off each the design.
People have long made analogies between bricks and mortar stores and websites. So let's further this trend - the clarity of signs you have around the shop marking each department (Navigation) and the availability of shop assistants to ask for help and their knowledge (Search) will do far more to help customers find what they want to buy (Content). The fonts used on the signs, the staff uniform, all these factors are secondary.
This is not to say design should be neglected, not at all. Bad design can destroy confidence and good design will distinguish you as more professional than competitors. But its all for naught if it's been prioritized above usability and content.