Brutalist Web Design, Brand Exclusivity, and User Testing
I’ll be honest here: I am not, nor ever will I be, hip enough to understand Snapchat. The lack of a menu, random icons, and no available in-app help confuses the hell out of me. And as a UX designer, it drives me mad. Much has been written on how Snapchat’s bad UX was an intentional decision in order to keep its cool factor. Even now, as user growth is static (if not slightly decreasing), Snap’s CEO maintains that they are trying to focus on the user’s time spent within the app, instead of user growth. Still, because the current stock has fallen 45% since the company went public in May, one wonders if this business philosophy will pay off in terms of strict revenue. Regardless of the business outcome, these situations stir an existential question within me:
Can intentionally bad UX actually be a positive attribute to exclusive brands? And, if so, how bad is too bad?
A few months ago Elevate had the pleasure of working on a project for Champion LIFE, a streetwear-focused brand offshoot of Champion. The challenge was to build a microsite for the Champion LIFE experience and increase revenue for the brand. Before we began, we understood that we were targeting a very niche group of primary users: men 21–28 years old with an interest in urban culture and fashion. We delved into researching successful competitors with brand name recognition with our audience in order to understand what attracts this niche audience. While the heritage streetwear brands of Nike and Adidas are household names, the newer additions to the streetwear market, such as Supreme, Anti Social Social Club, and Crooks & Castles are much more targeted. These companies tend not to advertise within mainstream channels, have a limited inventory, and, for certain brands, a much higher price point. One look at their websites and you will realize you are in a whole different realm of ecommerce. Welcome to Brutalist web design.
The founder of Brutalist Websites, Pascal Deville, explains web brutalism as “a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today’s web design” through its stark and jarring appearance. This quote is only slightly altered from the Wikipedia page for “Brutalist Architecture,” the architectural school that came to prominence during the 1950s–1970s. In a digital world where flat design remains supreme, Brutalist web design is alluring and visually arresting in its frank opposition to common web conventions and “best practices.” If indeed it is meant to be a subversive revolt against everything “Material Design Lite,” then perhaps it is the best vehicle to reach niche audiences who are young and strive to defy the mainstream. Just take a look at Supreme’s website’s reluctance to explain anything to the users. It relies on the intensity of their imagery to lead their users to explore through the site.
Or, take a look at the barren shop page of Anti Social Social Club’s website.
While these sites may not have explicit CTAs or informational text, the lack of options stifles the opportunity for user error. If the user begins to click around, they quickly will understand the bare-bones functionality of these sites. There are no distractions from banner ads and related products. These Brutalist websites were designed, most likely, with the intent to evoke the subversive feel of the brand. Yet, whether intentionally or not, the design tends to remove the common distractions present on websites, allowing users to directly purchase and explore brand content, without any white noise. In a way, that’s better UX than most ecommerce sites. This honesty in design mirrors Brutalist architecture’s aesthetics of exposing the function and foundation of buildings through their appearance.
Nevertheless, Brutalist web design can also be vastly convoluted, leading to the disappearance of any intuitive functionality. If a site is meant to be exploratory and does not have a strict, transactive goal, then maybe users will enjoy investigating the experience. But in ecommerce, there is money to be made, and a designer can only go so far with experimentalism. When designing the Champion LIFE microsite, we were not ready to eschew all of our ecommerce principles but felt that we could implement some of the disruptive design patterns we were seeing in Brutalist web design. After some rounds of brainstorming, our interactive designers landed on two different design options. While neither option could be described as textbook Brutalist, they were a departure from the common design conventions of the larger Champion site. We were anxious to get our designs in front of real users, but with a small budget, we had to be creative. Cue guerilla testing.
A quick look online sent our team to different streetwear shops throughout the city, iPad in hand. Instantly we had access to the ideal user base to test our two different designs. As we watched it became apparent that unintuitive flows still created user frustration and great photography was really what drew users in. We learned directly from our users that it was not uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake that they wanted, but incredible photography front and center, with no-bullshit flows. A great illustration of this concept comes from the tongue-in-cheek website UX brutalism.
The lesson learned from this project was simple. Knowing your audience is incredibly important. For some audiences, originality and unorthodox design patterns may be what is necessary to create a tailored design that piques their interest while also maintaining the brand’s exclusivity. But in the end, a site that is usable to its central audience is still the best site and one that makes money. Hidden links, obscured text and a lack of visual hierarchy is not going to sell any sweatshirts. Because of this, designers who wish to implement a more Brutalist or revolutionary aesthetic cannot bypass testing their site with its actual users, on a consistent basis, even if those users are hard to recruit. Exclusivity can be a brand asset, but if brands cannot acknowledge that audiences evolve with new demands for design and functionality, then they may fade into obscurity.