Selling Beer in a Champaign Bottle

In a previous post, I discussed that 9Rules was reviewing the first round of potential new member websites starting yesterday, October 25. I took a look at what 9Rules was looking for in a site and I shared that they claim to put content ahead of design. In the article, I said, “I appreciated what the 9Rules team had to say [and] it was reassuring.”

But why was it “reassuring?” I chose this word quite intentionally since, though I wish it were the case, I don’t whole-heartedly buy it. In my option, the idea that look and feel plays second fiddle to content goes against what I believe I see in software production/marketing .[ 1 ]

You see, I don’t think large-audience software products (even community-based websites) become “top-sellers” primarily on merit. They don’t necessarily meet a need or provide a valuable service. I think “packaging” and “bells and whistles” play a much bigger role than we’d like to admit. If 9Rules, for example, didn’t have an attractive UI, I doubt there would be so much interest in becoming member.

The bottom line is I think you can sell anything if it has nice enough wrapping.

It’s true, isn’t it? When choosing between two products, we choose the one with the prettiest logo and the best marketing campaign. And it’s not just in software — it happens in grocery stores, car dealerships, everywhere.

What does this mean for software development? Make your stuff look pretty. And I’m talking about everything from cleaning up your code (code formatting, variable names, understandable and ample comments, etc) to making your prototypes presentable by using simple CSS, labels and help text. Try it out. Make your next demo look good and I bet you will get more praise for visual components rather functional ones. On a side note, beware of making prototypes too polished since the higher-ups may push to get the app promoted to the production environment a little too quickly, if you know what I mean.

Now, this is merely a rant. [ 1 ] There should be some opposition to my argument. Actually, I’m positive there are numerous big holes in my theory. For your convenience, here are some:

  1. One may argue that being first to market is key. This holds a lot of weight and it’s probably a post for another time which may have the title, “Using Other People’s Time and Money to Produce Solid Software.”
  2. One could say that good marketing and pretty “packaging” might land initial customers, but only a quality product will keep its user base. Maybe so, but check out # 1. Customers have a difficult time converting once they’ve already invested time and money into a product/service. My bet is initial customers will stay around at least until a superior product — with an inexpensive and easy transition plan — comes around.
  3. Well, doesn’t price matter? Um, yes. But put two similarly-priced products side-by-side and my claim holds true. The more appealing product will get picked off the shelf every time.
  4. Developers use tools which help them get their job done. They don’t care about packing and presentation. Developers aren’t typical consumers. Most of the time, they see right past the presentation and focus on content and/or functionality. Developers are the clear exception. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t touch some of the best technical tools/blogs with a ten foot pole.
  5. Google Search isn’t fancy. It has the most bland page in the world. Based on your logic, it should be a major flop. Think again. Google is a marketing machine. And the simple search page with nothing but a few links and their rotating logo is UID genius at its best.

With all this said, I wish what 9Rules had to say was true. Maybe someday content will reign, but for now, please pay close attention to presentation. In my twisted, somewhat cynical opinion, it still rules.

[ 1 ] This is not to be confused with what is actually happening. This is merely a rant and most likely just my skewed perception of reality.


  1. Man, great post, I totally agree here. One of the reasons that we like to say that content comes first above design and that jazz is that our first 20 members or so were all our friends, who all happened to be web designers. We used to be thought of as the “design network” which we’re trying to grow out of, and these content over design disclaimers let people know that they don’t have to be amazing designers to get into 9rules. We actually have a lot of members who are using nearly default WordPress themes, so we do our best to practice what we preach.

    As for aesthetics playing a large role in marketing, that’s 100% true. Hell, I used to work at Northrop Grumman and they told me that since they fired all their UI designers, their tech writers were now doing interface design. Then they said that was a bad move since they continue to lose large contracts to Lockheed, but never bothered to hire anyone back… go figure.

  2. Hey Mike, I really appreciate the feedback. When I posted the article I certainly didn’t anticipate anyone representing 9Rules to comment, but I guess the web is a small place. And no doubt it was my content, rather than design, which brought you to my site. You guys at 9Rules are talking the talk and walking the walk. Good for you! Now I’m kind of wishing I submitted my site in Round 5.

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