In Matt Haughey's talk on MetaFilter, he has one slide that says "Beautiful visual design doesn't always win". The story was that he paid someone to "redesign" the site. When the design is ready, he ran a test to send 50% anonymous user to the new design and 50% to the original site. It turned out that the old, "ugly" site outperformed the new design by 30%. (Fast forward to 9:30 if you're in a hurry. I strongly recommend the whole video, it's not only entertaining but also provides quite different thinking into building a community site.)
In the age of iPhone and maybe a bit overuse of the word "beautiful", this kind of thinking sounds like heresy. But if you take a look at the popular community sites like HackerNews, SlashDot or Craigslist, you'll find that they are all not-so-pretty. I'm sure they are not short of resources to get a "better" design but they choose not to, why is that? I come up with 3 explanations. Please leave a comment to share your thoughts.
First, the more beautiful a site is, the less relaxed the user will be. Hence less likely to participate. Community site is optimized around the goal of having people to hang around and talk to each other. Kind of like a party. Imagine you're invited to a party where there are a few Claude Monet paintings on the wall. The ground is soft. The lights are adjusted to highlight the paintings. Will you spend more time chatting or will you feel guilty if your chit-chat breaks the mood that the paintings have created? I suspect the same human feeling applies to online communities. If you want the users to feel relaxed and casual, you might have to make the site less logical, with less visual hierarchy.
Second, a distinguishable site makes it much easier to form a sense of belongingness. Or a sense of being part of something unique. Seth Godin has a whole book to say about tribes. But the basic idea is human beings can't help it: we need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people. We are drawn to leaders and to their ideas, and we can't resist the rush of belonging. Those distinguishable sites define their own social rules. And these rules are translated into look-and-feels by the creators. So from this perspective, the HackerNews orange or the reddit moscot is similar to the feathers to American Indians.
Last but not least, these community sites are actually very functional. Prioritizing visual design over functional or interaction design is a common trap that many designers fall into. Community site is all about the contents and discussions. These site designs serve this goal very well. I have yet seen anyone who comes to reddit or HackerNews and couldn't figure out what to do next. Yes, comment threads can be long but it is almost stupidly easy to add one. And that is what truly drives traffic and bump average time-on-site.
Having said this, I think an utility like Facebook, iPhone or Mail.app should adopt a more streamline and strong visual language. When people derive values by performing certain tasks, a stronger visual design would help to guide, or force, the user to go down certain pre-defined path/funnel.