I’ve always liked themes and website skins, the type where visitors can change the look of a website using a switcher. I even made a script for it. I think they’re a fabulous tool for making a website interactive, and giving users the power of choosing how they want to experience the website in question. This is most useful and prevalent in forums and boards, where users are many and varied: some prefer reading in dark environments, and some prefer lighter ones.
But of late I’ve been thinking that theming and skinning websites isn’t all that great, especially viewed in certain conditions. To clarify: I’m talking about a theme or skin being more than a color-only difference between themes/skins.
I realized that one of the drawbacks for me is the false sense of “interactivity” in the website. Understand, the websites I’ve skinned are all smallish fansites and fanlistings, containing minimal updates. Skinning has become one of the most popular “interactive” features of a fanlisting. Unfortunately, it’s lulled me into feeling that it’s “enough”. Which is a bad place to be for anyone who owns a website. More content and other forms of interactivity should be the focus; there are plenty of other ways to do that.
It’s lulled me into keeping old layouts around. I’m ashamed to say a couple of them are half-assed layouts that are there because the more skins there are, the nicer the website is! And, why skin a website when you only have two skins? So keep them all and give the users choice. Uhm, wrong tactic there. Skin retirement should be done semi-regularly, to keep layouts fresh and up-to-date.
I also can’t help but feel that there has to be some brand dilution there somewhere, unless skinning is carefully managed, of course. You have a subset of users using one skin, another subset using another, and unless these skins are quite similar (like the really nifty Day/Night skins I’ve seen crop up recently) the users of skin 1 will tend to approach the website differently from users of skin 2. Websites who’ll have these problems will probably be few and far between, but I can’t help but feel that this is a valid concern.
I certainly feel that skinning is one aspect of website interactivity that one should take a look at when planning a website, but shouldn’t be taken lightly. It adds a bit more complexity to managing the website and the users of the website, but when done well, it’s a fun feature for visitors. I still can’t get over the Day/Night skins some websites use; if it would work for one of my websites, I’m soooo there! ;)
But for now, I’m steering clear of skinning until I’ve real reason to use it.