The worlds of fashion design, architecture and automobile design have blessed us with some exquisite beauty over the decades. Sometimes their products have been so stunningly originated that they linger in the memory long after original production has ended. Years later Marilyn Monroe’s white dress, the Sydney Opera House and the BMW 2002 are all easily recalled and enjoyed.
On the flip side of the same coin, sometimes their excesses are so indulgent that the result is grotesque. Lady Gaga’s meat dress, North Korea’s Ryugyong Hotel and the Reliant Robin attest to the fact that designers don’t always get it right. Turns out it’s not just Homer Simpson who can design ugly cars.
But here’s the thing. In the physical world, bad design is really easy to spot.
We have an intuitive aesthetic eye for beauty, and while there are cultural and social influences on it, have a universal appreciation for symmetry, contrast and shapeliness.
If only it were so easy in the digital world, where bad design can be very difficult to identify. And the reason is because bad design can look a lot like good design, and good design can look a lot like bad design.
The particular danger of beautiful digital design is that experience tells us that a website or app can simultaneously be pretty, and pretty awful. What’s more, the elements of the interface which are the difference between effective and ineffective design often have no impact at all on aesthetics.
A poorly structured inwardly–focused navigation system is just as attractive as a well–structured user–centred navigation system. In fact, you could argue that this author’s navigational bête noire – the hamburger menu – is more attractive than other menus as it is compact and tidy, yet study after study confirms that it hinders discoverability, perceivability and time on task.
The same is true for nearly every other building block of effective interaction design. Clear calls to action look pretty much the same as confusing calls to action. Poorly constructed content looks pretty much the same as effectively structured content. Good categorisation and bad categorisation look the same. Poor persuasion and strong persuasion features look the same. And so on.
As an industry we also need to be more candid about the other uncomfortable truth, which is that many, perhaps the majority, of the world’s leading digital products boast unattractive interfaces. It is digital’s equivalent of brutalism, if you will.
For these platforms, the opposite is true – good design looks a lot like bad design.
Craigslist is the globe’s dominant classifieds platform without a single graphic and just a handful of fonts on its home page.
Google’s minimalist half–page front–page was a clear differentiator in its early days against rivals such as Yahoo! and Alta Vista whose home pages were much more cluttered and graphical.
Do you really believe Amazon wouldn’t make their site prettier if it led to higher revenue?
Gov.uk services nearly 80% of all UK public service transactions with customer satisfaction just below 90% and all with fewer than ten graphics on their home page.
The central ingredient which distinguishes the physical world examples from the real–world examples is the centrality and complexity of interaction and the user’s absolute demand and expectation to be in control. The need to interact intuitively on a digital product is so fundamental that it overrides all other considerations, even aesthetics.
If you think your website is good therefore, because it looks good, be careful. You don’t get to make that call. The only arbiters in determining whether your site is well–designed or poorly–designed are your users.