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I notice that sites and software with less superficial value (less style, inspiration, or simply "neat-ness") often succeed far above their fantastically, well-designed counterparts.

Is the style, creativity, & inspiration side of interface design not equally important compared to the content, efficiency, & productivity side of interface development?


In other words, if the buttons are where they should be and I can understand everything that's going on, is it not important to focus on additional fancy style?

Examples:


Reddit vs Digg

Reddit:

enter image description here

Known globally to look terrible, used monthly by 112 million unique users.

Digg:

enter image description here

Looks great, used monthly by 20 million unique users.

Windows 7 vs OSX

Windows 7:

enter image description here

Looks alright, but known more for efficiency and compatibility than beautiful, smooth design. 500 million licenses sold.

OSX:

enter image description here

Looks fantastic, performs and interacts smoothly, but 'natively' incompatible with most of the world's desktop software. 50 million copies sold.

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Here's another great example: plenty of fish pof.com, the largest dating website in the world and arguable the ugliest. The author does this on purpose which he described in a blog post, which I can't find (it was some years ago). –  Prinzhorn Apr 16 at 11:57
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Another pet-hate of mine, Craigslist. Painful in an almost hilariously old-school. –  Benteh Apr 16 at 16:06
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Your examples are very inappropriate. Reddit is popular due to its userbase, some nuances of the system, and reputation. It is popular in spite of it interface, not because. Windows 7 is not popular because of the interface, but due to decades of aggressive Microsoft business strategy. –  Superbest Apr 16 at 16:29
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You've misunderstood. I don't claim that Reddit or Windows are popular because of their interfaces. What my examples are displaying, are, contrary to what you just said, that the softwares are popular in spite of (not because of) their lack of additional fancy styling. Nowhere did I even suggest that the software are successful 'Because of" their lack of extreme style attention. @Superbest –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 17:17
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This is subjective. I think windows looks better than OSX. I also don't think Digg looks much better than reddit. From a HCI perspective, people are more likely to use a system if it is familiar than if it looks pretty. –  Pharap Apr 16 at 18:55

11 Answers 11

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Edit: Since you keep pushing :) I will answer directly:

Is the style, creativity, & inspiration side of interface design not equally important compared to the content, efficiency, & productivity side of interface development?

is it not important to focus on additional fancy style?

I have a little problem with the question, as there are some problematic premises. I would like to remove "fancy" and "additional" and rephrase:

Is it important to focus (more) on style? (ref. your examples)

Yes. It is important.

Design should not be in addition to, something of a coat on top of something (presumably) functional. It is a from-day-one part of creating. This is not understood everywhere, and hence we have infuriatingly idiotic interfaces such as ticket machines, parking meters etc that makes you scratch your head.

I disagree with the sentiment form follows function. The aim is to find where they break even. But if you are out at sea and have to prioritise one over the other, let function a step ahead. To stand on the shoulders of giants; here is Paola Antonelli:

People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.

enter image description here

You can say that a lot of designed stuff ("everything is designed, few things are designed well") are over-designed. Simple functionality drowns in trends, designer egos and clients believing that their site must somehow look like the neighbours.

But take Facebook. It is well designed. It is functional and solid. People get their knickers in a twist every times Facebook redesigns something, and then two months later no one remember what it used to be like.

So why does Reddit still forge ahead, despite the miserable visual language? People are used to it. Redesign your site when your accountant tells you to, not when your designer does. And do it in increments.


I do not think you can entirely judge a piece of software solely on the number of users or programmes sold. Correlation is not always causation.

I stay well clear of Craigslist and Reddit; they sandpaper my eyes. I also understand that to others, this is incomprehensible. Mac OS for example was more of a niche product for many years: it did not really reach the public and non-designers until fairly recently. Personally, I think the iPod paved the way, then the iPhone (it was more common in the US for many years, but not so much here out on the rim.). (please do not let this start a mac-win discussion. Please!)

I do think that a lot of webdesign these days are ludicrously slick, non-descript. I little more personality and "wobblyness" would be interesting, humorous and useful. Insecurity, I think, on behalf of a lot of designers results in "dead" graphic design with the idea of minimalist = style.

Less is not more. Less is less. Design should not say "look at me", it should say "look at this (content)". The true art of designing for dissemination of information is to convey as much information as possible, without loosing manoeuvrability. This is incredibly hard. Giving a site 40 pages is easy. Making do with 5 is an art.

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I agree with that. Inspirational, innovative design is a lost art. In fact, I posted this question, as I have with other questions here, not for my own curiosity, but to add good, quality question content to the site beyond all of the "How do I do this, with this software.." titles. Yes, as a race, we seem to value beauty and inspiration so highly, yet we're accepting tools that are sort of.. "Meh." –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 11:45
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The purpose of this question, however, isn't to focus on the examples so much. I'm simply attempting to use real world examples to show the question more clearly. So, while your answer is popular, we mostly up-voted you for your neutral statement and opinions. I'd still like to see something that more clearly pushes a specific answer to the posed question. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 12:15
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Just as I upvoted yours. Simply pushing the objective past the subjective here –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 12:38
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I'll promote them until you can't see past "Design quality..?" Q's to the horde of "How to do it in Illustrator..?"'s. -They would love to ban the lot of them, buut... it's 90% of the site traffic. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 17:25
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+1 "Correlation is not always causation." Also, I'm glad you picked up on the web design and minimalism things. It really pains me to see a lot of modern sites going really minimal, for example(first one that came to mind) : openmods.info –  Pharap Apr 16 at 18:55

The most important thing I always find is usability, put yourself into the shoes of your users. So if the buttons are in the right place, people can find everything and the use of your OS/Website/App/etc. is smooth.

I think some users look more closely to the design of an application then others, but they all demand that it works well, or that there is some logic to be found.

But I guesse in the end it is a matter of opinion. I can only suggest: look at what your users want, ask your users what they want and try to create it.

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Short answer:

Form follows function.

It's an age-old but often forgotten design principle: how things look or are shaped should follow what they are for. Function shouldn't be twisted or squeezed to fit a form.

A user interface is for use and usability, so if you're making compromises on function (usability) in the name of form (aesthetics), you've got the cart before the horse and are doing it wrong.

That doesn't many focussing on function only and forgetting about form: form and function should feed in to each other, with function setting the boundaries.


To elaborate a bit:

All design work is done within a brief, for a specific purpose (that's the difference between design and art), and function is a part of that brief. Good form usually follows from function naturally, they usually aren't in competition:

  • Usability and design share many good practices. Consistency, simplicity, clarity, hierarchy...
  • Attractive interfaces 'feel' more usable, which increases users' willingness to invest effort without it feeling like an effort, increasing the likilihood of success before frustration (this is sometimes called the Aesthetic-Usability Effect - the book Universal Principles of Design gives an elegant 2-page summary with further reading for evidence etc)
  • Where form follows function well, that gives an aesthetic value of its own. Referencing Universal Principles of Design again: it gives the example of the 'Humvee' 4x4 car here: it's design was based purely on function for military use, and took on a distinctive aesthetic that proved popular more widely. Anything that uncompromisingly is what it is has an aesthetic purity to it.

I'm not convinced that last point is true of Reddit though... I think there's loads of room for a redesign that both form and function without digging itself.


Great design is where performance, efficiency and aesthetics all work together and support each other. The above examples are all a bit unusual: I believe for both Reddit and Windows, some of the clunkiness of the design is to keep happy change-resistant users who are used to it that way. The popular functionality is despite, not because of, the clunky form.

Look at something like the classic ipod design for an example of the value of form and function working together: the aesthetics are linked to the simplicity and efficiency of the interface, and the ease and comfort of use are linked to the aesthetics. The result is a product that was more demanding and expensive than its competitors very quickly coming to dominate its market. (I won't say any more on that as there are literally books on it...)


So, how much you need to prioritise good form depends on how much you need a user acceptance boost and the efficiency that comes from form and function working together. For example:

  • Microsoft didn't start prioritising the above until they started losing market share - then invested heavily in trying to catch up.
  • Big vibrant established online communities can get away with clunkiness while their social appeal is enough for user acceptance - but this can be a risky strategy (cf MySpace).
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I like this. An answer with some wisdom. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 11:46
    
You make very wise points, but the answer still falls just short of the plain answer. Without over-simplifying, I think that you could acknowledge that the bare-bones answer to the question asked is that sometimes, for some reason, the ugliest software beats the nicely designed one. You're talking about form following function, but in many of these cases, I don't think the good looking softwares are squeezing in style that doesn't belong. It seems as if the only difference can be that the uglier softwares are squeezing in more function. Either way, the truth is in the stats. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 14:05
    
Software simply doesn't need to look good. It only needs to look functional. I'm simply pushing for someone to give a yes or no and stand by it, rather than wiggling between an answer and discussion matter. A simple conclusion answer, if you would. I'd settle for a simple "yes" or "no" at this point :P –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 14:06

In my opinion, first of all they should work properly. If they do, the next step is their look.

So basically, for people who use them continuously and they're happy with working, the look doesn't matter. In the same time for every rookie folks the look has a big impact. I think this is the most important factor. It decides if they'll stay a bit longer or they'll leave them away forever.

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I think that everyone so far has gotten tied up with taste, design principle, and /or opinion, while the question, if you guys take a look at the title, is actually a pretty objective one.

Do interfaces really need to look good?

While "Looking good" is indeed a matter of opinion, the world clearly demonstrates over and over and over again, that while we like "good-looks", the majority of us aren't willing to pay for them.


  • The 90,000,0000 user per month gap between Reddit and Digg and many, many other software trends show it as well.

  • Most people will choose Performance, Efficiency, and Price over style.

  • Companies who focus less on extra fancy design and more on PEP, statistically sell more product and make more money.


So the answer is clear:

As much as we designers detest it, and as highly as I recommend that we change this trend, interfaces don't really need to look good, and it's not important to focus on additional fancy style.

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I think you're setting up a false dillema there. Your examples show that aesthetics don't trump all other design considerations - but I don't think anyone would argue that they would. Great design is about aesthetics, efficiency and performance all pulling together: things are well designed when those areas don't compete but support each other. e.g. the classic ipod design: each of its performance, efficiency and aesthetics strengths the others. (not my downvote btw, this is a worthy contribution but I think it oversimplifies) –  user568458 Apr 16 at 13:28
    
It may oversimplify, but so far, I haven't seen any answers that specify any objectively designed solutions at all. Or least, not answering the specific question. I've contributed my take on the subject to introduce an answer that answers the question that was asked. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 13:54
    
And one further comment towards your comment: You misunderstand. I'm not asking whether or not aesthetics trump all other things; I'm asking whether any "extra" aesthetic detail is necessary at all. A yes or no scenario, in the end. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 14:13
    
I'm sorry, while I favour good aesthetics, I also favour form first. I +1'd this for pragmatism :) –  Dr. ABT Apr 16 at 14:55
    
I think your last statement is only half correct. I agree, interfaces don't need to look good, but it is important to focus on good design, as that improves the user's impression and engagement with the product. Yes, that should come secondary to function, however. –  DA01 Apr 16 at 18:00

It highly depends upon the application. If its an application with a lot of other eye catchy alternatives readily available, then yes, your interface needs to look good but if it is something unique and intuitive, users might not pay that much attention to GUI, rather they would focus on the functionality of your application.

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I agree very much with user568458.

Form Follows Function

To expand however on his/her answer:

Budget Constraints

In the "real world" budget is everything. Its why the vast majority of new website based companies fail. They make it slick and hip rather then focusing on Sales & Profits.

For those that have said a company can't be judged just be users. You're right its judged by profits. Any other means to judge is foolish because the company won't survive. When considering a redesign you have to try and figure out is the additional cost of research and development going to result in a true increase in value. You have to do your best to find that perfect balance between cost and use.

Some have brought up Mac for example, and some have brought up that after a point people stop paying for the aesthetics. Mac with its growing share has to a degree found a market share it can live with. It sells at a higher profit margin so it can afford to sell less. It could lower the price per unit and sell more but that also lowers its margins.

Once you can look at things more subjectively like this you can begin to see that there is absolutely a point where design aesthetics stop being valuable. Its the function of CEOs, Directors, and Market Analysts to try and figure out where that point is.

A/B Testing

One thing that I think all Designers could benefit from and don't is A/B Testing using a tool like Google Analytics. You can literally serve two slightly different designs and see which performs better. Continuously improving your design efforts not on what you think is the "beautiful solution" but on what your customers find the most engaging.

If through A/B Testing you can increase your newsletter signups from 2% to 3% and each percent represents N dollars then the only question is whether doing that test cost less then N dollars. Is it profitable? Once the cost of testing is routinely more then the resulting gains that's when you've gone too far. But unfortunately a lot of designers are "egos" and more interested in their own design then in what others respond too.

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Do interfaces really need to “look good”?

Nope. As you state, and prove, some very highly succesful websites that have horrific UIs succeed. Reddit is a great example. As is Craigslist.

So no, you do not need a great looking UI to succeed.

But a site better have some really amazing content to make it worth getting through a really bad UI.

In other words, all things being equal, a more usable, better looking UI is always going to be better than an ugly, less usable one.

But in the end, usability and looks are moot if there isn't content worth getting at.

Content is King.

Good design and usability is a great asset for the King.

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For the record, I like this answer best, but I'm a man of the people, and this question was less enjoyed than the only alternate option (the selected answer). He chose opposite of you and I, but he answered the d*mn thing with good points and the first true yes/no answer provided, which wasn't technically wrong. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 17:29
    
For juicy questions like this, you've got to work towards a one-way-or-the other answer, forget opinions, elect a valid answer, and let the viewers choose to read/upvote which answers they agree with later. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 16 at 17:31

Just putting in my two cents:

  1. No, it is not universally important for an interface to look good (which is vague and impossible to measure anyway).
  2. However, some interfaces must have certain looks. The "look" of a site is similar to how you'd dress for job. You wouldn't paint houses in a business suit, nor would you wear cargo pants and a mask as a CEO. These choices may not impact your job performance, but they sure as heck will determine if you're hired. In persuasion theory, these can be considered the peripheral cues for the design. Craigslist can look horrible because it emulates classified ads, which have never had any aesthetic value. A site for marketing brand consultants? It needs to show (not tell) how they can make a brand salient.
  3. This needs to be balanced with actual function. If you have not read it, immediately read The Design of Everyday Things. This is all about the central information from a design, i.e., the ways it conveys information and helps people use it. A vast amount of creativity and nuance can be required to make flow and purpose of different parts clear. This does not mean that it looks good. In fact, sleek and pretty designs often add distracting details that hinder usability ("Is that cat's nose a button?"). A red flashing button won't win any style awards. But there is still value in knowing when one is needed ("Nuclear reactor super-critical. Shutdown?").
  4. The balance of the two above concerns (central function vs. peripheral influence) depends entirely on the users and the purpose of the interface. Sites intended to show the identity of an organization tend to be flowery (see: Main Page) while the ones used in-house tend to be spartan and functional (Course Catalog).
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User Experience is based on several things, but the foundation of a positive user experience where interfaces play a key role (meaning, users are going to actually interface with it in an active manner) is in the 'logic' of its design.

Is it INTUITIVE? Does the placement of XYZ make sense? Are people getting lost trying to figure out how to navigate? Can people distinguish this content from that content? If there is text-heavy content, is it readable?

Though some of this could be addressed by 'prettiness' (like making a Sign Up button bigger), in general, if the actual structuring is sensible and - for the visual people out there - there is enough contrast in say, color choices or font sizes (like, default link colors, default header sizes), the experience will be fine.

Perhaps no one will be 'wowed' by it, but if it's sensibly structured with enough content differentiation, it will work and users can make it work for them with minimal difficulty.

On the other hand, something beautiful but lacking structure and logic may 'wow', but can ultimately frustrate users who are forced to interface with it in any kind of a meaningful manner.

That said, while logical presentation and structuring is necessary, 'prettiness' - unless used to aid said logical presentation and structuring - is not.

Accessibility best practices for web design is a clear example of the literal necessity of logical presentation and structure outside of the realm of 'prettiness'.

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A worthy contribution. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 at 9:20

"I notice that sites and software with less superficial value (less style, inspiration, or simply "neat-ness") often succeed far above their fantastically, well-designed counterparts": sorry, this is a very subjective statement that needs clarification before it can be discussed.

Of course interfaces need to "look good". We are living in a world of information overdose and must choose at first sight. But merely saying that is not so helpful to know what to do.

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