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: Do interfaces really need to "look good"? I notice that sites and software with less superficial value (less style, inspiration, or simply "neat-ness") often succeed far above their fantastically,


Posted in: #InterfaceDesign #UserExperience

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?


Reddit vs Digg


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


Looks great, used monthly by 20 million unique users.

Windows 7 vs OSX

Windows 7:

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


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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"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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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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Just putting in my two cents:

No, it is not universally important for an interface to look good (which is vague and impossible to measure anyway).
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.
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?").
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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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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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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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 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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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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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.

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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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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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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