Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder


As a user experience design specialist, clients often ask Jeff Patton to make their software "look better," so it can be successful. But when clients focus primarily on aesthetics, they're often addressing the wrong thing. In this column, Jeff takes a look at common user interface (UI) mistakes and the key concerns software development teams should address to build successful UIs.

This is a short column about beauty. I have a sub-specialty in user experience design. Most people interpret this to mean that I help make their software look better. But the sad truth is that I usually can't because many of the products I come in contact with are ugly at their core. They aren't accomplishing what users need, so no amount of making the products pretty will make them a success. There's an old expression that "beauty is but skin deep" and a contemporary addendum that "ugly goes clean to the bone." In software, this is an uncomfortable truth.

After explaining to people that I can't easily improve their software, they usually look at me with a sad face, not quite knowing what to ask next. That's when I usually reach for a napkin or Post-it note and draw the model in figure 1, a simple pyramid that describes the dependency of concerns I see in software UI.

Figure 1

At the bottom, the foundation is utility. People reach for software in order to solve a problem or help them do something they couldn't easily do without it. If I reach for the software and it has functionality that helps me reach my goal, that's utility.

Above utility is usability. If the product can help me reach my goal, my next concerns are: how easy it is to learn, how efficient it is to use regularly, or how easy it is to remember how to use when I haven't used it for a while. All those concerns and a few more roll up into the product's usability. I can assess usability on anything, but really I only care about the usability of the specific utility I need.

At the tip of the pyramid is aesthetics. If the product looks good doing its job, if it uses appealing color schemes, cool animations, and sexy graphics, then it has strong aesthetic appeal. If it looks sexy but is hard to use, that's a problem. If it looks sexy and does nothing I need, then that's even worse.

When software publishers tangle up these concerns, they start running into problems. But by understanding and tackling them, they have the opportunity to build successful user interfaces that often delight their users.

Start by Focusing on Utility
The Segway is a pretty cool product. It's easy to use (for most people), looks nice, and launched on the market with great fanfare. But, what would you use it for? Really, what would you use it for? Segway's trying to convince us it's great for commuting to work or getting around town. But, it's missing the storage I need for stuff and space for passengers. A bicycle already satisfies my needs for short trips. For me, and lots of people like me, it's not offering the utility that solves a problem. As a result, people won't use it. No amount of aesthetics or usable product features will change that.

To be successful, some products know what their users want to accomplish, and support it in a way that's easy for them to do. Craigslist is a great example. Users love the site because it focuses all of its resources on helping users accomplish what they want. The site makes its users happy despite what some might consider poor aesthetics. And none of the users left the site because of an "ugly design." Craigslist's users love the site because it focuses on the utility.


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