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, 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


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


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Looks great, used monthly by 20 million unique users.

Windows 7 vs OSX

Windows 7:

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


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

5/28/2015 12:00:00 PM

Accepted Answer

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.

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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.

4/16/2014 4:00:00 PM

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).