The beauty of ugly design

Whats wrong with a beautiful website? Turns out, quite a lot! The best thing about the web is its no-nonsense egalitarian nature towards visual representation. The successful “design” is the one that gets the job done, period. A design can win awards and still be an epic failure. Another can be a laughing stock of the industry (cough-amazon-cough) and become the poster child of UX success.

Today’s end user has a highly sensitive BS radar. A carefully crafted design can send the same signals as a polished ad and for many consumers is, either consciously or subconsciously, rejected outright. In the eyes of many end-users beautiful UI means a lack of substance while ugly means authentic and believable.

An overly designed experience can siphon funds from more important tasks like creating quality content that delights and surprises. In fact, in dysfunctional organizations design is often used as a crutch for poor content. The poor designers carry the weight of the organization’s baggage, and are expected to paint over all the problems with a pretty design. That might get past the organization’s decision makers, but users are a different matter altogether. You cant pull the wool over the eyes of your aggregate users.

Reddit is a great example of ugly design with great UX. Their focus on – and respect for – user generated content is visible everywhere from the real estate devoted to text content to the minimal approach to the rest of the UI. The message it sends to users is that they care so deeply about the content their users generate they barely have a thought to spare for mundanities like navigation.

Reddit gives more than 70% of its screen real estate to user-generated content without distractions.

Web designers can add to the fallacy if they are not careful. Its easy to fall into the trap of believing they need to “add” something to an interface because that’s their job. I advocate for MVI, minimum viable interface. The simplest possible interface and fewest number of possibilities that will achieve the user behavior goals is the right interface. But if you interpret the UI job as ‘doing something’ the designer can head down an entirely wrong path, focused on personal protection and having nothing to do with user experience.

Just as in Japanese Sumi-e painting, where any superfluous form or detail is left out, in web UI every “stroke” of the mouse should add more usability and improve user experience, or it shouldn’t be there at all.

In Sumi-e the minimum number of brush strokes and marks are used to convey meaning.

Involving UI specialists in the project from day one is imperative (see “the no-handoff method“). All web designers must be able to work lo-fi as well as hi-fi, and teams must banish the word “design” from their vocabularies. Instead effective teams must develop a shared language to discuss interface-related questions that is precise and functionally based. For example a discussion on “button design” sounds like it only applies to UI, but a discussion on “button fidelity” (does the button do what it promises) or “button hierarchy” (what interactive elements speaks the loudest, are users taking the right or expected action) can involve the whole team.

To conclude, design is as much a liability as it is an asset. Design is not the same as pretty. If deployed correctly, early, and in support of shared functional goals design is an integral part of making a highly functional product that pleases clients and users alike.