The best design is the one no one notices

17 Mar 2016

The best-designed websites are those people can use so easily that they don't even really notice the design

As if running an ambitious agency isn’t challenging enough, for the past decade I have spent a few hours most Saturdays refereeing a game of rugby. Erstwhile colleagues have speculated that, not content with throwing my weight around for 40 hours Monday to Friday, my power hunger required further topping up for 80 minutes with 30 burly players every Saturday.

Anyone who has ever officiated a competitive sport will know that the greatest compliment that can be paid to any official is silence. The very best referees go unnoticed, are rarely spoken about, and aspire to be invisible. They make a very difficult pursuit look easy, because they know their job is to make the players look good and give them the very best chance of expressing their skills on the pitch.

The best refs make the players the story by remaining invisible themselves.

So, too, the very best digital design makes the user the protagonist by remaining invisible, hidden in plain view, if you will.

I believe that the essence of user experience is how a digital product makes someone feel. That might sound overly simplistic – patronising, almost – and yet I put it to you that everyone reading this article will, in the past month, have felt anger at a digital product. It seems inconceivable that the marketers responsible for digital product development should make their customers feel angry, but that’s what happens when design isn’t taken seriously, or is done incorrectly.

I know people who feel other emotions when using the web. Some people, particularly digital immigrants, feel stupid. Imagine designing something that makes your customer feel stupid. Feeling stupid is one of the worst human emotions, and yet marketers are designing websites and apps that produce that response. And then there’s frustration, annoyance and confusion.

‘I put it to you that everyone reading this article will in the past month have felt anger at a digital product’

We’ve all been through the digital version of the Kübler-Ross classic five stages of grief:

  • Denial – There’s no way they would have built something just this bad
  • Anger – I want to throw my laptop out the window
  • Bargaining – Okay, I’ll try it just one more time; I’ll close and re-open my browser, and hopefully I’ll be able to find what I’m looking for
  • Depression – It’s just not worth going on, I’m calling the customer service number to give out, or heading to Twitter to rant
  • Acceptance — It’s not me, it’s the website; I’m just going to have to get on with it

This is why it is so dangerous for a website owner to want their website to have the ‘wow’ factor. It is why wanting the app to be ‘award-winning’ can miss the point. Both of these sentiments focus on outputs, not outcomes.

Trying to put the designer in the spotlight is like trying to make the referee the hero. The whole point is that it isn’t about them. They both have crucially important roles, but these roles are about making others look good, not themselves.

The communicator quite rightly wants the outputs to be right. And it is critical that the outputs are right. But of much greater importance to the user than the interface is the outcome. The app helps them save time, buy the ticket, find the phone number, compare the price, discover the arrival time, predict the weather, etc. They are using the digital product in the first place because they believe it will bring them value.

The web’s most popular digital products are outcome focused. We barely notice Google, Amazon, BBC, eBay and Twitter when we use them, because they make us the protagonist-in-chief, not them. They are more interested in our outcomes that their outputs.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. Visit Fathom online at

Group of people on tablet image via Shutterstock