In the digital world, bad design can look an awful lot like good design


5 Jan 2021276 Views

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Gareth Dunlop writes that the need to interact intuitively with digital products is so fundamental that it overrides aesthetics.

The worlds of fashion, architecture and automobile design have blessed us with some exquisite beauty over the decades. Some products have been so stunningly designed that they linger in the memory – Marilyn Monroe’s white dress, the Sydney Opera House, the BMW 2002.

On the flip side of the same coin, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, North Korea’s Ryugyong Hotel and the Reliant Robin could attest to the fact that designers don’t always get it right. Turns out it’s not just Homer Simpson who can design ugly cars.

In the physical world, bad design can be really easy to spot. If only it were so easy in the digital world, where bad design can be very difficult to identify. It can even look a lot like good design.

Experience tells us that a website or app can simultaneously be pretty, and pretty awful. What’s more, the elements of the interface, which are the difference between effective and ineffective design, often have no impact at all on aesthetics.

A poorly structured, inwardly focused navigation system can be just as attractive as a well-structured, user-centred navigation system. You could argue that my navigational bête noire – the hamburger menu – is more attractive than other menus as it is compact and tidy, yet study after study suggests that it hinders discoverability, perceivability and time on task.

The same can be true for nearly every other building block of interaction design. Clear calls to action can look pretty much the same as confusing calls to action. Poorly constructed content can look pretty much the same as effectively structured content. Good categorisation and bad categorisation look the same. Poor persuasion and strong persuasion features look the same. And so on.

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As an industry, we need to be more candid about the other uncomfortable truth – many, perhaps the majority, of the world’s leading digital products boast unattractive interfaces. It is digital’s equivalent of brutalism, if you will.

For these platforms, the opposite is true – good design can look a lot like bad design.

Craigslist is the globe’s dominant classifieds platform, without a single graphic and just a handful of fonts on its homepage. Google’s minimalist front page was a clear differentiator in its early days compared to rivals such as Yahoo! and AltaVista, whose homepages were much more cluttered and graphical. And do you really believe Amazon wouldn’t make its site prettier if it led to higher revenue?

The need to interact intuitively on a digital product is so fundamental that it overrides all other considerations, even aesthetics.

If you think your website is good because it looks good, be careful. You don’t get to make that call. The only arbiters in determining whether your site is well designed or poorly designed are your users.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile.