When most people say design, they usually mean visual beauty: an asthetic harmony of elements that looks and feels right. But when it comes to digital products — sites and apps — good looks are not the main driver of success.
The goal of UX is speed. Specifically, the speed with which a user moves through a process or series of tasks. When a user can pick up your product and complete actions effortlessly, it builds a trust that leads to repeat usage. If they get stuck, confused, or even bored, the interaction is over, regardless of how pretty your design may be.
Speeding up decisions
In practice, designing for speed is primarily about reducing or eliminating the number of decision points. Making decisions is hard. Not just big decisions, but lots of small, tedious decisions. It requires alertness and is mentally draining.
In a website or app, every interface element is a decision point. What is this thing? Is it important? Should I click it? All these processes happen subconsciously, but they still take up brainpower. This rapid process of evaluating decision points is known as “cognitive load,” and one of the key goals of UX is to reduce cognitive load so that action can happen as fast as possible.
Consider examples of excellent UX such as Amazon or Craigslist, which are not particularly visually attractive but always fast and easy to use. And conversely, there are thousands of sites with pretty graphics and typography, or fancy animations, that are essentially unusable.
Of course, speed and beauty can, and do, often coexist. Many modern designers are bringing together the best of both worlds to create the world-class digital products we read about every day.
Speed is beautiful
Interestingly, visual beauty often occurs naturally as a by-product of designing for speed.
Since UX design is concerned with removing cognitive distractions and keeping information to manageable amounts, this usually results in clean and simple layouts. Importantly, this is not minimalism as an aesthetic choice; it’s the natural consequence of rigorous UX thinking.
This is why the interface design process must be led by UX, and visual design is applied later as a light skin (or, more accurately, a few key choices regarding color, typography and graphics).
Why good UX is not the same as good design
In fact, many visual design principles and habits often make for bad UX.
Subtlelty, for example, is often considered beautiful. But UX design strives to be totally clear and unambiguous — the opposite of subtlety. Color is used as a guide, not as a decorative element. Typography is chosen for legibility across devices and styled to indicate hierarchy of importance.
Most designers are trained think in terms of a finished layout, where they are in precise control of the relationships of visual elements. However, software design is inherently modular; most sites and apps are essentially libraries of components that are dynamically assembled in real time. UX designers think in a systematic fashion about how those parts come together in different contexts, not in one unique case.
Traditional designers often have a tendency to overcommunicate instead of using simple cues to drive action. Long blocks of copy and lengthy video introductions are common symptoms of this problem. Instructional text is often used as a crutch when the underlying interaction design is poor.
Finally, many non-UX designers choose design elements by how they look rather than how they function. A common example is using a droplist to present a list of options instead of laying them all out as buttons. The thinking is that the droplist takes up less space so it’s more elegant. However, it takes the user significantly more time to realize there’s a droplist, click on it, and read the options — especially if it’s on a mobile device. Of course there are many cases where a droplist is appropriate, but this example shows how something that may seem to look “cleaner” can actually slow a user down.
As more and more businesses are developing their own software products, decision-makers can often bring old biases to their evaluation of interface design. Years of looking at design for print or video can skew one’s understanding of what constitutes good design in the interactive medium.
I encourage decision-makers to question their old assumptions about what is good. When the UX is right, visual beauty will take care of itself. With apologies to JFK:
Ask not “How good does this look?”
Ask “How fast does this go?”