I recently read an article on TechCrunch about user experience and what it takes to succeed in the competitive world of tailored/targeted apps. While the article specifically talks about the digital/interactive realm, this same thinking can be applied to other design problems.
Jamie described this issue last year as “skeleton vs. skin,” where the skeleton is the structural, functional side of a project, and the skin is the styling and aesthetics (and content is the guts that make it all viable in the first place). A skeleton can stand on its own if it needs to, but a pile of skin is an empty, shallow, lump. (However, a bare-bones [pun intended] design can get boring and feel naked or unfinished if left skinless.) Structure gives design a way to cater to a user’s needs without collapsing under the pressure of user interaction. A “pile of skin” may be well-groomed and sexy, but no skeleton means a lifeless experience. A skeleton and skin together provide a beautiful balance of structure and beauty, where a user can enjoy a smooth experience while having something sexy to look at.
So, let’s break it down…
“Design” Looks Pretty
This is what I’ve recently referred to as “hipster” design. It looks great. In fact, it makes up a large part of those “50 most stunning websites” blog posts that are everywhere nowadays. But that’s ultimately all it does. It conveys a mood, at best. Self-proclaimed “designers” tend to lean towards this approach, which I find concerning (but they probably don’t know any better). They give the rest of us a bad name, because they enforce half-assed problem-solving. They focus on styles and trends, following tutorials for creating specific effects, without any context or environment to consider. Their only consideration is “does it look cool?”
Pretty shallow stuff, right?
Real Design Works for the User
With real Design, there’s a concept, users’ needs are being met, and it’s made to look good after every other problem has been addressed. The way a user interacts with the app is what matters. Not gradients or drop shadows or trendy styles. The look & feel are the icing on the cake (but what’s a cake without icing? Boring as hell).
Good design is engaging in its usability, and pretty design is engaging in its aesthetics. The goal should be to combine both, but with emphasis on sorting out the user’s needs first.
Good design has an inherent natural beauty about it. Good design is what I aim to do.
The Moral of the Story
The examples mentioned in the article show how thoughtful design most often prevails over “pretty” design. It’s the thoughtfulness that ultimately sets a design apart from all the other hordes of projects out there. Without thoughtfulness, it might as well be called brainless.
The best, most well-rounded approach to design is to solve the actual problem first, then add style and flair later. Usable, intuitive solutions should be the priority. Good design wins awards because it solves a caters to needs and engages the users.
Good design is my purpose.