Product Marty Cagan

Usability vs. Aesthetics

I think most would agree that the general state of web site design is still in its infancy, at least as practiced by most companies. While there are some notable exceptions, many sites, even from major players, are often either very difficult to use, downright ugly, or both. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have formed some theories as to why so many sites are bad, and what it will take to make this a better world as we all spend an increasing amount of our life interacting with the web.

I have long noted that too few companies invest the time and resources in user experience that they should, and I plan to focus more on that general topic in the coming months. However, what I’ve had a harder time explaining is why companies that do invest still often have such bad sites.

Two edge cases in particular struck me as interesting. On the one hand, so many of the graphic/visual design firms have these beautiful, artistic sites, that are difficult to read and poorly structured. On the other hand, many of the interaction design firms have very usable sites that are easy to navigate and find the info you need, yet are boring, primitive and unappealing.

I think what these two cases illustrate is that the disciplines of interaction design and visual design are very different and that to have a site that is both usable and appealing you need both skills on your design team. Some teams are very lucky and they have a designer that is talented at both types of design, but in more cases I think they just expect that since they hired a “designer” that person should be able to do both, and they can’t.

Even worse, but most common of all, is when the company has neither type of designer, and they look to either the product manager or the UI/Web engineer to design the site. When I talk to enterprise companies this is unfortunately still the norm. When I talk to consumer companies, they usually have one or the other type of designer.

Many teams feel that the visual design of a product or site is not really important. They argue that what matters is the functionality and the value proposition, and that things like nice colors, fonts, icons and layout are just unnecessary and superficial fluff. I strongly disagree with this view, and the more products I see the stronger I believe a) in the role that emotion plays in successful products; and b) the direct role visual design plays in creating that emotion.

You can show the exact same functionality to a user, one with wireframes and one with a good visual design, and the overall response can be dramatically different. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future article.

Much like product management and product marketing are different functions requiring different training and skills, interaction design and visual design are different functions requiring different training and skills.

I have oversimplified somewhat here. I haven’t discussed the critical roles the product manager or usability engineers play in coming up with a site that is both usable and enjoyable. And if the site performs like a dog, or is riddled with bugs, or is littered with advertising, then that will of course impact the experience in a big way too. But fundamentally I believe you need both interaction and visual design skill sets to deliver a good user experience, and that these people need to work closely with the product manager to define the product, which includes both the functionality and the user experience.