Design Is Not The Goal

There is a well-known saying by Benjamin Franklin that states, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If we take that lens to interaction design, we could say: In design nothing can be said to be certain, except eye candy and following new trends. The screens are changing, but the approach, sadly enough, is not.

Designers have penchant for all things with textures, embellishments, 3-D characteristics, as well as over-emphasized and generated effects — this is where design is currently hovering. It is heavy on the visible layer of design and that is the intention. This approach is limiting because it places focus on getting attention for the design itself, rather than designing for purpose.

If I had to describe Web/interface design today I would say it looks like anything that Apple does — multiplied by ten. They have certainly given us some of the best examples of experiences and proven to be very profitable with them.

“Steve Jobs does it right, famously saying, “Design is how it works, not how it looks,” but most firms copy his aesthetics and not his philosophy, applying design merely as marketing gloss in order to capture additional sales.” —Stefan Boublil

While they (Apple) remain a leading influencer in interaction design, they aren’t always perfect. Recently, they have jumped the skeumorphic shark with the latest iteration of iCal for the Mac OS. It seems they have forgotten their own design philosophy and are only changing how it looks, rather than changing how it works.1

Latest iteration of iCal

“The way to get people to love a calendar app is not to make it look like what they used 10 years ago, but to make it better than what they used 10 years ago.” —Ben Brooks

This focus on style is unhealthy. If we create every design saturated with so much style — which does nothing to inform or reflect behavior – the work is useless.

Content (Still) is King

Content has always been king, until we forgot about it when some shiny device came out and designers went crazy with the pixels. Even if you can raise millions and build up a ton of hype for your startup, people will soon discover whether or not the content is all that, or just not there. When you forget to design a purposeful experience, you’re guaranteed to launch vaporware.

The core of what you are doing must be relevant. It’s possible for a beautiful interface to be designed for most any app or Website. When the gloss is stripped back, what’s left?

Min - Bookmarklet
Min is a bookmarklet that strips away all the decoration from a Website to reveal the typography and content layout.

We’ve seen a big shift in the presentation and discussion around content online. The user is being offered more control and power over the presentation in how they consume this content. Cameron Koczon refers to it as “Orbital Content.” Instead of a user being forced to find and read content in an environment potentially full of distracting ads and poor legibility, they can liberate it. The user can pull it into their orbit and mold it into a useful, custom collection, for them to consume within their preferred environment.

Some critics think this means that design doesn’t matter. Just slap an article on a plain page and call it good. No need for design right? I actually think it means that design matters more. It’s just that the places where most of the content currently resides aren’t necessarily focused on designing a good reading experience. They are trying sell other products or services, etc. Products like Readability and Instapaper are the first steps into exploring a better content ecosystem.

Form Informs Function

There was a design revival between 1918-1933 called the Bauhaus movement. This was an intentional shift away from the ornamentation and heavy styling in things like architecture, graphic design, and product design. It was an effort to try and remove the bloat and represent things in a meaningful way, rather than coating or disguising it with superfluous elements.2

“The Bauhaus’s philosophy was that form should follow function and all other distractions and decoration should be avoided. It wanted space to be experience for its purity, stripped off all the ‘dirt’ and clutter of decor. This is something that’s been happening recently in the field of visual interaction design.” —Rahul Sen

There are a growing number of UX designers and firms taking an approach that is a very Bauhaus-esqe approach to interaction design.2 One of the well-known and surprising examples is from Microsoft. Their Windows Phone 7 is a nice example of a clean and functional interface that focuses on content rather than glossy chrome.

Flipboard and Windows Phone 7
The Flipboard and Windows Phone 7 have both taken a cleaner, less glossy, approach with their interface.

Typically we can describe the design process to be based on this quote by Louis Sullivan: “Form Follows Function.” Which, this really means that we are painting a chrome on something that has already been basically designed. The new approach should be what Lynn Teo has revised the older quote to become: “Form Informs Function.”

I think form informing function is a great way to describe the intention of design. The form of what we design should influence behavior and have an affect on how we interact with a Website or application. If it looks great but is a pain in the ass to use, then what good is the design? The design should be invisible to a point. We should only “see” a design when it is necessary to the user experience.

“You can’t physically turn a knob on the iPad screen — so why make knobs an essential part of your interface?” —Ben Brooks

Design Final Products, Not Deliverables

There are key parts of the current user experience process that lend themselves to actually hindering the end experience. The end product (Website or application) should always be the focus. However, we get caught up in the deliverables game. The set of wireframes become a huge focus. The client wants them updated and updated until there are too many pages to really get a true feel for the experience. This also happens with the design.

The visual design phase seems to lead up to a huge unveiling. This is where the interaction designer earns their paycheck. It has to look good. It has to make the client rave at how sleek and sexy the UI is. This is the packaging that will sell itself when it’s time to demo. This has everything to do with how it looks, not how it works. It’s easy to criticize the client in this scenario for not understanding that design is more than a skin, but this is exactly how we as designers treat our work. We upload a screenshot to our portfolio, or submit to our favorite community in hopes of getting praise and recognition from our peers.

We can help change this perception: 1) We can pay more attention to the great design thinking being published in the far corners (a.k.a. less tweeted/popular) parts of the community. Absorb it and discuss. 2) Instead of posting just screenshots of work, we can describe and show the entire project path from sketch to final design. Our portfolios become not just some pretty pixels, rather a snapshot of how we think through tough problems and arrive at an elegant solution. 3) We can treat the design process as a drive toward creating a great end experience, rather than making the deliverables themselves such polished end products. It’s about quick iterations and learning.

When the design itself has become a goal, rather than the solution, we as UX professionals and designers have failed.

Main image credit: Eames Chair Sketches

1) Don’t Mimic Real-World Interfaces by Ben Brooks

2) The ‘IxD Bauhaus’ — What Happens Next? by Rahul Sen for Johnny Holland Magazine

3) What The Telephone’s Unbeatable Functionality Teaches Us About Innovation by Stefan Boublil for Fast Co Design