“Well, um, not really,” they said. “It’s just purely functional at the moment. It doesn’t look very good.”
Ah, we said. Had they given any thought to user interface?
“Oh, yeah, sure,” they said, nodding enthusiastically. “One of our mentors is from an ad agency. He said he could give us some feedback on how it looks when we’re ready to pretty it up.” Then they flashed us their wide, college-student smiles.
It’s easy to poke fun at college students, or programmers, or executives, or just about anyone, really. But this mentality -- this idea that the interface is the “prettying it up” bit that happens at the end -- is actually astonishingly pervasive. Ask any designer. Far too often, the brief goes like this, “We’ve already built it all. Can you make it look good?”
And that approach is categorically, unequivocally, flat-out wrong.
The purpose of design and user interface isn’t to make your product look good. It is to make people feel good when they use it.
If your site is badly designed, your customers won’t be able to figure out what they’re meant to do. And if they can’t figure out what they’re meant to do, they will feel stupid. And, since nobody likes to feel stupid, they probably won’t remain your customers for long.
A well-designed interface, on the other hand, is intuitive and delightful. It makes your customers feel smart, because they always know exactly what they’re meant to do and the way to do it is obvious. It is a key component of the product. It doesn’t sit on top of your back-end programming; it is built alongside and in conjunction with your back-end programming.
Good design is a simple search bar, and nothing else on the page. It’s Airbnb asking you, “Where do you want to go?” It’s Wix’s invitation to “create your free stunning website,” with a giant purple button inviting you to start now.
This kind of design doesn’t come from prettying up the functionality. It comes from deep empathy, from asking some powerful, important questions:
These questions don’t just apply to websites or apps. They apply to any kind of information design. Larry Lessig’s great TED talk is designed to take a hideous and complicated topic, campaign finance, and make it insanely clear. Politizane’s video detailing wealth inequality in America uses tidy graphics to communicate the full depth of the issue. Videos like these make us feel smart when we watch them, even if we weren’t particularly knowledgeable when we started. It feels good to feel smart, so we share these videos more widely: a million views of Lessig’s video, 6.7 million views of Politizane’s.
This is what we told the college kids: Your user interface is not about “prettying up” the real work. It is an essential part of the real work. It can literally make the difference between success and failure in your venture, the difference between whether people want to use your site or don’t. And the answer to when you’re “ready” to start working on the interface is always… now.