User Interface Is More Important Than You Ever Thought It Was

Two aspiring young entrepreneurs sat across from us. College students, fresh-faced and wide-smiled. They told us about their product, their market research, their monetization strategy, their global ambitions. And then we asked if we could see it.

“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:

  • Who is seeing this page?
  • What do they want to do?
  • How much information do they already have?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What is the cleanest and clearest way of communicating this accurately?

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.

7 comments about "User Interface Is More Important Than You Ever Thought It Was".
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  1. Rick Monihan from None, July 26, 2013 at 11:05 a.m.

    The Politizane video is interesting, and communicates your point well. But it's missing a key point - income mobility and data points over time. It's a static analysis of a fixed point in time meant to provoke an emotional response rather than a rational conversation. So while it's great they can make their point clear (whatever it is, I'm really not sure - that we have wealth inequality? Thanks for the information, Captain Obvious.), they don't discuss the key points of why this is or isn't important.

    So making something clear may have its uses, but if you're not telling the whole story, then you're really just making the issue of communication more complicated and not helping at all.

  2. Leslie Singer from SingerSalt, July 26, 2013 at 11:18 a.m.

    This is another article I wish I had written - Bravo. My firm is usually brought in after the fact. For some reason creative brand strategy, user experience and aesthetic seems to be something investors and inventors think comes AFTER something is built. Doing it all in tandem makes a quicker buy-in to customers, investors and beyond. Steve Jobs continues to be the lone ranger in understanding the power of form and function.

  3. Nancy Roberts from Nancy C. Roberts & Associates, July 26, 2013 at 12:05 p.m.

    To be honest, I don't even *care* if the site or app looks cool as long as it behaves well! Don't get in the way of what I came here to do, period. And while we're at it, does every swipe card device have to have its own usability approach? If the mousetrap is better, that's great... but if its new just "because," you're just driving me crazy!

  4. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations, July 26, 2013 at 1:16 p.m.

    You are so right, but I've come to doubt this idea will ever sink in with most. "Design" to most refers to aesthetics, which are about 10% as important as usability. There's a parallel with the way so many people, even with "sales" or "marketing" in their job titles don't seem very clear on the difference between the two.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 26, 2013 at 1:58 p.m.

    What you are speaking about is common sense, one of your trademarks in the think it through sense. Nancy Roberts also adds a good point, but Nancy it is about the money and short attention span.

  6. Jeremy Shatan from Hope & Heroes Children's Cancer Fund, July 26, 2013 at 4:58 p.m.

    Just as Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you must "begin with the end in mind."

  7. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, July 29, 2013 at 3:23 a.m.

    Good article. What makes UI design difficult is that the needs of new users for simplicity and discoverability are usually at odds with the needs of existing users for efficiency.

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