Aesthetically pleasing design does not always equal good UX

Piotr Wojciechowski - Product Designer

Many people don’t realize that aesthetics are only a minor part of UX. In fact, when teams go too far in following popular visual trends, they are likely to hurt their project. Let’s dive into why this is the case, and why UX should be focused less on the presentation than on the outcomes it provides for users.

The dangers of focusing on attractiveness rather than usability

Following trends to make your app look interesting can sometimes breaks the experience of familiarity that your users secretly need. Here’s an example: most spreadsheet software and accountant software UIs are similar to apps like Excel or Google Spreadsheet. Which is not the prettiest solution out there. Why has the industry stuck with it? Because making such software look significantly different could confuse users who are familiar with the current go-to solutions.

Aesthetics can sidetrack your UI design efforts by shifting your focus to the pleasure of a visual experience and graphic elements of the design. This may prevent you from empowering your content and your users’ actions (or goals). What does this look like in practice?

Example 1: smaller fonts can be aesthetically pleasing, as they (visually) can work well with some font-sizing hierarchies, but they can make texts and labels hard to read.

Example 2: particle effects and motion design elements can add a layer of visual sophistication to your website or app. However they can cause confusion for users with motion sickness. Used incorrectly, they can also work against the workflow of the user by sending a conflicting message.

Example 3: alternating background colors, when used correctly, can bring out some UI elements or sections to users’ attention and help guide the eye. However, using longer texts on alternating background colors without ensuring proper contrast between the font color and a dark background can obfuscate the writing or even make it illegible.

Why are aesthetics so difficult to use correctly?

Aesthetics can become a crutch for designers who want to be rewarded or noticed. Meanwhile, good UX design is often invisible and rarely leads to praise or a raise. This doesn’t mean that focusing solely on aesthetics is the better option, even in terms of career advancement, as it can lead to superficial work and poor results when implemented for the final product.

But it’s tempting. Aesthetics make it easier to grab the attention of employers or clients by showcasing the most appealing work in your portfolio. It’s harder to grab attention by presenting robust interactions and functionality in UI. Therefore, many designers find it way more efficient (in the terms of career progression and financial gains) to invest in visual design skills, without any focus paid to fields like interaction design, accessibility or information architecture. This can lead to dangerous knowledge gaps.

There’s also the user perspective. Some visual “tools” and methods should be used in careful moderation to ensure accessibility for people in need of special assistance, and those users who experience permanent or temporary impairments in vision, hearing, mobility or cognition. For example, shifting layouts and elements not only can annoy some users, but they can also render your app useless for people who experience motor skills impairments.

Sometimes, the finer elements of graphic design can make your app inaccessible for users based on the usage context - that is, the when/where/why/how/on what device they are using the app. For example, if you are designing navigation software you should ensure significant contrast levels between elements, so the users who are using it on the phones outside can see the map even if the sun is shining on their screens.

UX goes in tandem with software that does the job

Remember that the first priority for the app you’re working on is answering user needs. It should solve the actual problem users have or help them fulfil real-life tasks. More than that, the app should help users complete their tasks:

  • effectively - the results of the software functionality are as expected,
  • efficiently - users can perform their tasks quickly.

Efficiency is based around several criteria. First, the app shouldn’t cause needless interruptions. Second, the user should be able to work as quickly as possible. Their ability to do so is affected by:

  • the speed of the app - including speed of launch, data processing, etc.,
  • the need to take unnecessary steps,
  • getting data inputs in a user-friendly form,
  • visually bringing out the most important features to the users’ attention.

Third, doing something efficiently means doing it with the least amount of effort possible. This means that they user shouldn’t have to need to read manuals, long explainer texts, etc. The visual design should suggest what elements are related to each other and what their purpose is. This includes planning inputs for features. Optional inputs and advanced features should be appropriately placed in the UI, to make space for primary actions.

Finally, good UX design is error- and stress-free. Reducing the risk of errors involves making inputs and controls obvious to users. It’s also good to provide useful examples, offer suggestions with the UI, and deploy motion design to support the flow of actions. If an error does occur, it’s beneficial to communicate to the user what his or her next steps should be. Signifying critical tasks is also a best practice. If some feature can remove or alter data in a significant way, the user should be informed properly beforehand.

Conclusions

As you can see, good UX design goes well beyond pleasing aesthetics. Although the visual impact of your app is important and can have a real effect on user outcomes, it cannot take precedence over other crucial aspects of design.

iRonin’s product design team has the full skill set necessary to help commercial projects succeed.
If you’d like to improve yours users’ experience and help them achieve their goals, we can help.


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Author's Bio
Piotr Wojciechowski

Product Designer

Software products expert focused on maximizing business value of products and offering great UX. Crafting meaningful solutions with strategic and analytical approach. In love with design systems, inclusive design and user security.

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