Why style matters
There’s a misconception which I occasionally find myself up against, that designers are the people who make things look nice. Well yes as it happens, we can do that (amongst many other things), but to consider the designer as a stylist is to really miss the point. We are of course there to humanise machines and technology, making things fit people and their needs.
In the UX field my work is very varied and can involve everything from team taskflow mapping to re-designing navigation systems, but typically it is styling work which people most often expect from a designer. I find that when working with left-brained people of a technical bias, visual design or styling can often be a difficult area to navigate, and requires careful consideration on my part to help clients reach a satisfying solution.
As both an industrial and a UX designer, I’ve regularly found myself working on quite technical and specialist products, the users of which will likely be educated and highly trained in a certain engineering discipline. When working on these products I am often handed a spec at my initial briefing which goes into considerable detail on functional requirements, costs and time-scales. When it comes to the more subjective ‘look and feel’ though, details are light, and my inquiry often elicits the response “our users just want it to work, they don’t care about style.”
I recently received one such brief for a product that helps users analyse large chunks of wind data from met masts, which are placed at possible wind farm sites to appraise their potential prior to construction of any turbines starting. The brief went into great detail about technical requirements, covered some other factors and then simply stated ‘no styling required.’ The product owner had deemed styling work his lowest priority, and had elected to save money by focusing on other tasks he thought would return more value. Whilst I understood the reason for this focus, I felt a better visual design could have real impact on the UX, and could deliver on the functional criteria mentioned in the spec, such as speed of operation and cross-sales.
In situations like this, I need to be able to explain clearly to my colleagues the value styling can return when applied effectively. It’s a subjective, hard to define quality that is notoriously difficult to put in a spec and to evaluate during development. For this reason, quite understandably, left-brained people not used to design work can sometimes struggle to know what to do with it. This is where a designer, more used to working with all that fuzzy, right-brained stuff as well as the left, can really help, but needs to deliver if he or she is going to win people over.
The visual design of any product has enormous impact on how users perceive and engage with that product. A good-looking product is more pleasurable to use, and communicates a greater sense of quality than an ugly one. Anyone using it – even a very rational, left-brained user – makes emotional decisions as well as logical ones, and an appropriate style will encourage emotional engagement that makes for a more satisfied customer. Considered use of style and colour can assist users in processing on-screen information, for example helping them find relevant UI controls, spot errors and quickly scan large quantities of data. Consistency in visual design means users get familiar with common components, and cognitive load is reduced, which in turn can mean faster learning and faster workflows.
Recently I’ve been considering style in software design projects at DNV GL, exploring different aesthetics to find the most appropriate visual design for each of our upcoming products. This work has resulted in a series of high-fidelity mock-ups which for the first time in one months-long project have given a glimpse of how our future product may really appear on-screen. The response from the team has been one of excitement and enthusiasm, giving them something to proudly show to others when they say ‘look what we’re making, it’s going to be great.’ Several different colleagues have told me that the product shown in the mock-ups seems to be a more professional, high quality one than what we had at last release. The style has improved the way even we, designers and developers, think of our own creation and is certain to have a positive impact on the UX.
Executed well, a considered and consistent visual design will make a real difference to how people perceive, use and feel about your product. Invest the time in working on it and you will have more interested, engaged and ultimately satisfied customers.