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Why the best design is sometimes invisible

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Look in the dictionary and as a noun, the word ‘design’ is defined as either “a pattern used to decorate something” or “a drawing or set of drawings showing how a building or product is to be made and how it will work and look.”

But when we think about design, we often assume it is something that will enhance a product by making it stand out – like a pattern – somehow conferring an extra level of beauty on top of its function.

And yet good design – nay great design – when it is defined as the way in which something looks and works (i.e. a user interface) can itself be invisible.

Sounds like a contradiction?

Think about a design you love…

Stop for a minute and think about a design that you love. Something that brings a warm glow to your heart as you use it.

You might immediately think of an iPhone – especially if you’re one of Apple’s millions of fans, loyal to the brand and its constantly adapting ability to make complex functionality intuitively easy to use. 

You might prefer something like the Alessi ‘Anna G.’ corkscrew. A winning combination of beautiful design (those clever arms!) and simple functionality that allows you to effortlessly open a bottle of wine.

Or perhaps your new love is a carbon road bike with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic gearing, a revolutionary way to change gear faster and with more accuracy.

Whatever it is that you love, the chances are that you love the way in which that product works (smoothly, quickly, effortlessly, efficiently etc.) rather than how it has been designed (with complex coding, detailed algorithms or cutting edge electronic engineering).

Which is a good example of how great design, or a great user interface, when done well, can be much less visible to the user, compared with the pleasure that using the product itself brings. 

Design has to work to be effective 

Chocolate teapot. Chocolate fire guard. Chocolate kettle. 

There’s a reason these phrases are terms of abuse. They’re useless. And not fit for purpose. Sure, you could make a chocolate teapot look incredible. But at the end of the day, it will never hold hot water long enough to be accurately described as a teapot.

And so it is with the best design. Because whenever you think of a product that brings you joy as you use it, there is little doubt that if it didn’t function for the purpose for which is was designed, then you would more than likely throw it away.

A ship can be as luxurious as you like, but it has to function first and foremost as a ship. As the passengers of the Titantic tragically learned to their cost. 

And so a Facebook app must allow you to post your picture. A transactional website must allow you to make a purchase. Or you will go elsewhere. 

Great design is evolutionary 

Effective design often follows a predictable lifecycle. A new product arrives on the market, with ground-breaking functionality. It is then quickly copied and the race begins to differentiate the offering, usually by adding even more features, at the expense of the user experience. 

The winners of this race are then those brands that design a product that incorporates all the features but in a seemingly effortless user interface. Think of how, for example, the Apple IPod – a deliberately late entrant to the market – came to dominate the MP3 market.

Take another example, the evolution of the mobile phone. The first phones were barely mobile. They resembled a brick, with a huge aerial. But they did the job: they allowed you to make phone calls without having to be hooked up to a landline.

After that, mobile phones evolved to become smaller and smaller – until they became almost unusable. Couple that with the ever increasing technology being added to them and something strange began to happen. Mobile phones started to grow in size as they focused less on making calls and more on becoming hand held computers, with huge processing power, that we now take for granted.

As consumers, we are no longer happy to play Snake on the tube home. We want full connectivity wherever we go, with the ability to send emails, take high res photos, surf the net – and make calls 24/7. And it’s great design that allows that to happen without you noticing. 

But make no mistake. That design is incredibly well thought out. 

When keypads with actual buttons (which took up a lot of space – remember those Blackberrys?) were replaced with on-screen virtual keypads that appear and disappear as you need them, that was a huge step forward for design and the overall user experience. 

As consumers, we didn’t care how it was done – just that it worked more effectively and intuitively than ever before.

The best design is constantly changing 

Not only is the best design often invisible, it is constantly evolving. 

Take, for example, online banking. 30 years ago, every interaction you had with your finances had to be done in store. Joining long queues to speak to a teller behind toughed glass, as you revealed your business to everyone else standing there listening! 

Now there’s very little you can’t do on your mobile app. Not only managing your existing accounts but also opening new ones, negotiating better terms, transferring money etc. 

And that’s against a backdrop of banks having to constantly update their security to protect against fraud. 

And yet the user interface keeps getting simpler and easier to use, despite these challenges. Fingerprint recognition to sign in. Automated phone verification to confirm a big transaction. The user interface is ever changing but the end result is that it continues to delight. 

How to create great design that your users will love

Irrespective of whether you are building a brand new website or wanting to launch a mobile app, the importance of well thought out design matters. 

UX Planet, on what makes great design, says “Designing the User Experience is more important than the look of your app. Even for a developer a good UX should be your primary goal of your app. Otherwise less people will use your app and therefore your innovation.”

How you create great design depends on your offering. But the steps to putting your user interface in the backseat remain broadly the same: 

  1. look for pain points you can fix behind the scenes
  2. look for opportunities to automate 
  3. make use of the advances in machine learning and recommendation engines to be more intelligent about what you put in front of users

And remember, user experience (UX) lies at the heart of the very best designs

Looking to create great design? 

If you would like to work with a design driven digital team that understands the importance of a well thought out user interface, then please get in touch with Creative.onl.

We are a small and friendly team with a huge wealth of expertise in: 

  • App development
  • Web development 
  • UX design
  • Digital strategy
  • Responsive web design
  • Graphic design
  • Video animation 
  • Content
  • Marketing support 

And we would love to help you with the design and build of your next product. 

Whatever your requirements, we would be more than happy to talk you through the creative processes of any of our services and products.    

Got questions?

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hello@creative.onl

+44 (0)116 318 0488

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