Can Ugly be Good UX?
Can an ugly interface lend to a good user experience?
The short answer is yes, it can. The aesthetic is only a part of the interface. However, getting a good UX out of an ugly interface is like trying to drive a car with only the engine, wheels, and steering wheel. It can be done, but it would be a much nicer trip if only you had a windshield, airbags, and doors.
The interface is the medium of user interaction. The user uses the interface, and the interface reacts with whatever its purpose is. I think of an interface as having two main aspects: aesthetic and function. Function is how the interface works and reacts to the user, such as when the user does something they’re not supposed to and alert pops up. Aesthetic is the visual design of the interface, as in color, arrangement of options, and animations. Ugly designs sacrifice aesthetic, but may still have good function. On the other hand, very good-looking designs may have sloppy function.
Regardless of how functional they may be, interfaces that do not have aesthetic very high on the priority list are ignoring a very crucial part of themselves. This handicaps them in a couple of ways. First of all, no one is ever going to experience your excellent navigation or interaction design if they take one look at your interface and think, “Hm, this actually looks like garbage.” Even if the user decides to continue, their experience is already diminished by simply looking at the interface. This leaves the rest of the UX up to the function. Additionally, even if the function of an ugly interface is perfect, a new user might assume that the functionality is also bad, simply based upon how it looks.
None of this is to say that an ugly aesthetic is necessary for a successful interface. Reddit and craigslist have many dedicated users and are very well known. Some sites simply don’t require a fancy aesthetic, such as purely utility interfaces like banking apps and websites.
Some argue that a design improvement would only make the user experience better. I’m not so sure, in part because I know reddit users will find fault with anything, but also because who knows if these interfaces would have gathered the following that they do if they were visually accessible to more people (which seems illogical but requires more time than I have here to explain, so please take my word for it).
It’s difficult to predict what would have happened, especially considering blowback many interfaces face when they make a slight design change (for example: the tweaks Twitter made a few months ago). What I do know is with the exception of those few successful interfaces, an aesthetic is crucial in creating a pleasing first impression.
The first impression is very important, and it’s where the aesthetic comes in the most. Personally, I am more patient with a visually pleasing interface, whereas I am impatient with an ugly UI. The pretty UI can afford to be sloppier (though of course preferably it wouldn’t be) because it has its beauty to fall back on. It generally feels better to navigate a pretty UI than an ugly one, provided they have the same functionality.
The last distinction I want to make is that a good user experience is not just completing your task. The bare minimum does not a good UX make. You should be able to feel good while doing your task. An experience is more of an emotional response, and an interface’s aesthetics bring out that emotional aspect.
Aesthetics are not necessary for a good user experience, but they are crucial in creating a positive emotional response.