What is a Beautiful User Experience?

Vancouver’s Stanley Park Sea Wall. Photo by Gabriel Santiago

“Beautiful” is a loaded word often talked about in terms of feelings, emotions, and the intangible. And that’s ok for most things. But it makes it difficult to have “Beautiful UX” as a goal when you can’t really articulate what it means.

This may appear to be an unimportant thing to define, but at least for us at ACL, it is at the core of what we do. In fact, ACL’s corporate mission is as follows:

Deliver a beautiful customer experience through the planet’s only cloud-based, data driven GRC solution.

It’s important for us to understand what we even mean by that. I believe we can. Here goes.

Pretty ≠ Beautiful

Just because something looks good does not mean it is beautiful. As designers, we often cringe when others say, “Make it pretty.” I know it drives me crazy.

Sidenote: I think I need a shirt with Samuel L. Jackson on it saying, “Ask me to make it pretty one more time, motherf@#$%&!

We aren’t decorating a UI, we’re solving problems. We are user advocates. Obviously something that is well designed can, and should, look amazing. I’m not saying otherwise. Products that are aesthetically pleasing are more enjoyable to use, which means they will get used more, and are seen as more trustworthy. Misalignments, wrong colours being used, not enough white space, too much white space; these can all take away from a beautiful UX.

But making a product aesthetically pleasing is not the only ingredient in making a successful and useful product. Let’s not perpetuate the idea that designing is simply making things pretty.

User needs trump bells and whistles

A product that has one killer feature but doesn’t allow a user to actually do anything does not provide a beautiful user experience. It is design for design’s sake and may as well be a component in a UI framework. For example: imagine if Hipmunk had only a date range input. It could be the best date range input the world has ever seen (theirs really is quite nice, actually), but it still would not be a useful product, or a beautiful user experience. Hipmunk provides a beautiful user experience because of what happens after you’ve made your query (and used the amazing date range picker).

Users have needs from the products they use. If the experience we provide leaves them hanging, they’ll become frustrated or, worse yet, stop using the product altogether.

Beautiful design allows a user to complete a task in an efficient and enjoyable manner.

Anticipating the next move

If a user cannot understand what they should do next, they are not having a beautiful experience. And while we can’t always know what someone will want to do next, we should have an optimized experience for the most common paths.

A friend of mine once shared an analogy (paraphrased here) that I think illustrates this quite nicely.

Software should be the user’s apprentice. It should be ready to hand them their next tool, clean up mistakes, and learn how they do things over time.

Anticipating the next move means we’ve thought about the user, and not just the feature. Features are good, but they exist only as tools for the user. How features and user flows are connected can make or break the ease of use of a product. Our job as designers should be to have the software feel like the apprentice — clearing away the messy stuff to allow the master to efficiently complete their task.

Surely this isn’t a comprehensive definition of what Beautiful UX entails, but hopefully it’s a step in the right direction. If you have ideas on what else should be a part of this definition, please add a reply. I’d love to have more tangible discussions around what it means to provide quality customer experiences and the role design plays in making it happen.

At its most basic level, I think that means designers need to step away from their desires and view the product through the lens of their users. That sounds simple enough, but can be a challenge in practice.

Let’s make more beautiful experiences in software.