When design doesn’t matter
A pretty visual design isn’t always important (or a good indication of quality)
There was a time when most web apps looked bad.
Then 37signals launched Basecamp. They believed their products should look good and do a few things really well. When they launched Basecamp in 2004, it had a clean, minimalist design that we hadn’t seen in a web app before. It wasn’t long before other SaaS apps emerged with a similar design aesthetic.
For those of us buying software, an unspoken rule emerged: software with a nice visual design = better software.
And for a long time, the rule held true. Software that looked good was often better than its uglier counterparts.
Let me tell you a story about web hosting
After years of suffering with a low-cost web host, I decided to find something new. I was fed up with poor up-time, slow load times, and bad customer support. I needed something better, so I started evaluating my options.
Anyone who’s tried to compare managed hosting providers knows what a pain it is: spammy review sites, 100 item feature lists, and cheap looking marketing pages.
Finally I found a provider that stood out from the crowd; largely because they had a beautifully designed website. I demoed the backend hosting tools: they were beautiful too!
I signed up. They were 4x the cost of my previous provider, but I felt that anyone that cared about design, cared about quality.
I was wrong.
As I started to use their service, the pretty veneer faded away and revealed an ugly truth: they weren’t reliable. This meant frequent downtime, slow customer support, and an interface that “looked nice” but was cumbersome to use.
After a few years of using this new provider, I switched again. This time, I chose a web host recommended by Rob Walling. They were way more expensive, but delivered on the things that really mattered:
- they were blazing fast
- they had almost perfect uptime
- they could handle a lot of traffic
- they had great customer support
Notice that “beautiful design” isn’t on that list. The design of their website and their back-end is basic, utilitarian, and (dare I say it) a little ugly. They won’t be winning any design awards, but they have won my business.
A pretty design won’t keep you in business
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not saying that the principles of design don’t matter. They do, especially when applied to structure, flow, readability and navigation. Good interface design helps users get things done, and creates great experiences.
But making your app “prettier” isn’t going to keep you in business. Solving legitimate problems for customers (who can pay you) keeps you in business.
A snappy looking design might get me in the door, but once I’m in, you’re going to need to deliver where it really matters. I’ve been to a restaurant where the sign on the outside was in Comic Sans, but the food on the inside was incredible. It’s the product that matters.
This is also why building a better looking x isn’t a startup strategy. You’ve built a better looking CMS; so what? How does that help me, as a business owner, close more deals? You want to build a better looking Craigslist? Will it load faster on my 3G phone? If not, why would I bother?
Don’t ever prioritize a product’s looks over its function. In your desire to emulate the pixel perfect designs you see on Path, Mailbox, and Pinterest you could miss a crucial ingredient: does your product make the user better at completing their task?
Ultimately, the only thing customers care about is outcomes. What’s the use of a pretty design if it doesn’t help me get my work done? People want apps that solve a pain, are efficient and reliable (and have support when you need it). Startups should focus more on making it “work good” than making it “look good”.
Technical details, such as stroke modulation and letter fit in font design, are just a means toward an end. It is easy for those of us who have spent years studying these fields to lose sight of the fact that the means are not the end, and desirable ends can sometimes be reached by unusual means. - Shawn Hargreaves
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Photo: Bricklin SV-1, 15 April 2007, Thomas doerfer. The Bricklin had a progressive design aesthetic, but was voted by Time Magazine as one of the worst performing cars ever made.