Great design probably isn’t for you

Design critiques shouldn’t be as subjective as art critiques

Great design is when software is obvious in its use and brilliantly opinionated in it’s style. And it’s so under-appreciated and difficult that it’s an ego goal for many in the industry.

The definition looks like an obvious statement, but it works and it’s vital to have a clear definition, even if it seems obvious. If we don’t know why we’re designing better than just “obvious and simple” then our extra design efforts are a vanity project that mightn’t affect the customers or the business.

I’ll pull apart this idea using Stripe as an example. Their site and various elements have enough complexity to compare and contrast.

Obvious but not very opinionated — The Stripe App

With this categorisation you can get to “good design” quite easily. You do this by following standards and leaning heavily on good engineering without having too much of an inclination towards originality or fashion.

Stripe’s app shows this perfectly.

The Stripe app home screen, obvious but not really opinionated

It’s usability is to me without question. Clear layouts and decent hierarchies display information clearly, and anyone who has worked with Stripe knows it covers most use cases very well. However their bootstrapp-y visual style and arrangement do not give off the idea of a company pushing modernism to the leading edge.

Stripe is a company famed for their ease of use for developers though, and here there is a bit more opinion in their design, even if it’s not always visual. From their very easy api, their documentation all the way to the “live data/test data” switch in their interface they provide perhaps the easiest developing experience around. You could argue that this part of their experience is the most opinionated and obvious.

Obvious and opinionated UI — Stripe becomes great

However, Stripe have started taking steps towards design greatness. And it’s with their recently updated marketing pages and radar, which are, to me, opinionatedly designed UIs of great beauty. homepage. Modern, obvious, delightful and very opinionated
Stripes newest product get the most opinionated of page

I recommend going to both these pages to interact with them fully. The homepage has some delightful aspects such as the different app mock ups you see when you refresh the page. And the radar page has the smoothest 3D element I’ve seen used in a UI in the spinning multi sided shape. There’s lots to explore on these pages.

With this idea in mind we can push past the surface “wow” aspect to why they are actually great. They are great because they balance the obviousness of interaction and the opinionated design in a way that is one the leading examples (for the end of 2016) in beautiful web design.

Also to note is great design instinct is partly the judgement call between modernism and the fashion movements within modernism. The balance between the two is the difference between climate and weather. You have to react to them individually and in conjunction at all times.

You can see this changing balance when comparing the two pages above to Stripes’ older marketing pages connect and subscriptions. Both are usable and modern, but are less opinionated in their original design and also look dated as fashions are moving on a bit.

Using this better understanding of the design quality we can start to analyse the risks and limited benefits of pushing your design standard to this level.

We shouldn’t all do this

To achieve the level of opinionated great design that is on stripes marketing pages is, in a word, expensive. All those little details, the custom tweaked interactions and pure fashionable knowledge takes expensive people a lot time. The level of good design on stripes app is, in a word, achievable. That’s not to say it’s easy, but a decent team of designers of various sorts and good developers will achieve something near that usability and obviousness given time and good data.

“How dare you say we shouldn’t all strive for this, goals are important!”

I have been pushed back on before by people saying this. I agree we should all strive for modern, simple usability. But to strive for the interface itself to be this opinionated and beautiful when you don’t have the resources is a nonsense.

The simplest and easiest way to prove it’s a nonsense is to compare it to engineering. Competent small companies never strive to have as good and as complex a technological stack as the largest companies. If your manager suggested as much it would be a sign to leave to more sane pastures. The same applies to design.

It’s so expensive, so why do it at all

The major benefit in going from good to great design is simply aura and self congratulation.

That’s it, but that’s worth it at times. It can make your company internally feel great, it can mean the difference between your customer using your product and loving, recommending your product.

I’m reminded of the old advertising quote “only 20% 0f my advertising does anything, I just don’t know which 20”. In affect, great design is like old school advertising. It’s beautiful, expensive and painfully hard to measure the immediate benefits. You can tweak buttons and test conversion, but testing an overall gradual, stylistic change is difficult and qualitative.

And that’s who should strive for great, those who have the time, money or just natural taste to push for it and put the time into measuring it. For everyone else understanding the standard you should push to given your human and financial constraints will allow you the relief and clear scope so you don’t constantly disappoint yourself when you’re only good. Because good design is perfect for most of us.