Pretty Is Relative

In interface design, pretty is a secondary task. The primary task is to achieve a balance between form and function. In this article I would like to explain why this is important, and why it should be taken to heart by every interface designer.

The interface is what separates the user from the raw functionality of an application, game or website. In a car, the interface is the clutch, the speeder, the brake and the steering wheel. It’s what makes the functionality accessible; it’s what makes it useful.

My primary objective in designing an interface is to empower the user and make as much of the functionality accessible, transparently and easily. In a nutshell: my goal is to make sure that the form follows the function.

Essentially, the form/function mantra spells it out for me. It unveils before me a rather narrow path I have to tread in order for the end-result to uphold and respect this principle.

For websites and applications, conventions established by countless previous interfaces dictate where most things go. If I stick to these conventions and make sure functionality works like users expect, I don’t have to teach them a thing. Every time user assumptions prove right, they will feel more comfortable and empowered. In game interfaces, things are slightly different as the user willingly enters a fictional realm created purely for entertainment purposes. For the sake of having fun, users are willing to learn new rules.

Common to all interfaces though, is that there is a time and place for pretty and that is more or less strictly dictated by the function of our product. Knowing when to prettify and when not to is crucial in ensuring a good product.

Leaving things alone can be difficult for a designer. It’s in our nature to want to add our personal touch, to want to show how pretty things can be. Alas, making things pretty rarely means making them useful, so before breaking rules set out by precedents, we’d better make sure that there’s a damn good reason for doing so. If we do not, we run the risk of simply adding visual clutter, confusing and detracting from the result with every stroke of the brush. There’s a reason most spoons look alike; it’s a tested design and it works pretty well.

Keep in mind, though: respecting functionality doesn’t mean we should simply perpetuate a design that we know works. Sometimes the formula can be improved upon and sometimes there’s simply no precedent. When this happens we need to rely on experience, gut feeling and extensive testing.

In my experience a good interface design goes by unnoticed. I jump in and know how things work, how to go about my business. The cog-wheels of the engine beneath grind creak and turn exactly the way I expect them to. The badly designed interface, on the other hand, immediately stings my eye. I get annoyed that I have to learn how a particular feature works simply because the designer chose to “spiff it up” when I know things could’ve been different, simpler and more useful. In some cases I become reluctant or simply too annoyed to explore features. Even if the designer means well by touching things up, doing so might just tip the delicate balance of form and function.

In the end, what we think is pretty will fade or change given time. What was pretty twenty years ago might not be pretty today. Mullets come and go like the tides, so learn to spot the mullet and try to avoid it. As interface designers we should teach ourselves to let go of our pride and put less focus on pretty. Taking the back seat to function is not a cop-out; it’s taking the high road. Walking the thin line between adding to and detracting from the functionality is no easy challenge. Who ever said simplicity was simple? The real challenge is to make things as pretty as possible within the confines given to us. If we can’t do that, we should settle for functional. After all, pretty is relative.