UI Design

On the continuing importance of great visual design

Here’s what’s on my mind today: With all the incredible advances in mobile technology in particular, I remain utterly shocked and surprised at the vast number of systems, games, apps and even devices that exhibit stunningly poor visual design. I guess I feel like anyone who’s paying attention should have learned at this point that the stuff that sticks is also the stuff that visually engages, enhances and  communicates. But companies keep trying to do otherwise… and they keep failing. And I am finding that when I look closer, to figure out why there’s no user loyalty or adoption or market share or sales, et. al, the answer to the issue is unanimous, no matter who the company is or what the product may be:

No designers were involved in the making of this product.

It should come as no surprise that we are all being constantly overwhelmed by what’s commonly referred to as “marketing pollution” – a monstrous amount of images, messages and experiences that are pretty much worthless. We’ve reached a point in history where most of us tune out just as much as we consume — if not more.

And as this stuff proliferates, and as marketers exploit advances in technology and platform delivery, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern between what might matter or be useful to us and what’s just, well, noise.

The more choices we have, the harder it is to decide between them. The more stimuli we’re exposed to, the less impactful or memorable any of it is. The paradox of choice, first discussed in 2004 in a book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, is certainly alive and well.

“Everything is design. Everything!” – Paul Rand

Natoli's mantra: "Tell A Compelling Story!"To me, the answer to this conundrum has always been – and will always be — great visual design. No amount of usability engineering or UX strategy, no matter how brilliant it may be, will solve anything without great design. The mantra I used to give my students (and later my employees) was “Tell a Compelling Story!” Unless you move someone in some meaningful way — be it emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical — whatever you’re putting out there is just more noise.

We’re lucky to be living in an age where radical advancements in technology have provided some revolutionary ways to deliver information — in particular mobile touchscreen devices. Touch is the most intimate of the senses, and these phones and tablets that we’re swiping at all day provide a measurably more meaningful experience, a heightened sense of involvement and control.

The thing is, telling a compelling story, at its core, has nothing to do with technology. But it has a whole lot to do with visual design, visual communication. From desktop experiences to mobile apps to virtual worlds, digital experiences are, above all else, deeply human. And it is design, primarily, that makes them so. Great design is all about people, their mindsets and behaviors; their culture, in other words. And when design works, it’s because the designer understands the culture he or she is designing for.

Users don’t design – Designers Do

Understand, I am certainly among the converted when it comes to the value of Usability, User-Centered Software Design, and of course User Experience. But I believe firmly that none of them can succeed without being joined at the hip to superior Visual Graphic Design, Information Design and Interaction Design. One look at Jakob Nielsen’s website — along with a large number of other folks claiming to be UX or usability experts – will show you that not everyone agrees with me. That’s OK, of course.

But they’re still wrong.

Any designer or developer worth the title knows that even the most feature-rich application with dazzling functionality will be flat-out rejected if the visual design sucks. And that’s not because people are superficial; it’s because visual design is a key function of the way the world works. The majority of information we process comes to us visually. So of course visual design matters; it’s a key component of effective communication. We have all, from an early age, learned to judge and understand things based on what we see — and how it relates to what we’ve seen previously.

So in the role of user, we all notice things we don’t like, don’t want, don’t understand. And all of the complaining, abstaining or explaining we do can often lead to insightful observations about why we’re not responding to something as expected. The chain reaction of ideas and potential improvements that comes from user research, study and testing is a big part of designing anything that’s going to work. Please understand, I am not in any way suggesting this isn’t important.

No story = no interest

Compelling visual storytelling, the need to think and act more visually, has never been as important as it is right now in 2012. If you don’t believe that, have a look at a few things called Facebook Timeline, Pinterest, and Instagram, which just happen to be giving new meaning to user loyalty, along with reinventing the phrase “show, don’t tell”.

Creating a visual vocabulary that communicates with people and blends with their culture, that conveys promise, raises expectations, that implies a complex set of values created through experience — is a damn tall order. Great visual design requires more than simple translation; it requires an interpreter between sender and receiver. And for my money, the best interpreters have always been designers. A countless number of great ideas have turned into bad designs because the creators couldn’t translate what they knew about  the audience’s culture into visual form.

Users will never design an immersive, innovative experience that creates a value loop for both provider and consumer. Usability Engineers, Information Architects and UX analysts will never design a UI whose visual cues, color scheme and typography all work to deliver and reinforce a core brand value proposition or deliver an emotional experience that is the heart of brand loyalty and user adoption.

Designers, however — with the help of all the aforementioned groups — can and will deliver all of that.

And the truly great ones will deliver a whole lot more.

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