Usability Doesn’t Have to Be Ugly

    November 7, 2005

There is a balance that needs to be struck between a website that is truly functional and one that is elegant and stylish.

In an ideal world, the function and usefulness of a particular website or product should be married to its sense of style and beauty. This is not easy to achieve.

I’ve just bought a Dell X1 laptop. The reason I bought it is because it’s small and light. It does all the things I want from a laptop, and it’s stylish. It feels good to use. Previously, I had bought two IBM X31s, which I also very much liked. However, when I went back to the ThinkPad website, I found it so confusing I left in frustration.

When my new X1 hibernates, the green power light slowly goes on and off, as if it’s sleeping and thus breathing softly. I believe this is an innovation that Apple introduced some years ago. This is a simple thing but it’s nice.

Of course, Apple knows a lot about style and simplicity. They have generally made elegant products that are useful and easy to understand. That’s a pretty rare combination I have found.

It seems that function and style operate in two different parts of the brain. It’s unusual to find someone who can make something both useful and elegant. I have come across websites that are functional but ugly. The designers of these websites don’t see the point in tidying things up and making them look stylish. In fact, there can be a disdain for making things pretty.

I remember once reading an article in Wired Magazine about an Italian clothes house that wanted to dress up some Silicon Valley geeks. The geeks seemed to pride themselves on their lack of style, and were amused at the idea of Italian style.

Visual designers would embrace Italian style. They care very much about how they look, and about how the products they create look. They are as concerned about the type of font as the type of language.

Personally, language is my thing. I am somewhat obsessive about words. If you combine them properly you can achieve something very powerful. One word removed or added can make a huge difference to the meaning and elegance of a sentence.

The rise in interest in usability in recent years is resented by many visual designers because it lacks grace. In their opinion, it is obsessed with the nuts and bolts of things and doesn’t understand the emotional and aesthetic aspects of design.

There are certainly many highly usable websites that are not very pleasing on the eye. I think this is partly due to the fact that the Web is still young, and that we are still working on getting the nuts and bolts to work well.

It is also due to the fact that the Web is a highly functional space. Therefore, usefulness drives success more than any other factor. However, there is always room for style and grace. That which has substance can also have elegance.

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