Getting past "pretty"
You can’t solve your problems with a fresh coat of paint
Let’s say a company comes to our firm interested in hiring us. We’ll call them SynergyCo.
They make about $100 million/year in revenue selling a niche software product. They’ve had their market cornered in the past, but now some startup competitors are making trouble for them. They’re losing customers.
What do they ask for?
“We think the app just needs a fresh coat of paint.”
We hear this a lot, so we smile and keep talking. When the time comes for us to evaluate the application, we find all kinds of problems:
- It’s so confusing that the user has to go through multiple training sessions in order to use it correctly
- The most common user goals require an excessive number of clicks to complete
- Important information is buried within unimportant information
- The product doesn’t provide feedback to the user when a task is completed successfully, leaving the user feeling uneasy
- Instead of intelligently interpreting the user’s input, such as understanding a date with slashes instead of hyphens, the application gives the user an error message
- Because the real value is hidden behind a confusing interface, the users don’t appreciate what the application can really do
Beyond the application itself, we find many similar issues with how they’re selling it, both online and offline:
- The site messaging is unclear and doesn’t really explain what the product even does
- The pricing packages are confusing
- The site doesn’t provide enough information to help the user commit to buying
- The site talks about quality but doesn’t actually feel high quality, leaving users feeling skeptical
- No clear calls to action or lead capture opportunities
- Contact information is difficult to find
- They rely on advertising to compensate for weak customer interest
As a result, the product is suffering from a number of negative consequences:
- Underlying sense of frustration or anxiety when using the product
- High user abandonment
- Low word-of-mouth referral rate
- Poor reputation in the marketplace
- Poor search engine performance due to lack of customer interest
This sounds like a terrible situation, but it’s really not. Every one of these is a solvable problem, and a good design team can knock them out one at a time, eliminating obstacles until there’s no longer anything holding this product back from runaway success.
Unfortunately, because humans are naturally visual creatures, we tend to get distracted by aesthetics. When this company looks at their competitors, they don’t see the effortless and intuitive user interface, the fraction-of-a-second load times, the clear flow between states, the logical data hierarchies, the intelligent interpretation of user input, or any of the rest of it.
What they see is that their competitors look prettier than they do, so they attribute the success of their new challengers to the aesthetic difference.
Then, when we come back to them with a proposed solution involving user research, prototyping, architecture, and so on, they wave their hands and say:
“No, no, no, you don’t understand. We don’t need all that. We just want you to make us look fresh and modern, like our competitors.”
It’s always frustrating when this happens—and it happens a lot—because we can see plainly that their company is dying. They still have customers and revenue, but complacency in the face of sharp competition is the beginning of the end for software companies.
But we can’t blame them for not seeing it, because most people don’t see it. The bias toward solving design problems through aesthetics is a strong one, and it’s easy for people to fall into that trap.
So we start from the beginning. We coach them. We talk them through it. We show them examples. We walk them through case studies. We explain to them how deep design, not superficial aesthetic modifications, can make a tremendous difference in how users feel about a product.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Over the years we’ve become pretty good at convincing people of the reasons for doing it right, but every once in a while, one slips by us. They thank us for our time, and then go find a designer who’ll give them the “fresh coat of paint” they’re looking for.
When we follow up with them a few years later, they’re usually still floundering at best, and out of business at worst.
At our company (which includes not just designers but developers, project managers, salespeople, executives, and others), everyone knows that we have a mandatory sentencing law regarding the phrase “make it pretty.” If they if they use it, they know I’m automatically going to stop what I’m doing and give them a 15-minute “Design Isn’t Prettymaking” lecture—even if I know they already know it.
(This also applies to comments like “Just put a layer of polish on it” or “It’s technical so it doesn’t have to be formatted” or “Who cares what font it’s in?” or “I don’t understand why designers obsess about all that trivial stuff,” any of which will trigger me to book some time on someone’s calendar for a friendly chat.)
It’s a silly tradition, and I’m frequently teased for it. I hear the word “pretty” far more in a typical day now (in jest, of course) than I ever did before I started making a fuss about it. I love that, though, because it tells me our company understands and remembers what design really is.
To break it down, design is NOT:
- Personal preference
- Results oriented
- Research driven
We don’t expect everyone to know this when they first talk to us, because most people actually have very little understanding of what design is all about. However, I absolutely expect everyone to know these things by heart once we’ve had some time to interact with them.
Design matters, and there’s a lot more to it than just being “pretty.” If anything, prettiness is just a natural byproduct of the design process, rather than a goal in itself.