Design can often be defined as making something look ‘decorative’ or ‘aesthetically pleasing’. But when you deep dive into the design for a website, progressive web app (PWA) or a native app, it becomes a lot more complex. While the user interface (UI) does relate to the design, the focus is not solely on making something that looks good, but importantly on maximising usability. And this goes hand in hand with the user experience (UX), which focuses on how a user interacts with and experiences a product, system or service. It includes a person's perceptions of utility, ease of use, and efficiency.
The UX Law of Aesthetic Usability states that users often perceive aesthetically pleasing design as design that’s more usable. And ultimately, a good UI can help with the UX… but only to a degree. Where the UX then fails, a good UI can’t step in. Which explains the warning in the second part of the above mentioned law: visually pleasing design can mask usability problems and prevent issues from being discovered during usability testing.
Though a user would much rather use a website with brilliant UX and an unattractive UI than the reverse, ultimately, these two go hand in hand. And the important addition? The expectation of the user too. What people expect is different based on the personality of your brand and what they’re looking to do. Getting the balance right is vital.
Take GOV.UK as an example. It states itself on the homepage that its aim is to be ‘the best place to find government services and information’. It even states that it’s ‘simpler, clearer, faster’ - a key indicator in what they were looking to achieve with the site. A quick look at the site and it’s obvious that it’s purpose is to be an information portal; a place where people go when they want government updates, need to review or apply for something, or fact check. You don't expect the site to excite you but you do expect it to deliver information to you quickly without many (or any by today's standard) barriers in the process.
To that end, it doesn’t need to be the most ‘aesthetically pleasing’ site out there (depending on your definition of aesthetically pleasing, of course). The focus on the usability element of the site, the UX, is paramount and the UI fully supports that and enhances that function. A site like GOV.UK, aimed at such a broad audience, is therefore able to do its job successfully while offering a simple and understated visual design that made it one of the leading government websites in the world when it won Design of the Year in 2013. Since then, it’s no surprise that it's a design writer's go-to example when talking about this subject.
On the flipside, think of a site like Apple. Apple’s mission is to bring the best user experience to its customers through innovative hardware, software and services, which explains why its product landing pages are very engaging. Considering what the user expects from not only the brand, but the product, offering a UI like GOV.UK’s just wouldn’t work. You want to be taken on a journey and be wow’d with the newest additions and enhancements. Side note: It’s particularly impressive how they’re able to ‘wow’ people with features they’ve clearly borrowed from their competitors, but package up to make it sound like it was their idea.
But that doesn’t mean that all product sites would insist on this level of UI. Consider Dell as a tech alternative. Its purpose is to create technologies that drive human progress. So you still might be looking to purchase a device for example, but your expectations of the brand and what you’re looking for differ to that of a person shopping for an Apple product. You buy from Dell for a no frills, on-a-budget experience. You buy from Apple because you believe they provide the best experience going, even if it costs you twice as much.
This is why the UX / UI of a digital product is so important but also why a designer can’t and shouldn’t rinse and repeat one UI / UX for another. The brand is different, its mission is different and the user expectations are different. It’s what excites us as an agency and why we do what we do. Understanding how each of these elements work in tandem for each brand and bringing that to life is exciting, whether you’re delivering a site like GOV.UK or one for Apple.