Making Your UI Stand Out (and Justified) – UX Planet
‘Too good to be true’ is just like saying ‘good looking people have something to hide’. It’s a shame that this standard exists in real-life, but more surprisingly between designers. So how should we actually critique UI? What makes good UI good?
I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to anything design related. Just ask any team I’ve worked on and they’ll likely mention my meticulous slideshow formatting (which I find oddly therapeutic). In all honesty, I take pride in making things look a certain way because I know the effort is much appreciated by the audience; but not so much by other designers.
Usually, when we’re dealing with anything in the creative world, the term “compensation” refers to some form of payment or royalty in exchange for a logo, a piece of art or a song. However, as I spend more time amongst designers, particularly student designers, that term had come up more frequently to describe how something that is aesthetically-pleasing cannot possibly be equally functional.
Yes, apparently beauty is only HTML-deep.
We’ve all been through middle school, so I’m certain we all know how beauty-shaming works in the context of society (as immature as we may have been). As I reflect on my own efforts (and slideshows), I think to myself: what exactly makes good UI good? Let’s go over some basics.
So what is UI?
To me, UI design is a combination of a couple of things:
Functionality covers the presence and placement of action items on an interface. This generally includes buttons, text fields, icons and descriptions among other things, and is usually what you would focus on in wireframes and low-fidelity prototypes. It tackles the cognitive elements of design that tell us for what purpose a feature exists.
Branding refers to the color palette, typography, and overall style. When we think about Spotify’s interface, we think of the green and black, the geometric san serif typeface, the rounded buttons, the whole lot. This ties into the look and feel of their brand as a company, and induces the type of experience that they’ve set out to create. It is usually what is seen extensively throughout their mobile and web interface.
Last but not least, trends. Often times we don’t really think about it, but here’s a thought: how does the fashion industry establish what’s ‘in’ this year? What makes the cut for the runway at Paris Fashion Week? It’s likely not up to you or me.
Just like fashion, design has some head honchos who occasionally give us their two-cents on what’s popping. Take for instance Google Material Design, which has done a tremendous job in setting a standard in at least the Android-side of design world. Because companies such as Google have the capacity to launch guidelines and have them adopted by the masses, trends like these become synonymous to a north star for designers all over. Simply put, we cannot discount how trends have shaped the way we design practically everything today.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you why art didn’t make the cut.
Designing UI is not like creating art
What’s a modern-day music video without adding that signature 1980’s film grain and VHS date stamp on top? It’s almost 2019, and here we are purposely reducing the quality of our industrial 4K-resolution cameras for artistic direction.
Unlike these music videos, UI is not like art.
One difference between art and UI is that art is meant to be an expression of the artist, whereas, UI is meant to be an expression of the viewer. In fact, late italian designer Massimo Vignelli once said that
“Design is not art. Design is utilitarian, art is not.”
That being said, when was the last time you looked at a notebook doodle and said ‘Wow, that product-market fit is uncanny’? Compare that to the last time you designed an interface and said ‘You know, this just doesn’t speak to my soul’. In other words, what we do for art and what we do for design are different.
Another comparison would be that the more people speculate the meaning and intention of your art, the more valuable it is perceived. However, the more people have to think about your UI, the more of a headache it is to use. With this difference in mind, why is it that we still critique designs as if they were art pieces?
Critiquing UX vs UI
When talking about UX, it’s very easy to know when something is not right because of logic and reasoning. We can tell if when actions are over-complicated and when use cases don’t line up with interactions. What’s odd is that we can point out these things almost instantly, but when critiquing UI, it’s a different story.
I used to have an art teacher in high school who would grade our work based on whether they personally liked it or not. In the same respect, designers alike tend to impose their own standards of what they believe good UI looks like. Given that most designers do come from a visual arts background, it’s not surprising that we see a lot of subjective criticism. Worse yet, we seem to stay away from critiquing someone’s UI in fear of either offending them or not being able to justify our feedback.
In a world where UI and art seem to become intertwined, how do we separate the two from each other and how do we really improve our designs?
How to improve your UI
The obvious way to improve your design is to test it out and see what your users have to say. That being said, here are five other ways to improve your UI game and become a better designer.
Be aware of what you are adding
As designers, we build products for users and not ourselves, so whenever an artistic element is added, you want to be aware that it may not be received the way you want it.
When asked about why the Otto app has a lot of screens, we justified it through our knowledge of how complex the car repair process was. By breaking up the process into screens with minimal information, we were able to simplify the process for our users who were confused with traditional servicing. Being aware of the design choices you make helps you justify your decisions when being critiqued. Everything happens for a reason.
Understand your industry
An example I like to use is the texting interface (chat bubbles, ellipsis) that can be seen across virtually all messaging apps. The format has become so ubiquitous that most designers use its popularity and ease of understanding to their advantage.
We want our designs to stand out, but sometimes it helps to see what other players in your industry are doing. Knowing what works and what doesn’t can save you a lot of time and energy, as well as give you insights for crafting your next interface.
Take calculated risks
I know I’ve made the whole process seem monotonous, but UI design can be an exciting thing to explore. Without experimentation, our designs could not evolve in what they are today. However, we must understand the risks involved with doing so.
Trying out a new UI between test groups is always supported because it might provoke new insights and better usability. However, putting out UI to the public has more inherent risk associated, because it does put the company on the line. This is especially volatile when designing for startups because often times, they don’t have internal protocols for properly testing UI changes.
Watch for trends
Like it or not, following trends is a one way to stay ahead of the curve. There’s a reason why Material Design is popular, and it’s not just because Google said so. In fact, they have teams bigger than small companies who work to develop and research the best ways to communicate information and engage with users.
Seeing what big companies are doing, reading case studies and following your favorite designers can give you a glimpse into how design and society changes over time. Rather than trying to think differently, try to understand why certain design trends exist and see how you can utilize them.
While this doesn’t tie directly into physically designing things per say, it does enable us to think more like designers and less like artists. Asking questions allows us to critique other people’s designs better because we focus on their justification rather than our own judgements.
By doing so, we allow the designer themselves to understand if their reasoning makes sense, instead of imposing our own thoughts without consideration of functionality and branding.
This is how a healthy design critique is done without beauty-shaming. This is how we foster strong design communities that grow together. This is how we become better designers.