The Art Of Balancing Beauty And Functionality In Website Development
In a 2003 interview with the New York Times, Steve Jobs said something that ultimately became one of his most oft-quoted axioms:
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Jobs was renowned for his sense of design. Every product he created was visually stunning and ergonomically sublime. And yet, his greatest accomplishment was almost certainly his ability to make technically complex devices accessible to everyday people. He effectively democratised the high-tech market.
At DIGITAL BASE, we believe the same principles should be applied to the visually intense medium of web design. It’s all too easy to focus almost exclusively on how the websites we design look, but the real challenge is in balancing an affinity for design with an understanding of how a website should function. We’re going to explore this balancing act in greater detail on this page.
What Makes a Website Visually Beautiful?
Beauty is a subjective matter. When you determine that one website is more beautiful than another, what you’re really doing is expressing an opinion. Even so, there are certain aesthetic elements that have a predictable effect on the viewer. In other words, there are steps you can take to make a website appear more beautiful to the average audience – and these steps are repeatable.
Even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you can still determine with relative certainty that some sites are more aesthetically pleasing than others. With a talented design team in your corner, you can rest assured that the finished website you ultimately end up publishing is going to be attractive in the eyes of a significant number of users.
A beautiful website will make careful and intentional use of colours, typefaces, image selection and overall layout. Every visual element on the page will be there because it was specifically selected. Even the white space on a well-designed website is there for a reason or to evoke a particular emotional response.
First Impressions Matter in Web Design
As much as we would prefer not to be judged based solely on our looks, the reality is that first impressions really do matter. And this is as true in the world of web design as it is with personal appearance.
When a website has been poorly designed, and the operator clearly isn’t too concerned with how it appears to others, first-time site visitors are going to be less than impressed. It’s easy for them to assume that an equally low level of care and attention has gone into the company’s products and service model.
There’s also a science to how the user’s eye interacts with a web page. Studies have shown that people typically look at a few key elements when they first land on a page:
- Primary header image or graphic
- Company logo and other brand-level imagery
- Any prominent text and lettering
- Main navigation rubric
- Website footer
- Contact information
In a thoughtfully designed website, these elements are predictably positioned so that users can easily find them. In addition, a well-designed site will make an obvious attempt to visually express itself in keeping with the company’s culture and values.
All of this works to create a much stronger first impression – naturally leading to lower bounce rates and higher conversions because the site instils greater consumer confidence.
The Role of Branding in Beautiful Design
Thoughtful design will also take your company’s brand image into account. Any well-established brand will have its own clearly defined visual identity, which informs everything from the colours it prefers to work with and the way it formats headers to the way photographers are expected to set up photo shoots when working for the brand.
All of this works together to ensure that every publication created by the company – including the website – is in harmony with the company’s brand image. Every time a person sees one of the company’s ads or visual presentations, they’re going to subtly note the consistency that runs across this collateral (even if they do so on a subconscious basis). It engenders trust on behalf of the consumer.
At DIGITAL BASE, we understand that many of our clients do not have well-defined brand standards when it comes to design and visual identity. But that doesn’t mean that we have to abandon this endeavour altogether. On the contrary, our experienced designers work with these clients to clarify and articulate the standards that are already in place so that we can further reinforce them through the design work that we complete.
Some Websites Are Much More Functional than Beautiful
When a website prioritises functionality over aesthetics, you end up with a site that serves a purpose even if it isn’t exactly a source of inspiration. But it still works well. Some sites even manage to pull this off reasonably well.
One site that clearly prioritises function over image is Wikipedia. Each page is laid out in a predictable and easy-to-read manner. There’s navigation information at the top of each page, with content divided among clearly marked sections and footnotes and references clearly listed at the bottom. This is a site that has been designed to clearly and efficiently disseminate information.
Forum-like sites also feature functional design with little attention given to appearance. Think of Reddit or Craigslist to get an idea of what we’re talking about. Neither of these websites is winning any awards for the way they look. That said, they are easy to access, search and navigate – and users would likely become irritable if a major design overhaul changed that.
There’s certainly a place on the World Wide Web for functional design that’s less concerned with looks. But in most cases, a balance of the two is in order. And when you begin talking about the importance of beautiful design that’s also highly functional, you’re well into the realm of user experience. More on that in the next section.
Developing for UX: A Beautiful, Functional Approach to Web Design
These days, there’s a lot of talk about user experience (UX) in web design. This conversation has been driven forward by the proliferation of smart devices and multi-touch displays. Users interface with these devices differently than they do through a browser on a laptop or desktop computer. This makes it all the more important that web developers give plenty of thought to how to make their product highly accessible on multiple platforms.
Web pages with intuitive UX are a joy to interact with. Everything about the site is easy and accessible – from its baseline navigation to the manner in which its buttons are clicked, swiped, opened and closed. There’s no need for endless scrolling or clicking to reveal more information. The user experience is – in a word – seamless.
As effortless as a well-designed website is to interact with, it’s quite a difficult and complex thing to create. Doing so requires an intimate understanding of how users will approach the site. This is easier said than done for a designer immersed in the back-end development of a site. It can be difficult to view their finished product from a layman’s perspective.
A gifted web developer, on the other hand, knows how to make sites that make sense. In our experience, gifted UX designers are more difficult to find than reasonably talented graphic website designers. Perhaps the principles of designing for user experience are harder to teach or instil in others. In any event, this is probably why you’re more likely to see visually pleasing websites with usability issues than highly usable sites with poor aesthetics.
The Best Websites Balance Beauty and Usability
If you navigated to this page looking for a verdict on whether usability trumps aesthetics – or vice versa – the answer may be a bit less sensational than you hoped. The reality is that any professionally developed website should accomplish both, and there’s no reason that a company should have to choose one over the other.
At DIGITAL BASE, it has always been our goal to create websites that balance beauty and usability beautifully. To this end, we bring a team of gifted designers and talented UX developers together to collaborate on all of the website design services we complete. They work in tandem to ensure that the designed solutions we hand over to our clients are visually attractive, intuitively laid out and all-around easy to interact with.
The result of this collaboration is far from subtle. We’re proud of the websites we develop. The proof is in our portfolio, as the sites we create for our clients consistently turn out higher levels of engagement and better conversion rates than their predecessors and competitors.
If you’re ready to put this level of high-powered web development to work for you, get in touch with our website design team. We’ll work closely with you at every level of development – from early conception and site mapping to layout, design and staging. And once the site has gone live, we’ll be there to ensure that your website’s user interface facilities operate as expected.