“Prettiness” is relative.

November 6, 2007

Topics: Usability, Web Development.

At least, in the final reckoning.

Something which comes up over and over in my work is the tendency of clients to request design changes which I don’t particularly care for. This isn’t to say that they’re ugly, per se — after all, the fact that I don’t like them isn’t actually equal to “ugly.”

Early on, I would argue with clients concerning these design changes — try and get them to see my perspective, etc. But the fact is that aesthetics are not objective. Opinion matters; and it’s ultimately the client’s decision.

Now, I only argue with decision which cause problems. You want that to be blue instead of green? Fine. Doesn’t matter to me that it’s going to clash with the rest of the color scheme. But you want that text to be blue against an orange background? That, I won’t do. That’s the kind of decision which will render the text unreadable — and I’m not willing to do it.

Occasionally in my consulting practice I encounter designers (or stories about designers) who are so wrapped up in control over their design that they barely consider the client’s needs, let alone the needs of usability and accessibility. That’s unfortunate; since in the end, what your website looks like just barely registers for many visitors.

I sincerely believe (unscientifically) that most visitors only notice website design in one of three ways:

  1. The design prevents them from effectively using the site.
  2. The design is absolutely spectacular.
  3. The design is absolutely horrific.

Do you really want your design to be attracting attention? Certainly not for reasons numbers 1 and 3, and although the second reason is positive, it’s not necessarily best for every site. Incredible design doesn’t necessarily support your business in the best way; it could just get in the way. This can’t be decided universally, of course — and it’s never a bad thing to strive for a great design.

It’s hard to ask questions about whether people noticed the design of a site. After all, it’s rather a quantum query: once you’ve asked, they will observe. The act of asking changes the experience of the visitor. Even in a usability test, it’s hard to identify this observation. Even though you can set up the scenario more effectively, if your testers are still aware that they are testing the site, they will tend to be more observant than otherwise.

You can’t TELL somebody to just “act normally” during a test, unfortunately. It doesn’t work that way….

Nonetheless, the rules I will work to avoid are clear: don’t make it horrible, and don’t let it get in the user’s way. Otherwise, what it looks like is open territory. I’ll try to make it look as good as I can, but if a client wants a change — they’ll get it.

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9 Comments on ““Prettiness” is relative.”

  1. What I believe and keep in mind when I’m designing is that the whole design is for the interface and the interface should be easy to use. Simple things are easy to use, so I try to keep the design not *too* complicated and yet more simple while keeping the readability and smoothness of the interface in mind.

  2. I don’t think I’m being altogether black and white, to be honest — what I’m trying to say (though possibly not succeeding) is that my concept of attractive isn’t necessarily the same as the client’s, and that my personal ultimate goal is to provide as attractive a web site as I can while satisfying the needs of the client. Sometimes this means making minor compromises to my design.

    Certainly, web development isn’t just about ugliness or prettiness…but this post was. 😉

  3. I can’t agree with much of this stated here. It’s not so black or white. I agree that ultimately it’s the client’s decision, but it’s our responsibility as designers to fight for what we think is best for the project. That is why we are professionals and not monkeys.

    It’s not just about ugliness or prettiness either. It’s about the overall experience. Just because someone visits a site and doesn’t notice the design doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a difference in their experience. There are a lot of subtle ways to convey a message and things like changing a color really do make a difference. A client may not understand why changing green to blue would make a difference, but it could mean changing your site from a welcoming one to a cold one.

    Also, it’s true that there are a lot of designers that aren’t considering accessibility factors when they create their designs, but there are also a lot who are putting out crap designs. There’s no reason why a good designer can’t make a design that is beautiful, pleases the client, and is easy to use and pleasing for site visitors.

  4. Creative license is great; but there’s always the possibility that a client will say “Oh, I don’t really like that. Can you do it in gray?” My reaction might be something along the lines of “Yes, of course I can do it in gray,” while I subvocalize “but it’s going to be very boring.”

    Sometimes, a client just wants what they want. What I give my clients is the freedom to have their site the way they want it, within the guidelines I lay down: usable and accessible.

    I don’t have the freedom to completely pick and choose my contracts…

  5. Gotta love creative license. I will often turn down a job in which I’m not going to be given that freedom. What I like from the customer is solid content first and foremost, then an indication of what colors they like, any related graphics they may have that I can work with, and I like them to show me a site or two that they like the general feel of.

    That said, if I do a job with conditions other than what I’ve noted, then I listen to the client’s decoration requirements and do it as they say — unless what they want is going to make me compromise the site’s quality. If that happens then we have a hear-to-heart.

  6. Yeah, you can run into problems when the client has expectations which are completely out of line with your own design aesthetics and aims. That’s one of the reasons I make sure to point prospective clients to my design gallery — I want to be sure that they’ve seen the style I design in and have a realistic idea of where I’ll be coming from.

    Working those basic expectations out with the client are a must before engaging in a contract — it’s not at all fun to discover that your clients expect you to produce an interactive Flash site when there isn’t a single design in your portfolio which even USES Flash!

    Thanks, David!

  7. Nonetheless, the rules I will work to avoid are clear: don’t make it horrible, and don’t let it get in the user’s way.

    These are words of wisdom, Joe. Seriously. I am still learning how to “not get in the user’s way”, but in terms of the appearance of the site visuals, I could not agree with you more.

    My preference is to keep the design simple. As long as the expectations of the client are met and no user group is “hurt” by the design, then you have a successfull website project.

  8. Yep. I think I said that, in fact. 😉

  9. While I agree with your points. There is a point were you simply cannot agree with everything a client or user wants…